Sight Reading Advice & Tips – Music Performance

– Hi, in this quick tip, we’re going to deal with an area that some people are rather scared of, sight reading. Some people are very good at sight reading, most people actually find it a little bit of a struggle if we’re honest, because we all love to learn pieces, don’t we? And the great thing is, when we’re learning pieces, we can spend as long as we want to looking at notes, finding them on our instruments, trying things out. Maybe if we’re a keyboard player, learning things hands separately then putting them together until we can play the piece. And then, if the truth be known, we might be looking at the music, or we might be playing from memory.

But even if we’re looking at the music, actually we’re not particularly reading it, it’s just there as a little aide-memoir. In other words, it’s just helping us to remember what we’re looking at. So actually sometimes, one reason why people do struggle with the sight reading, is they don’t really get very much practise at sight reading. We think we’re reading music all the time, but actually sometimes we’re not really reading it, we’re just being reminded of the patterns that just jog our memory. So the simple solution to this is if you want to be good at sight reading, it’s something that we have to practise. And if you think about it, we often do lots more practise on pieces than we do on sight reading. So at a very simple level, I’m going to suggest in this film that sight reading is something that ought to be part of a kind of daily routine for us.

And it doesn’t have to be a massive time killer, you can spend just maybe five minutes a day doing some sight reading, and over the months, it will be amazing how skills improve. And I’ve noticed over the years that often the people who sight read well are the people who play in orchestras, play in bands, sing in choirs, because they are used to reading in those places. And one great advantage of learning to read in those sort of contexts is actually you have to keep going. If you’re going to play your trumpet in an orchestra or a band, you can’t stop in the middle to try and work out what the next note is because the rest of the orchestra, the rest of the band, they’re just going to keep going. So you have to learn to deal with that by getting quicker at the actual reading, or even just being tactical like, “Well, I’m just going to miss out the next couple of notes, “because I haven’t got time to find them, “I’m not quite sure what they are, “and then I’ll get back in again on the next note.” And one thing I have noticed listening to people sight reading over the years, is that quite often the problem is that the sight reading doesn’t flow very well. So people stop, they look at the first note, and then they kind of think about it. Then they play the first note, and then they look at the second note, they have another little think, and then they play the second note. So it doesn’t really make a lot of musical sense, because even if they’re able to process their way from one note to the next, it’s not flowing in any musical or meaningful way. Whereas actually sometimes, a much more successful approach is achieved if you just try to keep going. Even if you play some wrong notes, even if you miss out some notes, keep going and then at least the piece has some kind of overall cohesion. And this is a skill that can be practised. Now if you really find sight reading a struggle, and you’re not alone, because most people do, then it’s not a bad idea to try and break down the task. If you think about it, when we’re sight reading, we’re multitasking, aren’t we? We’re trying to deal with rhythm, we’re trying to deal with pitch, we’re trying to deal with any expressive markings in the score like dynamics, phrasing, articulation, accents. We’re thinking about what’s an appropriate speed for the piece. We’re thinking about what the style or the character of the music is. We’re trying to achieve that. We might be doing other things. If we’re a pianist, we might be thinking, well, maybe I need to do some pedalling here. So lots of things to deal with. And if you want to deal with difficulties in sight reading, the answer is usually to break down the task. So start with things that are relatively straightforward to read, and just kind of gradually build up the level. One thing you can do, for example, is just to isolate the rhythm. And think, can I just clap the rhythm? So count yourself a pulse so that the rhythm belongs to a steady pulse. So before you start, you think, “Okay, I’m in 4/4,” so one, two, three, four. So that’s the speed of a crotchet, so if I’m reading crotchets, I’m just clapping that. If I have to switch to quavers somewhere, I’m thinking one and two and three and four and. I might be mixing crotchets and quavers. One, two and three, four and one. And do you notice what I’m doing there as well, I’m counting these little ands between the beats. So instead of just trying to fit two quavers into beat number one or beat number two, I’m dividing my beat by going one and two. By slipping the “and” in, I’ve got an equal division of that beat, so that I can place quavers. If I have slightly more complicated rhythms, the “and” is also useful again. Say I’ve got a rhythm, for example, that goes quaver, two semiquavers. I can think one, and, two, and, three, and four, and. Or say I’ve got the reverse, two semiquavers followed by a quaver. I can go one, and. Two, and. Three, and. Four, and. If I’ve got four semiquavers, I can go one and two and three and four and. And all these rhythms that come over and over again in music are well worth rehearsing. Even if you’re just walking around waiting for a bus, sitting in the bath, you can be just thinking about some of these rhythms. How would I clap a series of quavers? How would I clap a quaver followed by two semiquavers? How would I clap two semiquavers followed by a quaver? How would I clap four semiquavers? So you can get really good at dealing with these rhythms. Then when you see them in a piece of music, you can count them, but you’ll also start to think, “I know how these rhythms go.” If you get a rhythm like a triplet, well the “ands” are not so helpful there. So you can think, say I’m counting four crotchet beats in a bar, but I’ve got quaver triplets. Well, I’m thinking I’ve got to get those three notes into each beat. So one, two, three, four. But you see all these rhythms can be rehearsed. If you’re a keyboard player and you’ve got to do one rhythm in one hand and one rhythm in the other hand, you can then think, “Well, how would it work “if I tapped this rhythm on the right hand “and tapped that rhythm in the left hand?” So you’re thinking rhythms and trying to produce them. Then try just reading rhythms, and get really good at dealing with the rhythm. And I’ll tell you something I’ve noticed over many years, is that people are often better at locating pitch than they are at locating rhythm. So it’s well work working on the rhythm. Now when it comes to the pitch, this of course is another key area that you can isolate. Just liberate yourself into thinking, “I’m just going to look through this piece “and think about pitch. “I’m not going to worry about rhythm, “let’s just get these notes happy.” So obviously we need to know our way around the stave, so do we know that the spaces in the treble clef are F, A, C, E, and the lines are E, G, B, D, F, and all that stuff. So you need to know your way around a clef. But actually, how good are we at just looking at a note and thinking, “That note’s B.” So you could do a little bit of work on this, just kind of looking at notes and thinking, “How quickly can I name these notes?” So I’m not having to calculate E, G, B, and then thinking, “Okay, that note must be B.” You just look at the note on the third line of the treble clef and think, “That’s B.” So we get more familiar with this. You don’t have to play these on your instrument, you can even just sit in a chair looking at notes. You can sit somewhere or walk somewhere and just imagine the stave in your head, and practise locating these notes. There are also lots of phone apps around these days, where you can actually practise doing these things. So just focusing on the pitch. But also not just reading letter names, but reading the pattern of movement. In other words, if I’m going from a space to the line next door, well I’ve just gone up a note. Or if I’ve gone from this line to the space beneath it, I’ve just gone down a note. If I’m jumping from one line to the next line, then actually I’m skipping. I’m just missing out the note in between. And that will be true coming the other way as well. I might be going from the bottom line to the third line. Well, that’s two skips, if you like. So these are kind of helpful ways of locating notes without necessarily having to name everything. In other words, you’re looking for patterns. And when it comes to pitch or rhythm, music is full of patterns. So when you’re looking through a piece that you’ve never seen before, just think, “Do some of these patterns come back?” Because once you’ve got familiar with them, you can think, “That’s exactly the same, “it’s just all down a note from where it was before.” Or just up two notes from where it was before. Or there’s a rhythm that repeats. So when you’ve had bit of practise in dealing with rhythm and pitch as separate things, put them back together again. And see how much more efficiently you’re reading. And when you can do that, obviously if you’re a keyboard player, you might need to do some single hand work on that before you put hands together. But then think, “Well if I can manage the rhythm and the pitch, “then can I actually play this at a reasonable speed?” And keep going. Lots of people can sort of sight read slowly, but can’t actually sight read quickly. So you might want to work on that. Build your confidence at reading slowly and then thinking, “Actually, can I start to increase the speed, “so that my processing of notes, of pitch and rhythm, “becomes quicker?” And then when you get proficient at that, think, “Okay, well if I can do that, “can I now take on board the dynamics? “The phrasing and the other expressive markings?” And if I can do all of that and inject the character and the style of the piece, then I’m turning into a good sight reader. And I’ll finish by telling you a little tale of a true experience that I had some years ago in my musical life when a conductor phoned me up and he said, “We’ve got a concert, “it’s going to be a stage production, and we’ve got a group “of instrumentalists in the pit. “But the pianist is not well, I need a pianist. “Are you able to come and play?” So I said, “Well, depends when it is, really.” And he said, “Well, it starts in half an hour.” So at half an hour’s notice, I just had time to put a suit on, dash to this theatre, and as I walked into the orchestral pit, everybody was clapping because the show was about to begin. The conductor gave me a 200 page score, I opened it at page one and spent the whole evening sight reading it. Well, did I play all the notes in that score? If I’m honest, no I didn’t. I missed a few out, I took a few strategic decisions. Did I keep going? Did I play up to speed? Did I play something that made sense with the score and what everybody else was doing? Actually, yes I did. And that was the evening when I was really grateful to be able to deal with sight reading skills. And it’s happened to me other times in my life as well, where bits of music have been thrown at me, and I’ve just had to read them. It’s such a valuable skill to have. But do work on it, because even if you’re looking at sight reading thinking, “I can’t do this,” I’m sure it’s something you could do a lot better with a bit of practise. So five minutes a day, those are a few little thoughts on strategies for improving your sight reading. And I’m sure that it’s something that you’d come to enjoy as you actually get better at doing it. So good luck with your sight reading.

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