Sunday, February 23, 2020

Reading Music

I am a pretty good sight-reader, but I notice lately, since I do a lot less playing than I used to, my sight-reading isn't quite as good as it used to be. If I am in a scordatura, with the 6th string in D or the 3rd string in F#, I might occasionally forget I am in the tuning. And I probably wouldn't be able to zip through a virtuoso Giuliani score the way I used to. You have to put a lot of hours in every week to keep these skills up.

Sight-reading is a lucrative skill. If you can do it accurately, you can play a lot of ensemble music and do studio work. I have mentioned this before, but every orchestral soundtrack you have heard in a movie was recorded in ONE SESSION of two and half hours. This is a single "service" under the Musician's Union contracts. Most if not all of the score was played once and once only. Session musicians are people who can walk in, sit down and play whatever is on the stand. Pretty impressive. Mind you, it would be easy to write parts that they simply could not play at sight--but if you do that, they will never hire you to write another soundtrack! Film composers are usually going to stick to things that are reasonably easy to read.

Some instruments are tricky to sight-read on: the guitar for one. Every time there is a chord, which might be three, four or five notes together, it is likely that it can be played in some positions, but not in others. So you have to make some quick decisions--or leave a note out, which is what the really seasoned players do. Today, just for fun, I tried to do something I haven't done in a long, long time: sight-read a vocal and guitar score simultaneously. Sure, it's possible. I picked a very easy little song, "Delicate Beauty" by Henry Lawes, the 17th century English song-writer. If you are reading a vocal part and a guitar part at sight, you are engaged in two quite different things simultaneously. You have to find where the starting note is for the voice and then read the intervals and reproduce them. At the same time, you are reading the guitar part (originally the accompaniment was a bass line, perhaps with some figures to indicate inversions, but I was playing from a version for guitar in three or four voices) and have to decide which finger to put on which note. Oh, and also, there are words so you have to read them as well. Sounds complicated, but if the song is very simple as this one is, it is not too hard. I had a student that took up the lute and got very good at performing Dowland, singing and accompanying himself. As he was playing from the original lute tablature, he would actually be reading three entirely different systems of notation simultaneously: vocal notation, the lyrics and lute tablature which consists of letters on a six line staff (one line for each string or course and letters to indicate which fret). Here is how that looks:

At the top you have ordinary vocal notation on a five-line staff. The clef, though funny-looking, is an ordinary treble clef. There is one flat and the time signature is 3/2. Under that staff are the lyrics in ordinary Roman letters, though since it is the 16th century, they show a lot of 's' letters as 'f's. Underneath that is the lute tablature. This is French tab, with the 1st string on top and letters for the frets. 'a' is open, 'b' is first fret and so on. In Italian tab they use numbers and the 1st string is on the bottom, not the top:

Click to enlarge
The easiest to learn is the tablature of Luis Milan, the Spanish vihuela composer as he uses numbers with the 1st string on top, which is the same as the tablature used today. The Germans used a very different system entirely and one with a number of archaic features probably indicating it predates the printed and manuscript copies. Each fret on each string is not shown with a simple and logical system, but with its own symbol. First of all, the five upper strings are notated differently than the 6th string, which means that the system was originally for a five-string lute. The five open strings are indicated with numbers,  1 2 3 4 5. The notes on the first fret are indicated by letters running across the fingerboard, a b c d e. These letters continue for the second fret, f g h i k and so on. Madness! Just to add to the confusion, there were several different systems used for the 6th string. Here is a sample:

This is the kind of job you give to a musicologist, of course: transcribe all these nearly unreadable German tablatures into either French or Italian tablature so modern lutenists can read them, or into ordinary vocal notation so guitarists can read them. I once met a musicologist who had obviously done a great deal of this as she claimed to be able to sight-sing from German lute tab. Think about it... Now that would be a very complex mental operation, indeed!

I mentioned sight-singing. This is part of standard training at music schools. Ear training consists of learning to hear and identify intervals, harmonies and rhythms by learning to write them down. This is called "dictation." The opposite process consists of looking at a written-down melody and singing it at sight. These used to be widely practiced skills if you go back a few centuries, but now they are fairly specialized. At McGill first year sight-singing required that you sing simple melodies at sight, like I was doing with the Lawes. Second year sight singing used a text called Quatre-vingt Études de Solfege avec Changement de Clés which translates as Eighty Studies in Solfege with Changing Clefs. This means that every two or three bars, the clef would change: treble, bass, alto, soprano, tenor! Agh! Plus, the melodies were extremely chromatic in the first place. Pretty much a sight-singing nightmare. For third year you had to sing atonal melodies at sight. Oh, yeah!

Here is that song by Lawes:


Steven said...

I want to defend the "nearly unreadable" system of German tablature! The example you give is okay to read. I haven't practised reading German tab in a while, but I could still read it, albeit somewhat slowly and with some hesitations/guesses with the chords. There's nothing above the 5th fret, thanks goodness, which is when it really gets hard!

I've found that the big problem with reading German tab is that there are so many different fonts and symbols depending on the composer. For example, "A" can mean open 6th string in one score first fret in another...

Still, I quite like it as a system: I can make little themes out of words, especially names ("Bryan", say, would be F2 or F#2 (or D#3 for lower "b"), F#3, G3, A2, A3). Also it's the easiest system to scribble down quickly, thanks to the lack of a stave. I recall in the manuscript of Bach 998, the end of the last movement is written in German keyboard tablature, which Bach (I imagine) must have found a useful time-saving method of notation. He may in fact have been running out of paper: rather than get a new sheet, he could quickly scribble the remaining music in German tab in the bottom margin. Who knows...

Bryan Townsend said...

Good for you Steven! I guess it is part of your bailiwick. I studied German lute tab a bit in graduate school, but never tried to read it at sight. I like that you have more possibilities for name symbolism. "Bryan" is hopeless in solfege or German nomenclature, alas.

Dex Quire said...

Bryan for years I've heard about great guitarists who could sight read any kind of sheet music. I've never met one. Do they really exist? I'm thinking of a complex piece of music by Agustin Barrios. Or the Bach Allegro (from the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro). Or how about the piece called 'Consolacao' by Baden Powell; the melody rides on the back beat through the whole song with lots of demi-quavers. Again, how could anyone, even the best players, play through a piece without study? The guitar demands some thought aforesight because of the variety of positions. ..

Over the years I've seen David Russell perform his Handel keyboard #7 suite twice as well as his Bach BVW 1034. At least one time each he ran into the sand -- and these were his own transcriptions! This is not to denigrate Russell - he is truly one of the world's marvelous guitar players. I just mention this to highlight the sometimes sheer impossibility that is the guitar ... whether sitting down to a new piece of music or playing something familiar but difficult. ..

Just curios ....

Bryan Townsend said...

Very good question, Dex. Yes, there are guitarists that have highly-developed reading skills. At a big guitar festival in Toronto years ago I met a guitarist from Los Angeles, Tommy Tedesco, who was a professional session guitarist. If you heard a nylon string guitar solo in a movie soundtrack, it was likely him. But as I was saying, those scores are written to be sight-readable. A guitarist like John Williams in his prime could likely read almost anything. I say "almost" because the easiest thing in the world is to write a score that would be impossible to sight read. Sylvano Bussotti for example, or most experimental scores. Stockhausen if he ever wrote anything for guitar. But those kinds of pieces aside, yes a really well-trained and accomplished professional guitarist can likely read at sight most Bach scores or pieces by Barrios. I don't know the Baden Powell, but I would include that as well.

Here are the caveats: some scores, especially those by Bach, are hard to read up to tempo, as are most concerto parts. Some concerto parts in particular, pose problems in fingering that are not solvable at sight.

As for David Russell, he is a very accomplished guitarist, which does not rule out the possibility of making a mistake in live performance. Manuel Barrueco is as technically perfect as guitarists get, but I have heard him make mistakes in both Scarlatti and Bach in live performance. Don't even mention Julian Bream! But these are stumbles, likely due to a glitch in memory.