Are Charts Cheating?

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In my parents’ generation, when they went out to watch music being played live, it was orchestras. Even the top bands on their day were orchestras. Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Phil Harris and the acts were bandleader front men backed by their orchestras. The orchestra musicians were all arranged neatly in rows, sitting down with a little fancy music stand in front of them emblazoned with the orchestra’s logo.

Then, by way of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the self-contained pop act was born. Rather than a large orchestra, the music was played by small combos, and they weren’t sitting ñ they were standing! And they didn’t have music stands ñ somehow, they memorized their songs!

And so, beginning with my generation, it seems totally weird for musicians onstage to have music stands. They’re still an integral part of rehearsal, as bands learn new songs and the vocalists commit the lyrics to memory. But when the curtain goes up and the spotlights go on, it seems there’s no room on the modern stage for music stands.

However, it lately it appears that things are swinging back towards charts. More and more, I’m seeing performers on stages that include music stands. For bands that play huge repertoires of cover songs, it’s a positive boon to have a stand to hold an iPad with chord charts and lyrics. The same could be said for bluegrass jams, where a massive variety of songs have spawned massive, unwieldy fake books’ and some the size of unabridged dictionaries which won’t even rest safely on a sturdy music stand.

I know of one fiddler who created a mount to fit an iPod on his fiddle while he’s playing! Technology can be applied in ingenious ways! As a performer, and when I’m in the audience at a show, I don’t really want to see a music stand. If an act is performing a 1 to 2 hour show, I think the set list should be well rehearsed enough to obviate the need for charts. When I’m playing, checking a chart does two things that bother me ñ one, it takes me out of the moment. I go from feeling the music to reading something, and I lose something in that transition. Secondly, it’s also addictive ñ once you start to count on a chart or a lyric sheet, it is VERY hard to wean yourself off of them. Brains are amazing but brains are lazy and once they realize there’s a way to avoid learning something, they ill seize the opportunity.

I do a fair amount of pickup work, filling in with bands when a member can’t make a gig. At the first practice with the band, I am inundated with the bandies repertoire, but I have discovered I will learn the songs better and faster if I let my brain and fingers memorize the songs. Even if I slip up on a chord change or two early in the song, I will hit my stride much better and faster if I’m not trying to read something while playing. (I have been known to tape some crib notes to the side of my bass!)

So, is a chart cheating? If it helps you play better, I don’t think so. If it gets in the way, it’s just a crutch that doesn’t even prop you up reliably and you’re better off without it.

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