Saturday, 20 June 2009

The art of sight reading

Sight-reading is a skill that can be mastered at any age. I've taught it to people of all ages who previously thought that is was a black art only to be mastered by extremely fine musicians and not to be understood by mere mortals.

The key to successful sight reading is learning not to panic. If you start to panic over the notes, so much of your brain is taken up with the panic that there is nothing left for actually doing the reading and playing. Therefore sight reading exercises and techniques should be directed towards avoiding and eliminating panic.

The techniques are fairly simple.
  1. For the early stages of sight-reading practice, choose exercises substantially easier than the ones you are using to develop technique & endurance.
  2. When doing a sight reading exercise, choose a speed slow enough that you can be confident that you won't panic over the most difficult part. That means that the easier parts go more slowly than the fastest you can manage.
  3. Before you start, check out time signatures, key signatures, and have a special look at any awkward notes, intervals or rhythms. The idea is to avoid being surprised by difficult bits when they arrive.
  4. Count a bar's rest before you start to set the speed, and keep counting so you can stick to that speed throughout the exercise. On no account speed up in the easy bits, it will simply mean you either panic (and stop) at the difficult bits, or you slow down. In an orchestra or ensemble, you won't be given the option to slow down!
  5. Look a bar or so ahead of the note that you are playing. You don't need to look at the note you are playing now - it is already either right or wrong, and if it is wrong there is nothing more you can do for it. You need to be looking at notes you will be playing soon, so that when they finally arrive, you aren't surprised by them. Remembering to do this is the hardest part of sight-reading (until you get the trick of it, when it is natural!). It may help if you can get a friend to hold a pencil pointed to the bar ahead of where you are playing, in order to draw your eyes forward. If you do this, take extra special care to keep counting at a steady speed, so you don't try to catch up with where the pencil is.
  6. If despite these techniques, you get an attack of panic when doing a sight-reading exercise, repeat the exercise at least 30% slower. The whole idea is to practice not panicking, and to get used to the idea that sight-reading without panic is achievable. If you still break down 30% slower, go 30% slower still and keep getting slower until you find a speed at which you don't panic.
Once you find a speed at which you are able regularly to sight-read successfully, keep practising at that speed to get used to the thought-patterns involved, and to gain confidence that you really can do it! Then, gradually, notch the speed up a bit - 5% or 10% at a time, and see if you can still manage it.

Sight-reading in an orchestra or ensemble is a different matter. Different techniques are required simply because you don't get to choose the speed at which the piece is rehearsed. The same general anti-panic principle applies, but now, instead of dropping the speed to get the notes, you drop notes in order to maintain the speed.

The key thing is that you must not fall behind and you must not get lost. If that means in the early rehearsals before you have had a chance to practice the part, all you manage to do is count the bars and play the first note of each bar of difficult passages, then so be it. Better that than getting lost and causing the conductor to stop the rehearsal and tell you where he has got to.

Once you have mastered the basic techniques in the easy exercises, then you use the same technique reading through every piece of music you can lay your hands on, in order to keep and extend the skill.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I had come across this sooner! Sight reading is definitely the weakest part of my playing and it's a little embarrassing that I'm now in graduate school and still struggling with it.