“Expertise with sight-reading belongs at the top of your list of priorities.”
–The Musician’s Way, p. 99
Musicians who sight-read fluently enjoy huge artistic and professional advantages.
Professionally, because they can perform with minimal rehearsal, they’re the first to be contacted when opportunities arise. On the artistic side, they’re more versatile than weak readers due to the fact that they can readily assimilate diverse styles of music.
In spite of those benefits, I’ve observed that music students commonly neglect to practice sight-reading.
Why? It seems that, aside from laziness, some don’t know how to develop their reading skills and, as a result, become discouraged by their lack of improvement.
I’m convinced that fluency with sight-reading can be attained by any musician with adequate visual acuity, but it takes smart, persistent work to build up reading skills.
Here are essential things to emphasize in your sight-reading practice. Bear in mind that the term “sight-reading” refers to the artful performance of an unfamiliar score with no more than a minute or two to scan.
1. Start with Elementary Material
Only accessible music enables us to acquire habits of fluency. All too often, though, students unwisely choose to sight-read complex material.
If your reading skills need upgrading, opt for elementary music, and then step up the difficulty over an extended period.
Ideally, consult a teacher who can evaluate your skills and recommend suitable material. Also strive to assemble vast amounts of sight-readable music so that you never lack for scores.
2. Practice Sight-Reading Daily
Sight-reading skills require ongoing reinforcement if they’re to become second nature.
I advise ambitious students to practice reading a minimum of 15 minutes daily (during my youth, I practiced reading 30 minutes a day for years). Even when your practice time is limited, try to carve out 5 minutes.
In addition to reading on your own, try to gather weekly with one or more colleagues to read ensemble music – doing so will bolster your skills and motivation.
3. Instill Fundamental Habits
Without exception, keep up the following habits when you read:
- Scan first. I employ a standard scanning procedure, which I detail on page 101 of The Musician’s Way. In brief, when scanning, we promptly identify a composition’s structural and expressive elements – especially rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic ones – and make note of any repeats or navigation signs.
- Count mentally. When reading, our primary task is to maintain the rhythmic flow. Therefore, use a metronome in practice, internalize the pulse, and mentally count in line with the musical context.
- Look ahead. Be sure that you digest at least one note group ahead of the one you’re playing or singing. Also, adjust the span of your eye fixations according to the musical context – the simpler the music or faster the tempo, the larger the span of notes you see at once. More info about eye movements during sight-reading can be found in this well-referenced article on Wikipedia.
- Keep going. When you flub, rather than interrupting the motion, keep the pulse intact and your eyes ahead. If a florid passage exceeds your ability, either omit it or just execute the notes on the main beats.
- Express the music. Expert sight-readers are artistic readers. So faithfully express the character of everything you read – give expression markings equal importance as pitches and rhythms.
- Minimize effort. Insist on ease whenever you read. Even when the going gets tough, release tension and be positive. When we steadfastly emphasize ease in our practice, easefulness becomes our default habit.
See Part I of The Musician’s Way – especially pages 99-102 – for inclusive ways to practice and improve sight-reading skills.
© 2011 Gerald Klickstein