Updated: Jan 19
Sight Reading and Learning- what’s the difference?
In the past month, I have seen a lot of scenarios where learning a piece is necessary and when sight reading becomes more important. So what is the difference?
For an instrumental player in an orchestra, sight reading is necessary (they need their sheet music always) It’s difficult to memorise fragments of music that happen at different places- especially after 28 bars of not playing! Very similar for an accompanist who most of the time will not have time to learn the music and will need to have the cues available (for the sake of the accompanist and the soloist).
For chamber music groups and soloists in general; to get the most out of a piece of music: to understand where the communication of the music is giving and to find and bring out where the subtle changes are. This comes from learning the music more thoroughly. To make the biggest impact from a piece of music- to take a direction, make it exciting. We couldn’t do this by sight reading as even we, the musicians, don’t know where the music is going. Of course there is a certain degree of ‘learned’ by an orchestral player and accompanist (if there are trickier passages) but generally it will be read through on a larger scale. Piano Lessons London by WKMT
So where are the major differences and how can we improve on both? First, we need to see how they differ:
When we sight read, we have a short amount of time (in times like exams, a minute) to look at the music we have never seen before. We don’t have the luxury of time to learn so we can only prioritise the most difficult parts. Then think on our feet; reading ahead of ourselves.
With learning a piece, we have the time to look at the technical and artistic details plus take our time to practice it. We can listen to and enjoy what we are playing. We know what’s happening next so we have the freedom to ‘enjoy the moment’ and interpret as we go along.
We can see they are both completely different skills. It would be hard to learn a piece by constantly sight reading it. There is too much information to process all in one go and we can pick up bad habits in the way (which takes longer to change).
In reverse, there is not enough time to learn the details for a sight reading piece. Before we know it, we run out of time.
Both skills can be improved:
Sight Reading - Piano Lessons London by WKMT
The more keys that’s we know- the scales, arpeggios and chords that belong to it- the more we can take an educated guess as to what happens next. We have the benefit to predict and see what happens next. We can see the direction the steps and skips are heading in the scales that they belong to. Look for where the patterns of stepwise and appeggiated movements are.
With learning, we do need to take more time and practise slowly. The most important is how to pace it. So we break it down. Section by section, phrase by phrase, even note by note. We piece the notes together (a lot like learning a language), then phrases together and finally the sections. Do it bit by bit, like the last pieces of a puzzle. The results will be much clearer when the piece is memorised- we can focus on just the music as we hear it and maximise the quality of our playing.
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