We’ve all been there, whether, at 2 years old or 62 years old, we’ve all had to trawl through the laborious task of deciphering these mysterious symbols strung up on a series of abstract lines.
It’s somewhat comforting to think that the likes of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Pierre Boulez were once using a primitive method to commit the patronisingly dubbed; ‘musical alphabet’ to memory.
Although Martha Argerich might have used a more sophisticated system than repeating the acronym; “Every Good Boy Deserves Football” till she was blue in the face, there was a time when she wouldn’t have had any clue what key the first exercise in the ABRSM Grade 1 sight reading book was in.
Reading music by sight is one of the handiest things to know how to do. We all want to be able to pick up any old sheet music at a family get together and show off our skills or to be able to accompany someone on the spot, or just to speed along the process of learning a new piece. So sight reading is something we should all seek to develop and nourish in our musical education.
It’s a daunting prospect at the start, but it’s a process that is very swiftly rewarding if you give it the time of day.
With sight reading, ‘an exercise a day keeps the frustration at bay’ – first and foremost, you should commit to attempting at least one exercise a day, and that’s only about 5/10 minutes of your practice time.
There are a couple of techniques which seem obvious, but are very often overlooked when it comes to tackling a sight reading exercise, and here they are:
1- Address the key signature. Acknowledging which sharps and flats you need to remember to play is the most common mistake for students starting out at sight reading. Once you know which sharps or flats to use, you should quickly scan the exercise for occurrences of these accidentals. (To know what key the exercise is in, check the final lowest note, this will be the tonic note of the key in all early sight reading exercises).
2- Look for patterns. Familiarise yourself with the variety of rhythms which crop up, and look out for sequences of repeated phrases. Be careful not to overlook slight changes, but music isn’t random, there will be motifs and ideas that are explored and developed. Look out for these patterns so you’re not reading each note fresh off the page.
3- Practice playing without looking at your hands. This helps to develop your feel for of your instrument and to encourage muscle memory. Try to acknowledge the notes on the score more than the notes on the keyboard, and in time, you will be able to coordinate the two much easier.
4- Practice sight singing. Practicing your aural skills will help to develop your ear, and so you will be more aware of the distances between notes, and you will be able to hear more wisely what notes you should be moving to.
5- Use your 30 seconds wisely. In exams, you will have 30 seconds to glance through the exercise and digest all of the above so as to deliver an accurate sight reading. Practice taking a minute to look through the piece at first, making yourself aware of the trickiest parts, and then slowly work towards 30 seconds. Use this preparation time wisely!
So there are five tips to consider when starting out with sight reading.
Don’t worry if you’re not picking it up as fast as you’d like, like drawing, sight reading is a mechanical process, and if you put enough time into it – you will get there!
Don’t forget to keep going. If you slip up, aim to get to the end and maintain fluidity!