After helping a lot of my students with their auditions, sight-reading is what instilled fear in almost all of them. I’m not saying you can’t be a great musician if you don’t know how to read music or read extremely well, but you will be missing out on many gigs and opportunities to make more money. There are plenty of heavy intensive reading gigs that you are saying no to if you choose not to get your reading chops up to speed. This post will give you things to think about when approaching your reading, as well as helpful methods to improving your reading quickly and efficiently.
I am a percussionist so I will be starting with a drummers perspective, but since I also play melodic percussion instruments (vibraphone, marimba, etc.), I will move into the melodic aspects of sight-reading as well.
First things first, breathe. Sight-reading shouldn’t scare you. It took time and practice to learn how to read this sentence I am typing in English, so it will take time and practice for you to be able to read the language of music. When reading any language, you need to do it often. You need to develop a habit of reading, and read different material, so you can expand your musical vocabulary. I attribute it to when you learn to read a language. First you start with pictures, then learn the alphabet and what sounds different combinations of letters make, moving on to recognizing words and short sentences. Eventually the pictures become less, the font becomes smaller and boom before you know it, you’ve moved on from short stories to reading novels. However, that only happens if you read consistently. Once you stop using a skill, you become less proficient at it.
In your practice regime of reading, I would start simple. Try writing basic rhythms on flash cards and each day test yourself by shuffling the flash cards up and throwing down a few each day to sight-read. As you get better you can put more cards down and/or make the rhythms harder. This will help extend how long you can stay focused for as well. One of my teachers used to say, “4 bars a day, keeps you ready to play.” What he meant was sight-reading shouldn’t be an “event” you do during an audition, but just another skill you are good at. Just as you work on basic skills when you are practicing, reading should be included. The idea is that you begin to recognize the music faster, so you can look ahead to the next figure, and asses how to play it, and then execute it well. Also, 4 bars doesn’t have to be the amount. Yes, most western music is phrased in 4-8 measure increments, but you can change not only the length, but also the tempo and the difficulty of the passage, as you hone your skills.
Now is when you start adding to your pre-sight-reading checklist. First, you need to maintain your technique. Once you have a handle on playing the instrument, your technique shouldn’t be something you should worry about when navigating new music. After your technique is solid, go after the correct rhythms. You can find lots of books with all kind of rhythm combinations, whether they are simple or complex, duple or triple based. A few of my favorite books are: Louis Bellson’s “Modern Reading Text in 4/4” or “Odd Time Reading Text” and Thom Hannum’s “A Percussionist’s Guide to Check Patterns”. All of those books can be used by any musician, despite the fact they are written by drummers. When negotiating the different rhythms, I try and find check points in the music. What I mean by that is trying to find smaller sections that my eyes can recognize and digest rhythmic patterns. For example, in a 4/4 piece of music, where are beats one and three located? If I can “divide the measure in half” it becomes easier to read the rhythms. I also start to recognize different types of notation in different styles of music (classical vs. jazz, etc.) After technique and rhythms, I feel accents and dynamics should be next on this checklist. The volume at which you play the notes will make the rhythms sound completely different. Finally on this mini checklist, are logistics. As a percussionist, logistics are half (or more) of the battle. What are you hitting and where is it located? Are you picking something up like a hand held instrument? Are you switching implements (sticks to mallets or brushes)? Any one of those can derail even the most experienced sight-reader from playing a piece of music well.
You have a handle on your technique and you hopefully know your basic music theory. For drummers, this is your rhythms and basic rudiments. For melodic percussionists and other instrumentalists, this is all of your keys and scales. Being able to recognize certain scales or arpeggios or even melodic intervals is just as important as knowing which drum to hit and can save you time when reading.
Ok, take another breath. You are ready to sight-read. You have set yourself up for success and are gonna nail this! The breathing is important and usually overlooked. Sometimes in stressful situations, people subconsciously hold their breath; however, your brain needs oxygen to function properly. So, get in the habit of breathing normally and regularly as you are playing and sight-reading.
Now when you look at the page to sight-read, start at the top. Notice the title, do you recognize the song? Look at the composer, are you familiar with what type of music this person writes. Those two things can help you before you look at any notes on the page. Figuring out the style and genre can be a life saver if you have never heard of the song, but know the artist. They also help when interpreting the music (i.e. swung vs. straight notes). Next, look for the tempo, is it slow, fast? If one isn’t marked, I suggest taking it as slow as possible to have a greater chance at achieving more things correctly. Look at the key, this will help in recognizing any scales, arpeggios or melodic patterns. Look at the time signature, this will help when identifying the rhythms and our “beat checkpoints” we talked about earlier. Are there any repeats (this includes any D.S. or D.C. -Del Segno/Del Capo directions). Is there a coda? Also, be sure to look for anything out of the ordinary like complex rhythms or unusual accidentals (those tricky Cb, B# or E# accidentals could throw you off). See if you can notice any phrases or patterns in the music (slurs can help identify those). Also look to see if something shows up again later on (less for you to try to negotiate).
Once you start playing remember to keep breathing, take your time and most importantly, don’t stop. The point of sight-reading is to get from the beginning to the end with as few mistakes or other issues as possible. Your ability to recover if something should happen is also a skill you should possess. It is natural to want to go back and fix things, but you need to press on and get to the end. After you finish sight-reading the excerpt, you can always go back and rehearse or practice a section that may have caught you by surprise. While in the piece though, don’t stop. Keep going (and recover) to the end.
Lastly, being a good sight-reader isn’t a necessity. You don’t even need to know how to read music if you can play your instrument well. But, you can make a ton more money by being more versatile. Some of the opportunities I can think of where reading is a necessity are: the pit orchestra for musicals or TV award shows, recording sessions (like commercial jingles and more), soundtracks for films and movies, instrument competitions, auditions for school ensembles, and entrance auditions for colleges and universities. I’m sure there are many more, but if you can’t read, you are just saying NO to those performance opportunities, and more importantly the paychecks that may come with them. It’s ok though, that’s more for me!