Poor sight-reading has been identified as one of the reasons students stop lessons. The most effective way to become a successful sight-reader is to practise the skill regularly. Just as with reading a book, in time students will recognise clusters of notes as phrases rather than as individual entities. There is a correlation between proficient sight-reading and time spent practising it. You do not become fluent at reading anything without regular practice. Everyone who can read a book has the intellectual capacity to become an effective sight-reader, but improving sight-reading requires a continual increase in the difficulty of the material.
The beauty of this skill is that it speeds up the learning process and opens up new and wider opportunities for making music with others.
Learning to sight-read involves a different mindset than when one learns for a performance. Maintaining fluency and momentum is paramount. In particular one must not stop to correct mistakes, for in sight-reading mistakes are tolerated. Practising with a metronome, backing tracks, or better still, live ensemble partners, can help to induce this required musical continuity.
When I was learning piano, my sight-reading was comparatively weak. The teacher’s advice was to obtain a stack of suitably difficult music and practise sight-reading every day. My teacher told me that once I had played a piece the sight-playing experience was over, which is why I needed the ready supply of new music. Teachers should include sight-reading in their lessons because students are unlikely to practise this skill at home if they don’t see it to be valued during lessons.
Successful sight-readers keep their eyes on the music more often than poorer sight-readers. This is one of the reasons many pianists struggle with sight-reading, as it is difficult to keep the eyes on the music while making hand movements to the correct keys. Eighteenth-century German musician and composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach once advised, “If you want to improve your sight-reading, practise in the dark.” This can be simulated by closing the eyes during practice. Improving the sense of touch allows the eyes to spend more time on the music on the page, which in turn facilitates better sight-reading.
Sight-reading is a multitasking skill that involves playing the current measure while scanning the next, moving fingers to the keys without looking, using prior musical knowledge to comprehend the music, and relating to the music on an emotional level. Better sight-readers have a greater knowledge of musical styles and repertoire, which provides a database of familiarity for the chunking process. This familiarity enables sight-readers to make educated guesses when necessary to maintain the flow of the music. Effective sight-readers scan the music before a performance, while considering the tempo, the time and key signatures, and possible difficulties. Rhythmic reading is the most important and challenging musical component of sight-reading. One can practise this in isolation, even away from one’s instrument. Rhythmic reading exercises can readily be sourced.
from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin
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