Music Sight Reading

One of the fastest ways to increase your turnover time is to be very good at sight reading. Why? Because if you can sight read to a high standard, you’ve eliminated one stage that many people can find very time consuming – learning the notes.

If you’re spending weeks learning the notes, something needs to be done. If you can start learning your notes straight away, and be able to play the piece through (even if it is at 3/4 pace), then you’ve cut down a lot of wasted practice time. There’s lots of different methods to help improve sight reading, but the best way is practice. Finding a book with lots of tunes in it will help, but there are other things to help out as well.

In the AMEB syllabus, in what they describe as Level 2 (Grades 5 to 8), they expect the candidate to demonstrate in the sight reading:

* Accuracy in time and rhythm

* Accuracy in pitch

* performance at the tempo indicated in the music

* Dynamics, articulation and style as indicated.

Now, for the exam, they’re probably going to give you sight reading that’s a few grades below what you’re sitting for. For example, if you were going for grade 6, the sight reading could well have been considered as syllabus pieces for the grade 3 repertoire. So you’re expected to do a bit more and be able to add in dynamics, articulation and style. For our purposes we don’t need that, as we’re not sight reading below our playing level, we’re sight reading at our playing level.

But what can we do to improve our sight reading level? Grade exams might well be the key. If you’re up to pieces in grade 5, go back and start at grade 1 (or preliminary if available) and use the pieces in there as sight reading. Aim to do one each day, and go through the book. Ideally, do a different syllabus than the one that you originally took the exam in. For example, if you did your exams under the AMEB, then you should probably get the books from the ABRSM or Trinity, or other similar examining bodies. This way, you’re less likely to run into pieces that you’ve already played. If you’ve already played it, then it’s not sight reading.

Start quite low down, and work your way up. You’ll notice that you’ll need to develop some techniques to help you along the way. First of all, as is becoming a theme in my posts, visualise what it is that you’re going to play. Sing it through in your head, and hear the rhythm, if not the notes as well. At the very least you’ll be able to hear some intervals. The next thing you’ll quickly need to learn is the art of being in two places at once. Or possibly three places. However, I’m not into defying physics here, we need to rely on our memory to help us along. In order to process what it is we’re going to play, we need to look ahead. That way, we’re not always reading the note and reacting to it. So instead, what you need to get into the habit of is taking snatches of information. Starting at the beginning of the piece, you might grab the notes and rhythms of the first two bars. You’ll then look at the third bar while you’re playing the first bar, and then have a quick look at your fingers or bow or whatever just to make sure it’s all happening smoothly, and then look at the second bar as a refresher. You’d then look ahead to the fourth bar, while playing the second, and repeat and so on. In this way, we’re constantly preparing our mind for what’s coming up, and also reminding ourselves of where we are, and what we’re doing.

I’ve recently gotten into reading some organisational life blogs. The type of things that help you declutter and reorganise your life to be more efficient. As a lot of the time I’m talking about making our music practice more efficient, I thought this might be a useful place to get hints as to things I could bring across into my music practice. One post by Scott H Young talks about doubling your reading rate, and also of being able to read 70 books in a year. If you’re interested in that, head over and take a gander. Anyway, the trick is to learn how to speed read, which isn’t reading incredibly fast, but instead is knowing when you can gloss, and when to get more dug in, and also being able to process quickly.

It’s like that with sight-reading. Most of the time, you’ll want to be able to gloss – pick up the shape of the melody, and use your musical knowledge to know where the tune is going. Unless you’re sight-reading Schoenberg or some other 20th century artist whose works are hard to guess where they’re going next, you’ll be able to get a fair idea of what’s going to happen. I have fun in sight reading my students works, and guessing what’s on the next page, and it’s surprising how often I’m close, if not dead on the money. You’ll also want to know where you need to stop glossing and actually bog down in the detail. Thankfully with music, there’s often an easy way to know this. The blacker the page is, the more you need to pay attention. Because generally, if the page is black, then there’s lots of notes (both actual note heads, and also stem tails). That generally means that you’re going to need to be aware because it’s probably fast, or a complicated rhythm, or both. That’s the stage where you need to stop glossing and start being really aware of what you’re playing.

You also need to be able to process quickly. A lot of the violinists that I’ve talked to often don’t think of the notes when they’re playing. While this seems like an odd thing, it actually makes a lot of sense. They’ve gotten so used to where the notes are, both on the stave, and on their instrument, that they no longer need to take the step of processing what the actual note is. Instead, what they will often focus upon is what the shape of the phrase is, to help them decide what position to play that part in. That’s the processing part that Scott is talking about. When we start to learn to read, we’re encouraged to say the words out loud, and then as we move on, we stop saying it out loud and say it in our heads. What fails to get taught is the next step of no longer saying the words in our heads and just taking in the information. This is what helps speed up the process. Eliminating unnecessary steps, such as saying the notes in your head, will mean that your mind can focus on other things, such as what notes are coming up next, or what the dynamic or style is, and whether you’re making any mistakes.