I Don’t Read All the Notes!

As an accompanist, I put my sight-reading skills to the test. I am constantly given new music that I must learn in a short amount of time. So, what exactly is sight-reading? In musical terms, it means being able to comprehend and play (or sing, if a vocalist) the music the first time ever seeing it. The more skilled one is at sight-reading, the more accurate the first time through the music will be.

Sight-reading takes a lot of practice. When I was about six years old, my piano teacher started making me sight-read. She would put music up in front of me, often four-part hymns, and tell me to start playing the music without looking where I was placing my hands on the keyboard. The first few times were very scary! I eventually recognized that I had a knack for sight-reading and put it to use. For a time when I was thirteen I didn’t practice my classical piano pieces at home and only sight-read them during my lessons. (I was playing plenty of piano then, just not what I was assigned!) After several weeks of this, when I wasn’t progressing at my usual rate, my teacher caught on… I call sight-reading my super-power, but it is really just a skill that I have honed. In this post, I will share three strategies I believe will help improve one’s sight-reading skills.

The big takeaway is that I don’t read all the notes. It is impossible, especially when playing complicated pieces! Piano music has a lot of notes. A LOT. One piece I played averaged about forty notes per measure! There’s no way I could quickly learn a piece of music like that if I had to determine the name and location of every single note! In this way, sight-reading is a little bit like reading words. Fluent readers do not phonetically spell out every sound. The sounds are ingrained and most words are memorized. Likewise, I primarily read music using shapes, lines, and memorized rhythmic patterns.

The first step to learning to sight-read is learning the instrument. That may sound obvious, but I am not talking about just learning some technique or fingering. It is important to become intimately acquainted with the instrument. The location of every single note needs to be something we feel automatically in our body, using proprioception. When I sit down at the piano, I can find a note with my eyes shut because I know where my hands and arms are located in relation to my body. I can feel the distance between notes even without the piano present and have sometimes annoyed people by practicing on a table. It needs to become as automatic as being able to touch the tip of one’s nose without using a mirror.

This takes a lot of time. Just like we can’t get to know other people without conversation and time together, we can’t know our instruments without it. We need to put in the practice time, and we need to have the right conversation: scales and chords. I can hear the groans. I know my students don’t like having to constantly practice scales and arpeggios over and over, even if they have known them for years.  Learning only individual pieces will not be sufficient. One will only memorize the physical locations of the patterns of that piece. Scales and chords, however, help one memorize *the instrument”: the physical size of intervals, the distance between octaves, and what it feels like to move in whole steps and half-steps from various starting points and using various fingerings. There is no short cut. It takes a bit of faith, really. Faith that all these scales and chords really do make a difference. They do. But it takes time. This is the musical version of “wax on, wax off.”

The second step to improving sight-reading skills is memorizing rhythmic patterns.   Rhythms in classical music tend to be quite different from Latin styles like samba or bossa nova; however, the lines are increasingly blurring in newer music. The more rhythmic patterns one becomes familiar with, the greater one’s ability to sight-read music in a variety of genres will be. This is probably the easiest step, since there are only so many ways a beat or a measure can be divided, unless we’re talking about avant-garde music, which isn’t really meant to be sight-readable anyway.

The third step is to learn music theory. The more theory one knows, the more one’s sight-reading improves. This is due to several factors. Understanding the building blocks of music helps one to recognize the shapes and patterns of intervals and chords, including triads and seventh chords in all inversions, as they are seen in the notation, both stacked and separated. Again I do not read the individual notes. I use certain notes as “anchors”, but then use my knowledge of intervals, scales, and chords to find my way from there. I have memorized combinations of notes I learned through studying theory. Understanding keys allows a musician to identify the most-used notes in a piece and quickly recognize notes that are unusual. In my own experience, an understanding of harmonic structure helps me to aurally predict what is coming next, which helps guide my fingers to the right notes. Even though this is not necessary for sight-reading, it helps a lot! This is similar to the way understanding the grammatical structure of a language helps one to anticipate words and ready smoothly.

These steps all take time, but working on any one of them will bring about improvement in sight-reading. Of course, more is better! These approaches have been the foundation to my own sight-reading development, and I believe they will work for anyone who wants to become a better sight-reader.


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