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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Fitting a square plug in a round hole

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Fitting a square plug in a round hole

I try not to rant on these blog posts but here’s something I need to get off my chest…

I had an audition for a job last week. The guy was very nice but he threw a few things at me I wasn’t expecting. One was piano sight reading – eash!


There are moments in your musical career when you are faced with something so insurmountable that it rocks the very foundations of your musical confidence. I found myself in a situation where I was describing myself as a professional pianist and yet my classical piano sight reading is beyond shoddy! Lets just say that I didn’t do well.


I know the reason for this – I never practice piano sight reading! The work I do doesn’t require it 99% of the time and I have little interest in it.


His reaction made me think though. He was shocked, even embarrassed for me. I don’t think he understood how I could play the piano to such a level and not read music.  In fact I can read music, but reading and playing piano music is a skill I have never fully developed. He suggested I add my graded exams to my cv and add sight reading to my practice routine. It was all done with the best intentions but as I only got grade 5 saxophone* when I was 16 I’m not about to show that off on my cv.


I think it’s tricky sometimes for people to ‘get’ what you do and if you don’t tick the boxes of expectation then you can easily be dismissed. The same could be said with regular education (GCSE’s, A levels, Degree etc).


My point is that you will always have weakness. It’s inevitable because you will also have strength. Being strong in one area will bring weakness to another. The question is though: should you conform to fit in the round hole?


I would say no. Greatness comes from hard work and dedication to your passion. If you love it enough to dedicate your life to it then you will find a way.


I would add this caveat however. Working in a competitive industry, it helps to have strings to your bow. Having grade 8 doesn’t make you a great player but it does open doors. Reading music is not necessary but it can get you more work if you need to pay some bills. Being able to improvise is not always expected but it can get you out of some scrapes!


I found myself in a similar situation a few years ago when I applied to become an examiner. One of the London Music boards has positions for classical/jazz examiners. You have to be both. How can you be fully qualified to be both a classical examiner and a jazz examiner? Im actually keen to know your thoughts on this.  Post below.


My advice would be: don’t conform if it suppresses your passion. Don’t focus your efforts on somebody else’s ideas of where you need to be. Try to get some recognised qualifications just to make your life easier!

Play to your strengths, work on your weaknesses.


*I have no piano exams at all – in fact Ive managed to avoid exams since 1996 as I hate them)

Have your say – post below (I read all comments)


17 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Lucy
    December 3, 2015

    Interesting point. Frustrating too.
    I’ve always felt a bit of a fraud, not a ‘proper’ musician but someone who is seen as playing at it, bit of a hobby because I didn’t go on to do all grades or a degree.

    I had the honour of sitting next to a tenor player in a respected big band who couldn’t improvise but he could read absolutely anything, one of the nicest players ive known. Oncidenyly, he had no qualifications whatsoever.

    It’s snobbery and wrong assumptions at some level

  2. Lucy
    December 3, 2015

    Sorry, pressed submit too early…

    That’s one of the reasons I’m quite shy with my playing – I feel that there are things that people expect of me, expect me to know, believe I should be able to do, just because I do other things.

    • Jay
      December 3, 2015

      I think all artists are frightened of the gaps in their knowledge. Sometimes you feel like a fraud because you assume everyone else must have all those boxes ticked and you don’t! I think its an illusion and the really successful artists just say ‘sod it’ and play! We often have to battle with our own perception though, eh?!

  3. Roger Hughes
    December 3, 2015

    Hi Jay,

    If you didn’t get the job (and your rant tends to suggest not), then he’s an idiot and a perfect example of someone looking for boxes to be ticked instead of listening to the capability of the musician!

    Strange word that; ..listening.. so many people teaching, examining and even playing music, but how many are really listening? It’s one thing you’ve really taught me to focus on; listen, train my ear.

    And just because someone can read music, doesn’t make them a musician. As you know I started out in the classical world so I consider my sight reading to be not bad. So when you ask me to play a piece of jazz I’m not familiar with, yes I can read and then play the notes, but that doesn’t mean I can play the piece itself. If only it were that simple eh?

    And as for the London music board wanting an examiner to be both classically and jazz trained, then that just proves to me that such educational institutions see jazz as an “add-on” to classical music rather than a whole different genre which requires a different approach. It became apparent to me from the “Blue Note Jazz” Cruise that Helen and I undertook a few weeks ago, that the young (ie under 35) musicians that Don Was had gathered together for that trip, and with whom I’d had a number of conversations with over that week, had all had their jazz appreciation and abilities spotted at an early age (8 to 10 years old), and consequently that their musical education was very much geared towards jazz rather than classical. Yes they were all American so clearly the USA musical education system is more geared towards developing the students abilities based on their tastes as well as their competency. In my opinion somewhat different to the situation here in the UK. Although I admit that there are signs of that “stuffiness” relaxing in more adventurous schools.

    So yes, CV’s and grades open doors, but it’s your music and your passion for it that defines you and that comes out when you play. And if someone can’t hear that, then tell them to turn their hearing aid up or change the channel it’s tuned to.

    • Jay
      December 3, 2015

      Ahh.. Thanks Roger. I agree (apart from the guy being an idiot). I think the American system is far more geared up for jazz and it really excels. Its still the top place in the world although the UK, Europe, South America and even parts of Asia are catching up.

      I think the UK’s school music system is much more rounded than 20 or 30 years ago but it is usually down to luck whether you can find someone who nurtures your passion.

      Im very envious of the Jazz Cruise!

  4. Adrian Litvinoff
    December 3, 2015

    I’ve always been a square peg trying to fit into a round hole (or not)!

    I am fundamentally an ‘ear’ player and in the main self-taught too. Although I can and do read (somewhat) it has never seemed the best way for me to make music in any creative sense and I do everything I can to avoid it.

    The best thing about reading is that it can allow you to access other people’s music and ideas, but it’s not the only way, especially now with all the on-line resources and new tech.

    I also did not take well to exams. Some do, some don’t. They should not be seen as the measure of ability.
    But perhaps if I were starting out now I’d make more effort to deal with exams etc. so that I could access more of the training that is now available for aspiring young jazz musicians that did not exist in my day (long time, long time!)

    • Jay
      December 3, 2015

      You’re too hip to be a square peg Adrian!

  5. Mark
    December 3, 2015

    Thanks for this blog Jay. I can totally relate to your sentiments. I have no formal grades – only a GCSE in Music but have been honing my skills on the bandstand for the last 32 years both solo and in bands. My school was next to useless for anything to do with music until the annual school concert came around. Yours truly was the only one in the school that could play a solo set on organ for however long was required. I often feel dejected when people ask about grades or degrees. I too can read but don’t class myself as ‘a reader’ because of the expectations that come with it. I’m more than hoppy to play for hours without a single note in front of me. Listening ability and having a good ear are as vital as reading ability in my opinion.

    • Jay
      December 3, 2015

      Absolutely, and if you turned up to a band audition and told them you were grade 8 I think they would probably just laugh and say: “lets listen to you”!

  6. Dudley Holmes
    December 3, 2015

    Very interesting and inspiring. Being a bit of a drummer and the three bands I play in I’ve never really thought I wish I could sight read or even read music at all. I have played with musicians who are reading and although note perfect I would always prefer to play with those who are playing by ear or from memory , or improvising, they have the room and time to introduce feeling into their playing. Any way I’ll shut up now. Cheers Jay.

    • Jay
      December 3, 2015

      Thanks for your comment. Time and Feel is SO important

  7. Christine Cubbon
    December 3, 2015

    I agree….I think if you really want something you will do it.I think that one of the most important things in teaching is encouragement and techniques…I wouldn’t look for grades in a teacher necessarily but I would look for experience.

    I’m not a natural musician and I’m happiest in a large group blending in.I started out in wind bands and orchestras and a bit of theatre and big band so only progressed to ‘jazzy’ but not ‘jazz’
    Frankly it frightens me !

    Lucky and talented and hardworking are those that can do everything but there are plenty of places where you’ll fit right in

    • Jay
      December 4, 2015

      Thanks for the comment Christine.

  8. John baster
    December 7, 2015

    Hi jay thanks for these thoughts i think holding on to passion and fun, is the thing that makes an artistic journey worthwhile.

    • Jay
      December 9, 2015

      Thanks John

  9. colin lea
    December 10, 2015

    Thoroughly agree with the comments, although I’m coming at it from the other direction. I was lucky to have had free tuition at school on a brass instrument, with access to local orchestras, bands, ensembles etc and have been able to continue this into adulthood. So I’ve spent decades reading music and playing exactly what the composer wrote. Great experience (and privilege to be able to access some of the greatest works composed), but I can come really unstuck trying to improvise/play without music. Trying to get to grips with Jazz has really reinforced to me the need to expose yourself to as much variety as possible, value all aspects of musicianship, seize the opportunity to learn to read if you can, and enjoy your music!

    • Jay
      December 11, 2015

      I agree. Enjoying it is key. Good music is good music.

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