Mention ‘sight-reading’, and many musicians can already be seen running for the nearest exit. Over the years, two distinct sorts of sight-reading appear to have emerged: firstly, there’s sight-reading (i.e. playing a piece you’ve never seen before) and sight-reading (i.e. a test in a music exam).
In the same way as the term ‘practice’ now conjures up negative images, so sight-reading has begun to suffer the same fate. We once had an ABRSM examiner who called it ‘fright-reading’. In general terms, the two sorts of sight-reading mentioned above are actually no different. It is fair to say that one probably happens under more stressful conditions, but the underlying principle is exactly the same. So, whatever form it takes, how can we make sight-reading less stressful?
Every time you learn a piece of music, you’re sight-reading. That’s right, every new piece that’s been put in front of you will have required some form of sight-reading. It’s something that many musicians do on a daily basis. My flute, piano and singing pupils who I teach here in Lichfield often tell me that sight-reading in exams is stressful because you haven’t got very long to look at the music. I’m sure they feel they have a valid point, but my experience is that when you give them something to sight-read which isn’t identified as a sight-reading ‘test’, they spend less time looking at it than they do with the 30 seconds allotted for an exam.
As soon as you come across a new piece (whether it’s for sight-reading or sight-reading), there are going to be some things which are worth looking at: key signature, time signature, tempo etc. Remember that game you might have played once where you had to look at things on a tray which were then covered up and you had to write down all the things you could remember? Have you tried it with a piece of music? Try looking at it for 30 seconds then cover it up – how many different things can you remember? I’m sure you’ll surprise yourself.
Let’s be clear: sight-reading a piece is very rarely going to produce a perfect rendition first time. Personally (and I’m sure examiners would too), I’d rather listen to a rendition which keeps going and gives me a general outline of what’s going on, rather than a painfully slow performance where the player tries to work out every single note and rhythm one at a time. After you’ve looked at the ‘basics’, have a quick skim through the rest of the music. Importantly, can you recognise any repetition or patterns? Learners are often surprised to discover that a good amount of sight-reading tests are made up almost entirely of both these. Can you see any scales, arpeggios, sequences etc.
This applies mainly to pianists, but it may apply to other instruments too, do remember to check what position your hands need to be in: you can play all the right fingering, but if your hands aren’t in the right place, then I’m afraid none of the notes will actually be right.
What’s the most important thing about sight-reading? For me, it is to keep going. I’m forever telling my pupils to keep going if they make a mistake; many hope that by going back and correcting their mistake, this somehow cancels it out: it doesn’t! For exam candidates, I’m pretty sure you lose more marks by stopping and correcting errors than you would for making the mistake in the first place!
It is true that in an exam situation, time is limited. Once you’ve checked the basics, try the beginning and the end; if there’s time, try any other tricky passages. If you’ve worked out there’s a pattern, try this too – there is plenty of time if you use it effectively. Examiners are now expected to not only tell you you’ve got 30 seconds or half a minute to look at the test, but also that you can try out any bits you want to. To me, this is a fundamental point, and I look at it like this: Candidate A looks at the test for 30 seconds but doesn’t play anything; when they come to perform it, it’s a disaster. Candidate B looks at the test for 30 seconds and tries some bits out; when they come to perform it, it’s also a disaster…which candidate will get the higher mark? So much of sight-reading is in the approach. Candidate B showed they approached the test in the right way: Candidate A chose not to. The higher of the marks seems obvious to me.
Next time you’re doing either sight-reading or sight-reading, think about the process you’re going through. As you progress, you’ll get to know your strengths and weaknesses and this will enable you to best use any preparation time. Above all, keep going (my pupils tell me they hear me saying this in their sleep!).