sight reading


Philip Reinagle, “Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog” (1805)

Ah, the thrill of sight reading–of venturing into unknown territory and navigating the rocky terrain of subdivision and modulation, while hacking through the thorny brambles of accidentals and non-chord tones. Some people are naturally better at this than others–but, just like with all things in music, sight reading is an important skill that can be improved through regular practice. Here are some tips I’ve found helpful in my own efforts to combat my own musical dyslexia. (These are written from a pianist’s perspective, but most of them should be applicable to all musicians!)

  1. Practice every day. Just 15 minutes a day–even if it’s sheer torture sometimes–is enough to ensure that you continue making progress. (That’s less time than it would take to go buy a cup of coffee, or get past that one insidious level of Candy Crush.)
  2. Know the geography of the instrument. As you practice, avoid looking at your hands. Keep your fingers and hands close to the keyboard, even as you play and leap: information about your location on the keyboard should not come from visual cues, but from the physical cues and memories of your fingertips and arm muscles. One of my friends, a fantastic sight-reader, says that looking at your hands wastes precious time that your brain needs “to absorb the information on the page and translate it into physical sensations.”
  3. Mix up the repertoire.
    • Start easy. Being able to play pieces you’ve never heard before is the goal of sight reading, and it’s certainly a great way to expose yourself to all the amazing music out there. Much of the vocal literature from the Classical and Romantic periods have simple, harmonically clear keyboard accompaniments, so it’s a good idea to read through the accompaniments for things like Mozart and Handel arias or simple Beethoven and Schubert songs. From there, add repertoire like Mozart and Beethoven piano sonatas, Schumann songs, and Bach two-part inventions.
    • But incorporate the familiar, too. Sight reading can be an immensely frustrating task, especially when you first start practicing it. Make sure to also sight read repertoire that you’ve heard before, but haven’t necessarily played, so that your ear can constantly affirm what your fingers are doing. This removes the distraction of questioning what you’re hearing and allows you to focus more on the task of translating sheet music to physical movement, resulting in a practice session that leaves you feeling encouraged and rewarded.
  4. Read from the bottom up. If you’re like me, you have a habit of focusing on the melody in the right hand. But the harmonies in the left hand are often more important, particularly if you’re accompanying a singer. Try to prioritize the left hand, and make it a habit to catch yourself when your focus begins to zoom in on the upper staff. Sometimes it helps to expand your field of vision by directing your gaze loosely at the space between the staves, so that you are processing everything surrounding that point rather than micro-managing a single line. My friend says that for easy passages, he lets his gaze rest between the clefs, reading both hands almost simultaneously. For harder passages, he glances up and down in a zig-zag pattern as he moves forward (always looking ahead of what he’s actually playing), “memorizing” the music–imprinting the chords, figurations, textures, rhythms, patterns, etc., onto short-term memory–just before playing.
  5. Just keep going. When sight reading, Rhythm is King. If a string quartet is sight reading together, the rhythm is the glue: wrong notes sound funny, but wrong rhythms will derail the whole ensemble. Allow yourself to make mistakes when sight reading (you can go back and correct them later once you’ve finished), and make it a habit to keep your eyes moving ahead of where you’re playing–whether that’s a beat ahead or a whole measure. It’s immensely useful to practice with the metronome, to keep yourself moving in a steady beat despite the mistakes.
  6. Practice patterns. Multiple composers across multiple eras employ common figurations, particularly in the left hand (for piano music). These include Alberti bass patterns, harmonic arpeggiations, or the common “stride piano”/waltz accompaniment: Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 3.10.15 PMPractice the ability to read these patterns quickly as a single harmonic chord that just happens to be spread out over several beats (rather than processing the bass note separately from the upper chords, in the example above) and take a little time to practice more difficult navigational exercises, such as leaping to that bass note and back in the waltz pattern, without looking at your hands. This will train you to deal with these common patterns with ease.
  7. Anticipate the physical sensations. As you play, be aware not only of the technical issues of calculating rhythms and harmonies, but how playing those next notes will feel. In the back of your mind, sense what kind of movements in space your muscles will make to get to that next chord, or to make that leap. More often than not, that frees your muscles to move confidently, rather than being bound by over-thinking things in the brain.
  8. Sight read with other people. Besides the fact that playing with your friends is a lot of fun, sight reading through four hands music, or instrumental duo music, or quartet literature, forces you to:
    • deal with any nervousness you might have about sight reading in front of others
    • keep your rhythms steady and accurate and to keep going despite mistakes (and it can also teach you how to count 12 measures of rests!)
    • focus on reading your own part despite external auditory distractions
    • remain sensitive to the music–the trading off of melodies, the interlocking of rhythms, the swells of phrases–instead of just reading the notes

Teaching yourself how to sight read can be very frustrating at first, and progress may be slow, but keep at it (and keep those eyes moving)! Despite the challenges it can present, it’s such a rewarding experience because of how it exposes you to other repertoire and allows you to make music, for theĀ fun of it, with other people.

What are your best sight reading tips?

More reading:

notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann(A week late for Valentine’s Day, but irresistibly sweet nonetheless.)

“How happy your recent letters have made me, especially the one on Christmas! I have all kinds of words for you, but I know of none more beautiful than a little one, ‘dear’–but it has to be spoken in a special tone….If only I could do something to please you, my Clara. The knights of old really had an easier time; they could go through fire or slay dragons for their beloved–but we today have to gather our pennies together, one by one, in order to deserve our girls, and smoke fewer cigars and such things–but we can love each other without the knights, of course, and so, as usual, only the times have changed, and hearts have remained the same.” – Robert Schumann, to Clara Wieck, January 2nd, 1838

Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).

the bard of vienna

Top: title page of The Tempest from the First Folio, 1623. Bottom: first page of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 ("The Tempest"), 1802.

Top: title page of The Tempest from the First Folio, 1623.
Bottom: first page of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 (“The Tempest”), 1802.

This week I wanted to bring up interpretation, a subject that’s a little more abstract and subjective and possibly difficult. In studio class the other day, my teacher said, “Beethoven’s last piano sonatas are really like the last plays of Shakespeare.” This is something he’s said to me before, and the thought has been turning in my mind ever since. It’s challenging, slightly daunting, a call to action: to seek out a deeper level of meaning in the layout, the form, the markings of the score.

The commonalities between being an actor and being a musician are widely-recognized, but the acting that is most prominent in our everyday lives is a product of fickle Hollywood, where gems cohabit with meretricious glitter. The idea of going back to Shakespeare provides a much clearer example of how we can analyze and understand our own musical Urtexts. Shakespeare is a different level of script: unforgivingly complex and increasingly abstruse, with texts ossified through fame and time–and yet still hyper-saturated with all shades of human emotion.

This 1979 video of Sir Ian McKellen analyzing a speech from Macbeth shows just how much a great actor can derive from the most minute details of wording, phrasing, pauses and puns:

Similarly, as interpreters and partakers of music, we can struggle to find the questions that many of Beethoven’s late sonatas present, and then struggle to find the answers to those questions. They are experimental, unconventional, detailed, and bristling with wildly contrasting emotions and subitos and motivic connecting fibers. Understanding the meaning behind the markings and the form and the dynamic palette (and even microscopic details like the piece starting on the third scale degree rather than the first)–this is an often difficult task that can be made easier by taking a page from the actor’s book.

More reading/watching:

What do you try to do when interpreting a piece?