by Steven Danner
If you've ever studied music at a university, auditioned, played in an ensemble, or have even taken lessons from a private instructor, chances are you've been asked to play through a bit of a piece of music you just had dropped in front of you. This can be extremely overwhelming or even the source of major anxiety as a musician.
Sight-reading is the single most overlooked aspect of practice as a musician. Sight-reading isn't something that only stereotypical “movie geniuses” can do, it's something you can practice. And believe it or not, you can become really good at it. This is one of many good habits to develop as a musician.
Maybe you've watched a musician you look up to hammer out a piece of music they just picked up and wondered how in the world they did it; they’re good at sight-reading! It happens all the time on a university level. The famous line, "Here's some music, I'll be back in 15 minutes to see how far you've gotten." Basically, if you don't get far enough, they may assume it's something you’re not ready for and assign you something else.
When looking for a place to start it’s a good idea to find a book of pieces for your instrument. There are basic books that have a compilation of easy studies. The objective here is to practice sight-reading, not learn new pieces. The material you choose is just a practice tool. Practice going through the piece one time, then move on. You can keep it for later use as a part of your repertoire if you want.
There are a few rules or things to consider when incorporating this technique into your practice.
1. Separate your sight-reading book or compilation of pieces from your other practice material. You may also consider finding pieces within your skill level.
2. Take a second to briefly examine the piece. Review the key signature and overall rhythm patterns.
3. Dedicate 15 minutes of your practice time daily to sight-reading. Remember, once you start going back and replaying measures, you are no longer sight reading; you are learning the piece.
4. Use a metronome. Don’t stop to iron out your mistakes, just "set your metronome slow, and go.”
5. Most importantly, don't get discouraged. It takes practice to build up the ability to do this fluently.
There are short term and long term benefits to practicing sight-reading. In the short term, you learn to identify notes more quickly and also focus more intently on the music. In the long run, you'll notice more efficiency overall when working with ensembles or groups. You'll also notice that you are able to learn new repertoire more quickly. Start with just sight reading the notes on the page, and pay attention to the rhythms in the music. This is important, because it’s easier to stay with a piece if your getting the rhythm right and hitting a few wrong notes verses the other way around. As you develop, you could start sight-reading dynamic markings.
Overall, practicing sight-reading and becoming a better sight-reader will make you a confident, more well-rounded musician. I’ve talked with several faculty members at large universities, and each of them have said they contribute having jobs in the field of music to being excellent sight-readers. On a daily basis, they may be asked to accompany many students at the drop of a hat. That’s not an easy accomplishment. Remember, practice makes perfect!