Many of us are able to practice a piece and play it wonderfully. We can become paralyzed by fear with the thought that someone might plop down a book of sheet music on our stand, demanding us to perform. Often, an otherwise excellent audition can be ruined by a seemingly sadistic conductor who requests us to sight-read an extremely challenging excerpt. Many fine musicians find sight-reading to be the most disconcerting aspect of being a musician.
The Skill of Sight-Reading
*This blog originally appeared on July 20, 2012.
I recall the moment when I decided to work at becoming a more skillful sight-reader. I was taking an audition as a trombonist with a rural orchestra in Pennsylvania. I had just performed for one season with the Orquesta Filarmonica de Lima, in Peru, and assumed that the experience had prepared me for the audition. Everything was going well, until the conductor asked me to sight-read an excerpt from the opera La Forza Del Destino. Having never studied that overture, with it’s uncommon notation, I left the audition not only wondering why the conductor would choose such a “loaded” piece for sight-reading; but also humbled.
And then there are those musicians who seem to be able to read through any music at sight. These individuals astonish us. Even the most accomplished musician can feel inferior to these virtuosos! I set out to get the facts about sight-reading from expert sight-readers, music teachers, and psychologists. What I found is that sight-reading is not simply an inborn “gift;” attributable to what is generally referred to as “genetics,” but rather a learned and practiced technical skill that must be developed.
At The Royal Conservatory of Brussels, all students were required to take a class called Prima Vista (sight-reading). This was a weekly, private lesson in sight-reading. The teacher was gentle and always invited me out for a beer after our lesson -but his sessions were agonizing. Not only did we sight-read in our familiar clef, but were also required to sight-read the same exercise in different keys and clefs -none of which were written out. The belief here was that sight-reading an extremely difficult work will make everyday sight reading easy. This is a tried and true method for sight-reading, but is extremely challenging for even the most dedicated students. I would traumatize all of my private students if I used this technique!
Psychologists tell us that music reading is a task that is distinctly different from musical expression and memorization. Most of us cannot read a piece that we can successfully perform from memory! Research suggests that music reading is a skill that is detail oriented, logical, and procedural. Some individuals are more inclined to approach life (and their music) in an algorithmic, structured way. Other people can be more inclined to think in a holistic, intuitive, and creative fashion. Typically the person that can sit down at the piano and “play from ear” is indicative of the intuitive, creative style of personality. Excellent sight readers often are more attentive to details.
For the intuitive, “big picture” thinkers, a detail oriented task, such as sight-reading, requires practice. The opposite can be true for a procedure-oriented personality. These folks often require extensive coaching in the expression and interpretation of music. The metaphor of being Left Brained or Right Brained is sometimes used to illustrate these differences. In truth, the brain varies quite a bit between individuals as to where these specific tasks are processed.
Here is a step-by-step compilation of the teachings made by the masters of sight-reading.
1. Scan the piece.
Be aware of the time and key signatures, as well as the more complicated sections of the piece before you begin reading. Take a minute to look it over before sight-reading.
2. Sight read every day for 10 minutes.
Gradual, consistent practice over long periods of time is essential for developing sight-reading skills. Ten minutes per day is all that is needed.
3. Sight read music that is easy and moderately challenging.
If you are trying to figure out the notes, the music is too difficult to sight read. Experts recommend sight-reading through beginner piano method books.
4. Sight read slowly and steadily.
The goal is to develop the skill for accurate reading of both notes and rhythms. This must be practiced slowly.
5. Do not stop for missed notes and mistakes.
Keeping in tempo is an essential skill of sight-reading.
6. Keep your eyes on the music, not the hands.
You will miss notes and your fingers will get lost, it is scary to not look down! You must be willing to make mistakes and keep your eyes on the music. In time those errors will disappear.
7. Look at the notes to be played, not the notes you are playing.
Like reading aloud a sentence in a book, we read ahead in our heads as we speak the words.
Sit down with sheet music and solfege while conducting with the right hand. A classic text that all conservatory students study is Rhythmical Articulation by Pasquale Bona.