If you’re a singer, you might be used to singing in choirs. Maybe you’ve been in shows, perhaps in the chorus where there’s been plenty of ensemble singing. If you’re an instrumentalist, you might play in a band or orchestra. Maybe you play in chamber ensembles, quartets or trios.
Being part of these groups, singing and playing with others means you’ll be sight-reading on a regular basis. You’ll also be used to keeping going. The choir won’t wait for you while you work out the interval in bar 9, and the orchestra won’t wait for you while you work out for the fingering for the trill in bar 11.
If you’re a pianist, then the situation is probably a little different. In general, many pianists don’t play regularly with others. Pianists are not used to playing in ensembles in the same way as the singers and instrumentalists mentioned above. By consequence, pianists are often not used to sight-reading and keeping up with an ensemble in the same way.
I’m certainly not suggesting that pianists are at a disadvantage when it comes to sight-reading, but maybe they have to work a bit harder and perhaps more creatively to hone those skills.
With that in mind, if you’re a pianist and you’d like to improve your sight-reading*, here are some things which I think can really help. Most of them are pretty fun too!
*My usual disclaimer that sight-reading is something we, as musicians, do all the time. Every time we start learning a new piece, we’re sight-reading. Sight-reading is for life, not just exams.
1. Play duets
In my view, playing duets is seriously underrated, not just as a skill, but as an enjoyable act of making music with others. I’ve blogged previously about the benefits of playing duets and also written an article for Piano Professional magazine on the subject.
Playing duets (also trios, music for two pianos etc.) can be a great way for pianists to experience some of the things which singers and instrumentalists encounter regularly in the ensembles they play with. Above all, you have to be able to keep going, particularly if you get to the point where you’re performing your duets in an exam, festival or other public arena.
If you’re a teacher, then I can highly recommend Paul Harris’ Improve Your Sight-Reading! Duets books. There are two available one for up to Grade 1 and one for Grades 2-3. Not only are the a great way to improve your sight-reading (particularly in conjunction with the other books in the series) but also improving it in the context of playing with someone else. This means both keeping up and keeping going.
I have accompanied for a long time. Until you accompany on a regular basis, I don’t think many people fully appreciate the amount of skill that is required. Firstly, accompanists are often required to sight-read at short notice (often at no notice). This is something you have to get used to pretty quickly. I once accompanied an exam with only five minutes notice when the candidate’s accompanist didn’t turn up. In such situations, there is no time to learn, practise or seek to perfect the piece. You’ve just got to do your best: play it and keep going.
Secondly, as an accompanist, you realise pretty quickly that in order to make a success of it, keeping up with the soloist (or ensemble) trumps everything else. You also have to remain constantly alert to what they’re doing. You need to be prepared to skip a page when they turn two pages at once or shout out a bar number when they’re lost. All this means that you may play some wrong notes, you may be able to keep only one hand going or may need to improvise for a few bars, but you have to keep going.
If, as a pianist, you have to opportunity to do some accompanying, grab it. Start small though: you don’t have to rush off and accompany a concert soloist in public. Most singers and instrumentalists would be only too glad of someone else to play with.
3. Play with accompaniment tracks
Sometimes, as a pianist, it’s actually quite fun to play with other people, and playing with backing tracks is a good way to start. Backing tracks are much maligned, but they have their place. You can now get music in a whole range of styles and genres that you can play along too: everything from Disney favourites to the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. If you don’t have a duet partner or a willing soloist to accompany, backing tracks can be a good alternative.
Playing along to backing tracks is, once again, useful because it requires you to keep going, to keep up with the music. It also means you have to listen to what else is going on, much as you would in a duet of if you were accompanying. One of the biggest problems with sight-reading is that people either play far too slowly in pursuit of note-accuracy or people simply stop and start and the piece has no sense of flow or continuity. I find that pianists in particular are quite bad for this, so anything you can do which gets you used to keeping going, is vital.
You may also find it useful to find some pieces which have sections set aside for improvisation. Scary as improvisation may be, it can be hugely useful to the sight-reader (especially as an accompanist)!
4. Record yourself
Recording yourself has two potential benefits here. Firstly, recording yourself adds a bit of pressure to your performance. Rather like an exam or performance, you have to deliver in that moment; there’s no going back.
Secondly, try recording yourself sight-reading. Then, go back and listen to your performance. What do you notice? For example, can you tap a steady pulse whilst you listen back to yourself? Does it feel like a continuous flowing piece, or does it stop and start?
Improving your ability to play at sight will take time. It requires consistent work and a critical ear. Above all, one of the most important things about sight-reading is the ability to keep going. There are many instances, as cited above where a steady pulse, rhythm and tempo, by necessity trump note accuracy.
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