Sight Reading vs. Polishing

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get an hour on the phone with Chris Tedesco.

Chris is one of the busiest trumpeters in Los Angeles, and you’ve heard his playing whether you realize it or not. He’s on Finding Nemo, American Idol, Homeland, and countless other productions.

Chris is one of my trumpet heroes. He’s equally adept at both jazz and classical playing (and has released an album of each), and on top of that, he’s a super nice guy.

He’s also an elite sight reader.

For Hollywood studio musicians like Chris, sight reading is basically the job. When a player shows up to a recording date, very rarely does he have any idea what he’s going to be asked to play that day.

In other words, most of the amazing playing we hear on movie soundtracks and TV shows? Those cats didn’t spend weeks working that music up. They showed up to work and played what was on their stand. Then, they did it again after lunch. So when I got a chance to ask Chris Tedesco about sight reading, it was like getting to ask Albert Pujols for tips on hitting curveballs.

I was half expecting a secret of some kind, I admit:

“Get [x] book.”

“Try [x] idea, and everything will click for you.”

Nope. Here’s what he told me.

“Buy every etude book you can find. Sight read a page a day, and don’t stop.”

That was it.

The thing about sight reading, though, is that it’s so hard not to stop. Reading the page straight down and ignoring our mistakes is the biggest challenge, not the unfamiliar notes and rhythms.

Any activity that involves a lot of mistakes makes us uncomfortable. We want to go back and fix them; we want to polish, polish, polish. There’s a time and a place for polishing, certainly. If we’re preparing a recital or writing a novel, there’s going to be lots of it in our future.

But polishing isn’t everything. We also need to do a lot of work, to move through a lot of material, sacrificing some quality for quantity. And the more work we do, the more our understanding of our field grows. Do you think sight reading 365 pages of music per year deepens our understanding of music in general? Of course.

And it’s that deeper understanding that helps us know what and how much to polish.