I interrupt your regularly scheduled series on “The proper care and feeding of musical equipment” to give you this little post…
Those two dreaded words that pretty much every musician hates. They make you do it for auditions. It is part of festivals. It is a huge part of selecting new music. Yet we all still HATE it. What is it about sight reading that makes it so dreaded? Sight reading is a scary task. It requires a musician to play something they have never played before and when done in front of a judge, teacher, or panel it becomes nerve wracking and even terrifying. I believe that a large part of the reason sight reading is so dreaded is because so many of us have no organization to our method of attempting to sight read. Without realizing we are doing it most musicians begin sight reading a piece by finding what we believe will be the most difficult part of the piece and fingering through that part as many times as we can before we are required to perform. Others just start fingering through the piece from the beginning in the hope that we will make it far enough through for the effort to have been worth the time. Some just stare at the music until it becomes a blur, not comprehending any of the lines and dots on the page. These disorganized methods often cause confusion, but may occasionally supply small successes. When I was in a practicum class in college the teacher I was working with assigned me to sight read a piece with his band. I knew how difficult sight reading a piece for just myself was, I was terrified of sight reading a piece not only by myself, but also guiding a group of sixth and seventh graders through a process that would make it a successful read. The day before my assignment was to take place this teacher taught me his sight reading method that he uses personally as well as with his students. I am going to share it with you here. This sight reading method breaks sight reading down into four basic parts of music that makes sight reading far less intimidating. Steps for sight reading:
- Road map: When you are planning a trip you try to familiarize yourself with the route you will have to take. You decide which highways to use, which stops to make, and may even investigate speed limits to find the quickest way. Sight reading music should be the same, you should look at the direction of the piece and look for anything that is going to start, stop, slow, speed, or turn you around while you play. This includes ritardando, fermata, tempo, repeats, D.C., coda, signs, etc. Take note of all these, trace the road map with your finger quickly, and maybe even ask if you will be required to play all the repeats. This step does not include changes in rhythm, changes in time signature, changes in key, dynamics, style, etc.
- Rhythm: Correct rhythm is vital to music, without it everything with the same notes and keys would sound the same and we would have run out of new music a long time ago. When sight reading you should scan the piece for essential rhythmic notation. Check the time signature, look for any changes to it, and find any rhythms that look unfamiliar or difficult, check out any ties, and don’t forget the rests. Clap or play difficult rhythms, if you can write on the music write the counting in (IN PENCIL!). This step does not include notes that you may not know fingerings for or have to count ledger lines to figure out, dynamics, articulation, key signature, or anything in the road map step.
- Notes: Now you finally get to investigate the key signature and the notes. Notes come third because if you are in a time crunch this is something that should come easier than road mapping and unfamiliar rhythms. When you get to investigating the notes first check out the key and make sure you know all the flats and/or sharps. Next, look for notes that you are unfamiliar with, count ledger lines, check fingerings, and maybe even write note names in (IN PENCIL!). Last, but not least, check for accidentals, make note of them and where they happen, remember the accidental rule (if a note is marked at the beginning of the measure the accidental applies to the whole measure and it goes back to normal at the bar-line). This step does not include articulation, dynamics, rhythms, or anything in the road map. (Choir teachers can use this step to discus pronunciation, especially when singing in a foreign language.)
- Anything else: If you have time you can now look at any of the other lines, dots, and words that make the music really interesting. Check dynamics, articulations, style, and any of those other nitty-gritty things that are often at the back of the mind when sight reading. This step is last because these are some of the less important components when sight reading, judges and juries take into account that sight reading isn’t going to be perfect and likely won’t involve a lot of the more detailed parts of music performance.
I have been using and teaching this method for 4 years, both to private student and classrooms. It takes some time to get used to, but after a few tries students start to really understand the benefits of these steps and start to apply them without instruction. If you struggle the first time around, don’t give up! Try it a few more times, and really take your time. Allow students the chance to participate by finding each of the components to each step themselves. Correct students when they associate rhythms with the road map, remind them that you are only talking about rhythm when they ask for a fingering during step two, and teach them about new concepts during step four. Another tip is to sight read with the kids. Choose a piece that you are unfamiliar with. Take a short look at it before handing it to your class to determine if it is appropriate for their level, then put it away until you are ready to read it with the students. When students see that sight reading is something that you are willing to do with them they feel less frightened of it. When sight reading is broken down into more manageable pieces it becomes less intimidating and more manageable for students. When a task is less intimidating students find greater levels of success. When students find success teachers find success. When teachers and students are successful music is fun and everybody is happy. This method can be done quickly as needed or can be done in a classroom more slowly so as to really understand the music before reading it. Student do well with this method because it helps them break the music down into more manageable pieces.