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Diary of a Working Musician 20 Feb 2017

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I'm currently rehearsing for a concert of Mike Oldfield's music in April: I did a similar show last year and in 1993 played a year of live gigs with Mike himself performing Tubular Bells II on its release.

The gig requires me to read music, and I'm terrible at it! I got the original gig with Mike knowing that it was scored out but I was signed to the same record label as Mike at the time and knew that we were both attending an event in Hamburg a week before rehearsals started, so I arranged for his assistant to bring a copy of the score and a cassette (google it, kids) to the event. That gave me a week to learn it... phew!

This time around I know my reading skills have improved: I sat at home working through the pieces and surprised myself with how much of it I could get through (albeit at half-tempo!) I was unpleasantly surprised at the first day of rehearsals when all the material that I'd quite happily read at home swam before my eyes and my fingers turned to jelly when trying to read it while the rest of the ensemble was playing. I felt actually quite embarrassed, as professional practice demands that you don't turn up to rehearsal unprepared, and I thought I'd prepared.

I was honest about it and apologised to the MD, assuring him that I would have it note-perfect by the next rehearsal, which I know I will, as I will revert to the method that has served me well over the decades. I am fortunate (or perhaps trained?) in that I can pick things up by ear very quickly, so I'll have the music on rotation in my car and it will be internalised by the time we meet again, the score then serving as an aide-memoire or road map rather than a note-by-note script. My shame was compounded by the guitarist sitting beside me sight-reading a complicated picking piece while in DADGAD tuning... hats off to him; that was impressive!

But it set me thinking: why could I read it at home but not in rehearsal? Halfway through the second day I had a sudden realisation: I managed to read an entire passage accurately (although without expression) and realised that I had been able to do so because I had stopped listening to the ensemble. I was so determined to get it right that I closed my mind to what was going on around me...

...which is the exact opposite of everything I've learned and practised over 40+ years of professional work. I've learned to listen to what the other musicians are playing and fit into and around it, weaving in and out of the harmonic and rhythmic patterns, knowing when to suggest a pattern of my own and when to subordinate myself to someone else's pattern, learning to trust my musicality to be able to perform a kind of surfing activity, riding the moment and reacting immediately to what is going on around me. It was incredibly difficult to ignore the musical environment and just concentrate on the notes... I'm sure (in fact, I know) that experienced readers can achieve extraordinarily high levels of performance and ensemble playing while reading and I admire that skill greatly, but many of them tell me that they wish they could do what I do, literally "making it up as I go along."

Swings and roundabout, horses for courses... I will continue to try to improve my sight-reading skills, but not at the cost of my improvisatory skills.

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