The Joy of Practice : Part 7 - At First Sight

Sight reading is a specific skill which can be developed by anyone who has an interest. It enhances your adaptability, reflexes and preparedness. It gets better with daily, incremental and focused effort. Reading every day will improve your reading! So, what are some of the essentials ingredients for developing your sight reading?


Ease into your sight reading practice by starting with music that you have a good chance of reading well and start slow. Then, gradually increase the speed and difficulty of your reading material. The idea is to acclimate your eyes to seeing all of the notes, dynamics, road maps and articulation markings with increasing clarity and speed. As you get started, choose a book and just read through as much as possible, page after page. You will see improvement as you go forward.


Whenever possible, practice sight reading with someone else, who is a superior sight reader. You can read duets or the same part. This will super-charge your concentration and help you to see things faster and faster. This also makes it fun, a bit of a game and maybe a little competitive. Friendly competition breeds excellence.


Music written for all instruments from particular periods can be devoid of rhythmic variety and challenge. For this reason, it is important to mix into your reading materials, music that has more rhythmic difficulty and complexity. 20th (and 21st) century music, Jazz and music from Brazil, Cuba and other traditions will usually fulfill this need.


When you practice sight reading, don’t stop to fix mistakes. keep going and stay in tempo and keep your place. You can always go back and take a closer look at what you may have missed or were unable to execute accurately. In a “real life” playing or recording situation, you will not have an opportunity to stop. The idea is to get as much as possible the first time. As you improve, you’ll get more and more.


Reading music written for other instruments is a great way to develop non-idiomatic technical and reading skills. For example: As a percussionist playing Marimba, Vibraphone and Xylophone, it is customary for me to play and read music for Violin, Flute, Piano, Organ and Guitar. The Organ and Piano share the same layout of notes, but the Marimba has much larger notes, set further apart and is played with 2 or 4 mallets as opposed to being played with 10 fingers. The logistical challenges are significant and give the Marimbist a unique opportunity to develop their skills in different ways than most pieces written for Marimba. Playing disjunct music with octave (and larger) leaps creates fun sticking challenges. It is very much the same for any other instrument reading non-idiomatic music.


Seek out music in less common key signatures, with unusual meters and meter changes, metric modulations, odd groupings of notes, challenging road maps and other variables that could pose a problem in a real-life playing or recording scenario. Work on transposition at sight. Saxophonists are often quite adept at this as they are often reading music in “C” while playing their “Bb” or “Eb” instruments. Piano accompanists can also be among the very best readers, even as they are accommodating the range of singers who require multiple transpositions. Other fun ways to challenge yourself: Sight read material in octaves (if it is possible on your instrument), use pizzicato and arco (again, if appropriate) and use a variety of articulations.


Although we are discussing sight reading and ways in which to improve, you should know that all manner of fundamental technical practice will advance your sight reading by preparing you to execute swiftly and effortlessly many of the kinds of passages that you will encounter. For pitched instruments these come in the form of major, natural, melodic and harmonic minor scales, pentatonic and chromatic scales, modes, scale forms, arpeggios, arpeggio forms, diatonic and chromatic interval forms, etc. For non-pitched percussion instruments, practice with rudiments, coordination/independence exercises, polyrhythms, etc. are useful.


Sight reading, like other aspects of your practice should provide you with an opportunity to prepare for as many musical challenges as possible. The constant pursuit of new sight reading material will undoubtably prepare you for anything!

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