Sight Reading

John Robert Brown

Genuine sight-reading - the playing of music at first sight - is rare. There is nearly always an opportunity to view the music for a few moments before a performance. In most jazz, popular music and theatre music, that should be enough. But how important is sight-reading? How can you improve your reading? Is an inability to read an admission of laziness?

Some of today's famous jazz players claim that they cannot read, though here I'm not going to name names. Obviously, for the talented improviser, being able to read well is not essential, though the idea that it can hinder one's playing is nonsense. Think of Paquito D'Rivera or Phil Woods, for whom being able to read well is no hindrance to their wonderful jazz playing.

I cannot understand why some players boast of being unable to read. One or two 'household name' pop musicians and pop composers confess proudly to musical illiteracy, as though they expect to impress others because they can assemble their simple songs without notation. Surely a more likely reaction is that other musicians will think 'How lazy'? Being musically illiterate is a handicap.

The importance of reading depends on what you want to achieve with your reed playing. Maybe the specialist jazz player - like some pop musicians - can get along without reading. The rest of us, whether we are session players, function band musicians, ships' musicians, orchestral or theatre musicians, need to read. Reading is a joy. A good reader can explore new music, play with strangers without a rehearsal, and is far more employable than someone who cannot read.

Of course, if you read, you must read well. As with any other musical skill, practice can improve your reading. Back in 1944 Percy Buck put it neatly. He said: 'Anyone can read a piece at a bar a minute, and there is no other excuse than laziness for not acquiring speed.' Unfortunately it is not quite that simple. Otherwise, being good at music would only be a matter of how much time you spent practising. That is not so. How you practise is also important.

Writers frequently state that there is no correlation between musical ability and sightreading skill. Such a statement requires some qualification. Obviously one cannot sightread a passage beyond one's technical skill. We sometimes overlook this fact when discussing the correlation between sightreading and general musical ability.

Research into sight-reading tells us that there can be as much as two seconds between reading the music and playing it. This depends on the nature of the music, and the skill of the performer. It shows that we are really doing two things at once. That is, we are reading one thing and playing something else. Research has also shown that good readers have a pattern of eye movement that scans well ahead. In contrast, poor readers have an eye movement that has a 'searching' characteristic.

Psychology experiments have shown that good readers do not fix on every note. Good readers sweep the music, recognise patterns, assess chunks of the music, and make sense of what they are seeing to the extent that they correct small errors as they go. A good reader is certain to be aware of what key he is in, for example. Even when researchers give instrumentalists music to preview for a few moments before asking them to sight-read, there is a difference between the preparatory behaviour of the good reader and the poor one. Weak readers concentrate on details rather than observing larger patterns and general characteristics. There is an analogy with reading words here, though of course musicians do not read music as often as they do words, and never have to read words in time!

When we read words, we read most effectively when we recognise the shape of a word, the outline or silhouette it makes. As the outline of any word printed in capitals is a rectangle, with no unique contour, it is easier to read words printed in lowercase, like the words you are reading now. Each of these words has its own shape. We can see proof of this on the motorway road signs, which are printed in lowercase. As you drive along, observe how you can recognise the words 'Glasgow' or 'Milton Keynes' by their own unique silhouette, long before you can pick out the individual letters.

This applies with music. An experienced player will recognise the 'contour' (the unique silhouette) of, say, a diminshed seventh and play it without picking out the separate notes. There is no doubt that pianists recognise multi-note chords by their silhouette, by the contour of the chord. Just try copying some piano music with the notes placed on the 'wrong' side of the stem if you don't believe me! These observations will come as no great surprise to musicians who have spent their lives in the company of first-rate music readers.

Combining some of these findings with experience and common sense we can list suggestions for improving sight-reading:
• Regard sight-reading as a skill that you can improve. Include sight-reading in your practice routine;
• Collect musical material for sight-reading practice-nothing too difficult, music that you can manage technically, music that you can keep flowing. Read it once, then put it away for a month;
• When practising sight-reading, keep going at all costs. Do not stop. Do not go back. Count the shorter rests strictly. Don't skip them. Use a metronome;
• Organise reading sessions with friends. Duets are good. Collect suitable duets to start a sight-reading portfolio. The great advantage of using duets is that a get-together is easy to arrange. Organise a saxophone quartet or clarinet quartet, or any other chamber music, or play in a 'blow' band. Don't be picky about the musical style. If you are aiming to polish your reading, a military band or amateur orchestra can be helpful - though of course no use for your jazz phrasing!
• Remember the value of previewing the music before you play. Spot the key changes, time changes, page turns, (and what is just over the page) coda signs, repeat signs and the black bits. The first place to look for these various changes is along the ends of staves;
• Try to keep calm. You cannot do your best work if you are feeling panicky, competitive or uncomfortable. If you know you are going to have to sight-read something in public, in circumstances that will pressurise you, do all you can to help yourself. Arrive early, establish calm for yourself by sitting comfortably, with good light to read by. Ask friendly colleagues (preferably the conductor or bandleader, who is the one person whom you can rely upon to have no interest in you making a mess of things) to point out exposed passages or solos.
• Read ahead. Practise controlling your field of vision. You can do this by asking a friend, or your teacher, to hold a piece of card over the part of the music you are reading. Then get them to move the card along as you play;
• Cultivate the feeling of confidence. You CAN do it;
• Develop an analytical approach. For example, if you recognise the silhouette of diminished arpeggios, or whole-tone runs, at a glance, then the chances are that you will sight-read them correctly;
• Sight-reading is not an exercise. It is the playing of music.

This article first appeared in Crescendo magazine, February 1999.

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