Updated: Jun 9
Practicing sight-reading is something many bass players avoid. Even with the help of a good sight-reading app or teacher, many find the feeling of not being able to play through even a basic piece of sheet music is too uncomfortable to handle so they simply ignore it.
Before we can look at a great new tool bass players can use to get their reading chops in shape, we must first take a moment to understand why so many avoid it, why those that do the work struggle to stay interested, and then we can see why TomPlay offers a great solution to these problems no matter what level of bassist you are.
Why Bassists Hate Sight Reading
Many bass players neglect sight reading because they can learn to play without first learning how to read.
This gap in their abilities is uncomfortable and very humbling and for this reason, their lack of reading ability gets swept under the rug.
After all, if you've made a name for yourself at your school, music college or even gained a few extra followers on Instagram because you have mind-blowing technique, why would you want to remind yourself that you can't play even a simple four bars of notation?
No one likes to be reminded of their flaws and sight-reading is perhaps the easiest way to expose a major flaw to everyone who can hear you.
However, this isn't a reason to not work on it. We simply need some good practice tools and methods to use.
This begs the question....
What's The Best Way To Practice Sight Reading?
First thing's first. You must stop using TAB of any kind.
TAB does have its uses and some will say why not use rhythmic TAB (TAB that has numbers for notes but stems for rhythm) as a starting point but this just makes your development twice as slow.
But when it comes to actual practice methods it makes sense to say that you should tailor your approach depending on what level your reading is currently at.
If you're a beginner this means that part of your practice would be learning basic rhythms, time values and the fundamentals of notation. You may not read any pieces, perhaps just small exercises to get the ball rolling but this is important work and it must be done.
But once you've got the basics, then what?
Well, then you do start working with some simple pieces. And as you get better the difficulty of the pieces themselves can increase and you keep going until you get great at reading.
If only life was so simple.
The Problem With That Approach
Whilst that method is somewhat effective, it runs into trouble because, as you get better, you will outgrow it as a learning method.
As you become a better reader you'll find that it's not just the notation that causes you problems. It's the context that you read it in that really makes a difference.
Have you ever noticed that reading sheet music is harder with a metronome than without one? You're having to pay attention to the metronome as well as the notation so no wonder it is.
But imagine that you're not using a metronome. Imagine you're playing to a drum track. The extra rhythms from the drums will make things harder.
Then what about playing with a real drummer? Harder still.
What about sight-reading along with a real band? Even harder.
Simply using notation out of context is a good place to start but the problem is, it's just that. A starting point. And as you get better, you'll need a more meaningful challenge.
So what can you do? It does make sense to say, get all your friends together and practice your sight-reading in a band.
This is a good idea but hard to pull off. What if you all have different ability levels in your reading? What if your friends can't make practice one week?
It means none of you can truly practice and that's no good.
What you need is something that can replicate a live band, give you a wealth of new material to work with but that you can also do on your own.
And I know just the thing...
TomPlay is an online app that allows you to play along to recordings of real, professional musicians whilst also reading the sheet music as you do so.
My good friend Domingo was kind enough to set me up with a trial account so I could try it out before I wrote this review and I have to say, I was incredibly impressed with what I saw.
Once you log in you can select the instrument you play, be presented with all the Tomplay Sheet Music available for that instrument (in my case it's Bass Sheet Music & Tabs), and begin playing along with backtracks right away.
As you play through the sheet music will scroll by which makes for a great and genuinely challenging sight-reading experience but also, it gives you a practice context similar to that of reading with a live band.
It's so much better than just using a metronome!
Here are my top 3 favourite features of TomPlay
1. Wide Variety Of Music Available
Even within the bass guitar library alone, there's a lot of music there to play. And it's all real songs! Not those awful rip-off style backing tracks that used to make appearances in sight-reading books and play-a-long CD's back in the early 2000's.
Also, every score is categorized with a suggested ability level. There's stuff for beginners right through to very advanced.
Whatever you're into, there's something for you here.
2. Fully Customisable Playback
TomPlay's playback system is so flexible.
You can adjust the tempo of the music, there's a mixer feature that allows you to turn the click and the instruments up or down in the mix you play along to, and you can even record yourself playing along.
So if you want to really test your skills you can turn the pre-recorded bass part down and record yourself in its place. Nothing will give you better feedback than listening to yourself play alongside professionals and hearing how well you stack up.
3. You're Playing To Real Musicians
The hardest thing about learning to read whilst you play with real musicians is that there's just so much more information to keep track of. It's a much more stimulating environment. But, it's an environment you need to learn to operate in if you truly want to become a great reader.
TomPlay is the closest thing I've ever used to a true replication of this playing environment.
Domingo from TomPlay was kind enough to give me a trial account before writing this article and, as I played through some songs, I was amazed to find myself having to react to drums fills, changes in feel from the guitarist or the keys part changing to a new patch in the middle of a song.
In other words, I was amazed to feel myself reacting in the same way I have to when I sight-read with real players.
To have this sort of environment available as a practice tool is priceless. Never mind as an app that you can download to your device and take anywhere with you.
TomPlay is the real deal. It's a great tool no matter where you are in your learning and it will only make you a more well-rounded bass player.
I would suggest that students at music school or even young professionals in need of a regular challenge sign up. The sheet music library is always being updated, the recordings are really high quality and it's a much more realistic way to cut your teeth.
But for beginners, it's also a brilliant place to learn the fundamentals. If you're not yet ready to play along with the backing tracks then you don't have to. You can just use the click track or even play in your own time but you'll at least be playing something interesting and that has some genuine musical context.
The crazy thing is that, with all I've covered so far, this still only scratches the surface of what TomPlay can do.
You can transpose scores, adjust tempos, you can loop sections that you find particularly tricky, you can annotate scores, and print them out which also makes it a fantastic tool for learning new repertoire.
There's a lot it can do but really, it's best to see and experience this all for yourself.
Get A Discount On TomPlay
TomPlay was kind enough to set up a discount code for viewers.
Click this link (affiliate link) to go to their website and use the code ONLINEBASS30 to get 30% off a yearly subscription after you've had your 14 day free trial!
Trust me, I don't say this about many online products but TomPlay is well worth it!