I wanted to share an experience I had last week that I hope in some small way may turn out to be helpful for fellow musicians, as well as provide information that will be useful for players who are searching the internet for answers.
A week ago, I lost my eyeglasses. I got to work, reached in my bag and…nothing! I didn’t panic because I had played nearly 1,000 shows of The Lion King in the past, when the show sat down for an extended run at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. My eyes aren’t totally gone at music stand distance but the ability to perceive the finer points of music notation can sometimes get lost in the haze and although the guitar neck has been my friend since kindergarten, it’s nice to be able to take a quick look now and then when the part you’re playing takes you from one end of it to the other. Fortunately, I was able to get by without any mishaps, mistakes or glares from the conductor. Phew!
The next day I visited my local optician and ordered a new pair using the prescription my doctor had given me at my previous checkup a few months ago. I hadn’t filled it earlier because I couldn’t find any frames I liked at the time. Back then, the doctor had listened to my requirements and decided I needed a pair that would include near vision to see my instrument neck (and for reading), intermediate distance in order to see the music (and for computer work), and a very slight correction for distance (to see the conductor). He told me about progressives, which blend all three vision corrections into one pair. Last Friday, I ordered the lenses and picked them up later that day.
I put them on when I got to work and looked at the music on my stand. I pointed my nose in the direction I wanted to see, as I was directed. I could see where the sweet spot was, but it was a very narrow field of focus. If my eyes drifted off by as little as ½ inch to either side it was a blurry mess, but if I shifted my head just a little, the focus was fine. That’s the way progressives work, but would I be able to read music in a performance situation with them?
For me, after a week of trying to get used to them, the answer is no. When musicians read music (and I understand I may be preaching to the choir here), they need to be able to scan with their eyes. One of the first things I learned early on was to keep reading ahead. It’s one of the things that allow a player to become a good sight-reader. Scanning allows us to perform that task. Another useful habit is the ability to reference another part of the page in the blink of an eye without losing your place. Checking the key or time signature, especially when they’re constantly changing as they do in so much of new music, or looking for measure numbers quickly during rehearsal are only a few of many examples. When the ability to scan is taken away, the disorientation can be overwhelming.
In the end, I opted for a pair of intermediate single-vision glasses and another pair for near-vision. Single-vision intermediates have always worked for me in the past, allowing me to see my instrument clearly enough, the music stand perfectly and the conductor by looking over the top of the glasses. A quick poll of my fellow players proved to me that it wasn’t just my imagination. They had all opted for single-vision glasses over progressives and several of their optometrists had even warned them away.
Also, beware that many opticians will not refund your money if you find that you can’t wear them, which can be a costly mistake. Progressive lenses cost about three times more than regular lenses.