Violinist and faculty member
In my experience, sight-reading can carry a lot of weight for musicians. Before I delve into how to approach developing and mastering this skill, let’s discuss what “sight-reading” actually is: it is when musicians are presented with a new piece of music in any kind of situation (whether that be reading with friends, an orchestra rehearsal, or an audition, for instance) and have had no previous practice or preparation reading that specific piece before.
This process requires a lot of information absorption at once. It is important to trust in our abilities as well as know what to look for and focus on when it’s unrealistic to “get everything right.”
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “sight-reading”?
Do you think, “Please no!,” or “I’m not very good at that,” or anything else along those lines? If so, you’re not alone. I think many (if I am being honest, most) musicians often dread sight-reading because it can bring out our bad habits or bring back old habits that we have worked so hard to change. And frequently, we are sight-reading in stressful situations, like auditions where it is required, or in rehearsals when you just haven’t had enough hours in the day to prepare ahead of time.
We have all been there. This is why I think it’s important to talk about how to deal with our feelings around sight-reading as well as develop a helpful list of tools to be better prepared when it does inevitably happen.
What if we looked at sight-reading as an opportunity?
It could be an opportunity to see things more clearly: to see both our struggles and our successes, where we need improvement and where we hold expertise, to have our struggles, but also our amazing abilities, come to light.
Wouldn’t it feel amazing to have the skill to see both sides clearly rather than only the negative one? As humans, we tend to only focus on the negative aspects of any situation or experience. Even though focusing on the negative is our tendency, we can learn how to also focus on the positive; it just takes practice and commitment to creating new brain pathways.
For instance, for every comment you or someone else has about what you may have done wrong when sight-reading, list three things that worked well. This can tip the balance and start to help your brain learn to see the positive as well.
The following is a list of tips to help before, during, and after sight-reading to create a supportive environment for ourselves rather than a harmful one:
1) Tempo: Look for the hardest bar and pick your tempo based on that
2) Key signature/accidentals
3) Tempo/character changes
5) Difficult rhythms
7) Always look ahead at least one measure, but challenge yourself to extend that!
Big Picture Checklist
1) Listen across the orchestra/band/choir for bigger ideas and how the different parts fit together. You will be surprised about how many new things you notice!
2) Bigger musical ideas: go for the musical gestures and focus on the “bigger beats” rather than focusing on getting all the notes. A beat is the basic unit of time (aka tempo or pulse) that regularly repeats, like how a conductor shows you where to play with his/her/their baton. “Bigger beats” refers to the longer musical lines and gestures that the basic beat amounts to
3) Go for character and expression as your ultimate goal. Approaching music this way will be more fun and lift you to new levels as a musician and artist.
4) Tell a story: a story/idea/emotion will help you stay focused on the music rather than just the notes and technique. Every story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end; however, if it was just that basic, it would be really boring, right? This is where every person’s individuality and creativity can shine through. Have fun with this so you can have fun playing!
This list is just a start, so get brainstorming about things that you have found helpful and add to it. Before you return to your day, think about this:
start to have fun with sight-reading instead of dreading it!
When you can trust yourself, both in your preparation and your ability to adapt, sight-reading (and anything in life that brings up a similar feeling of incompetence) can become a fun opportunity rather than a spiral into failure.
Try these practice tips and let us know if anything changes for you, or if you have any amazing tips to add.