Many of my students often express interest in becoming better at sight-reading. Though this may to some feel like an impossible task, there are certain tips and techniques that can facilitate you in learning to become a better reader.
** I am going to offer a bit of a disclaimer before I begin. Being classified as “legally” blind is an obvious hindrance to my being not much of sight-reader myself. However, through other teachers and my own limited experiences, I believe I can offer some suggestions that will greatly improve your ability to eventually pick up a sheet of music and read and interpret each and every note with accuracy and confidence.
Look the music over…
This may seem pretty obvious but I have seen many individuals just pop a sheet in front of them and dive right in only to come to a grinding halt midway through the second measure. Someone skilled in reading seemingly may look like they set the music on the stand and magically reproduce it but there are considerations about the music they are taking in. When a sheet of music is placed in front of you there are a few simple preparatory actions that should occur:
- Key Signature: Knowing the key from the outset will greatly enhance your chances of a better read. Look at the 1st and last chords of the song as well. You may see 3 sharps and think A major, but upon closer inspection of beginning and end, you may see the piece is actually in it’s relative minor of F#.
- Time Signature: Although this may seem like a “duh” moment, remember, to the novice reader this is easily overlooked. Not everything is in 4/4 or 3/4 time.
- Tempo Marking: Now obviously your are not going to sit down and play a piece marked Allegro, at tempo on a first pass. Knowing your tempo marking though will give you some insights as to approach in handling phrases however.
Making sense of it all...
Ok, you have done the above, now what? What are these big dots all over the page?
1) Notes: As you look the music over, see if you notice any notes that may fall above or below the range you are comfortable with. Some notes may be written well above or below the staff and can prove a little difficult to a novice reader. Take a moment to make sure you are able to read each note and know it's location on your instrument. Look for the high and lowest notes in he piece.
2) Rhythm: Also, be sure to look for rhythm patterns you may not be familiar with. Even the best of us have to sometimes tap or clap out a phrase that uses a rhythm pattern we may not have seen or not used to seeing.
3) Intervals: Learn to distinguish the intervals. (The distance between 2 notes) The ability to recognize a major 3rd or an octave, etc will help you by not reading every single note per se, but being able to identify the movement of a phrase simply by being aware of the relationships of intervals. This also pertains to chords and how they are built as well. With a degree of diligence, you will see music almost like a graph and find yourself reading “musically” and more correctly while doing both at a faster pace.
To an experienced reader, each of these steps are processed in just a matter of a few seconds. With time and repetition, you too will be reading better and better.
Some ideas to facilitate this task
Start the process by reading the melody line to a favourite song. Even if you aren’t able to “read” it fully, the fact you know the melody will help you in putting the notes and rhythms into familiar territory. Remember, there are a set amount of notes and certain rhythm patterns come up time and time again. Eventually you will just “know” what needs to be done the moment you see a particular pattern.
Play slowly! Try and play from beginning to end of a piece at a tempo you can manage. It may seem painfully slow (and probably will be) but being able to get through a reading is a great confidence builder. You will notice a steady increase of how you move through new material.
Another good sight reading tool is a church hymnal. The melodies and rhythms are usually pretty straightforward and the simple 4-part writing will acquaint you with reading multiple staves.
Obviously I am just scratching the surface on ways to improve your reading, but with just a few minutes a day, over time, you CAN turn into a better reader. The key is to stay with it and try to keep from being discouraged. For a time it will seem like you are making zero progress and then all of a sudden you will wonder what the big deal was. I have watched several students go from not knowing a bass clef from middle C to go on to being able to read with confidence and accuracy!
Good luck and feel free to share YOUR tips in the comment section below!