Written by & under performance.

by Robert Fisher: The Catoctin School of Music

I will never forget one terrifying Sunday morning as I began accompanying the church choir in a hymn on the piano. I was in high school at the time and through some fortunate circumstances was given the opportunity to serve as a part-time pianist and musician at my local church. Though I had taken private piano lessons for 10 years by this point, I was certainly still a young musician and green performer. Right before the start of service this one Sunday, the preacher asked the choir director to swap out a song for a hymn with lyrics that better matched the message he planned on sharing that morning. The choir director then proceeded to hurriedly inform me and all our singers about the last-minute change as congregants began filing in for the service. The service began with the choir standing and the director cuing me to begin playing this new introductory hymn. By the time I reached the end of the piano interlude, I vividly recall shear panic overtake me as I realized I was playing this hymn in the key of the original song it had replaced, which was 3 semitones lower! Unfortunately, there was no turning back. I knew the choir would need me to stay in the key I introduced if we had any hope of maintaining any semblance of harmony. With much fear and trembling, we launched into the first verse in a new, transposed key, and I somehow managed to stumble my way through accompanying four painfully long stanzas. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most moving or harmonic performances and I may have thrown in some “creative” chords throughout the hymn as I navigated transposing and playing harmonies on the fly. To this day, I still remember a valuable lesson from my sight-reading moment of terror: never start playing a piece before you’ve fully scanned it! What a difference it could have made had I taken just a moment longer to double-check the key signature!

Sight-reading is a necessary and essential skill for any aspiring musician. Even though consistent and quality practice are fundamental in the growth and preparation of all musicians, the reality is that not all situations or performance opportunities afford much time, if any, to prepare. This is where a musician’s ability to play accurately and effectively at a moment’s notice becomes vital.

So, where do you start?

1) Start at the beginning: Title, Composer, Genres! Most written music has valuable information at the of a piece that can inform the musician on how to interpret a piece. Pay attention to the title, composer, arranger, or lyricist. Knowing who wrote the piece or what type/style the piece is in can determine what you may need to “look out” for in the piece when playing it for the first time. For example, a traditional hymn or chorale may be more chorded or contain multiple polyphonic lines that weave around a melody. A modern pop or rock tune may follow a more predictable song structure (Introduction, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, etc.) or use repetitive chord patterns (I-IV-V-I) that can help you anticipate the direction of the bass and melody. You can expect swing and syncopated rhythms in Jazz pieces, so focusing subdividing beats and rhythms can lead to a more successful read through. Every musical period, style and genre has unique characteristics that distinguish how to approach playing a piece and you can prepare yourself mentally to sight-read a piece for the first time more successfully by figuring out what kind of piece you are playing.

2) Don’t Start Until You’re Ready: Slow It Down – Sight-reading is the ability to play a passage or piece accurately and expressively, as written, within your first reading of a new piece. You control the speed and gas pedal. Don’t start driving until you know where you’re going! If you have to stop and “redo” a piece because you didn’t see where you were going or don’t know how to interpret a passage that was glanced, you shouldn’t have started playing yet! Take advantage of the time you do have when given a new piece to play, whether it is hours, minutes or seconds leading up to your sight-reading session. You have time, however much or little, to scan your piece before you commit to sounding notes and starting the song. Start your song, within reason, only when you can commit to playing through to the end of the passage! It is better to pause a few moments longer to scan a piece so you can play in the correct key and tempo rather than abandon ship halfway through when you hit a section you glanced over! In most instances requiring sight-reading, you will have some time before you must begin playing. Don’t waste it – use it! When you finally commit to beginning your run through, take it slower. Unless the passage demands absolute obedience to a presto tempo, take the liberty to slow things down a bit. You will enjoy the sight-reading process more and increase your odds of playing the passage as written. The listener will be rewarded with a more pleasing and accurate performance.

3) Signatures, Signatures, Signatures! Key and Time Signatures – New sight-readers may skip over the beginning of a piece (key signatures and time signatures) and jump right into looking at the melody and notes. Do so only at your own peril! Both key and time are crucial in determining what and how you will play. Playing a song without knowing the key is like driving blind: you will crash and it won’t be pretty! Check (and double-check) your key signature to ensure hand/finger placement is accurate. Don’t start a piece without knowing what key you’re in! Not sure how to determine the key? This is where knowing your scale patterns and Circle of Fifths is vital! Key Signatures lay out your playing field and what scale of notes you will use in the piece. Know your key signatures in order to know your piece!

In addition, looking at the Time Signature will help you gauge where to emphasize the down beat and what you will count to in each measure. Many times, knowing where the downbeat lies makes the difference in how you interpret a melodic phrase for the first time. Don’t neglect your time signatures – you don’t want to waltz a polka!

4) Speed Limits: Tempo Markings! Largo, Andante, Moderato, Presto? Know your tempi! Memorize the definition and relative speed of common tempo markings. It never ends up well for the performer who decides to start a slow introductory section with quarter notes at a brisk tempo only to find the composer transitions the passage into a series of technical 16th note arpeggio runs on the next page! Avoid a crash and err on the side of playing on the slower side as you sight-read*. The tempo marking is your speed limit!

* If you notice an extremely quick run of notes or technically challenging passage on your first scan, take note: your most difficult section in the excerpt should determine your speed as well! If you can only take a technical or challenging section at 70 bpm, then the rest of the passage should match tempo at 70 bpm as you sight-read for the first time. You can always play through a piece at a faster tempo later once you’ve learned the more challenging sections. Sight-reading, however, is your attempt to play as accurately and expressively as possible on your first attempt. Slow and steady or a fast train wreck – you choose!

5) Quick Scan: Figure Out the Roadmap for Your Piece – Just like mapping out a road trip using a GPS service, musicians should map out their piece by quickly scanning every measure, beginning to end, for any musical landmarks. When sight-reading, know where your note placement and hand shape should be at the beginning, middle and end of phrases and sections. Look out “road hazards”, including accidentals, uncommon rhythms, meter/key changes. Be wary of large leaps in the melody or bass and pay attention to large chords where every pitch is essential in creating a specific tone. The goal is to be mentally prepared to tackle any challenges ahead while also keeping track of where you are in a passage by paying attention to musical landmarks.

6) Find Your “Rest Areas” and Look Ahead! Scan for sections in your passage that may allow you to regroup and take a short “rest” per se in having to read note-to-note. Ideally, you should be reading ahead of where you are as you play, however, passages with short musical rests, fermatas or even long tones can buy you a second or two to get “caught up” in looking ahead. Take advantage of these sight-reading gifts! No need to stare at a whole note or fermata – they aren’t going anywhere! Play the note or hold the pause and look on to anticipate what is coming next. Not every passage has musical “breaks” or slower sections, but look ahead when scanning your piece before playing and take advantage of these “pitstops” as you journey through your passage.

7) “Miskates” Happen! Mistakes will happen. No one sets out to make mistakes but inevitably, we are all humanly imperfect. Yes, our goal is to practice and improve so we make less mistakes, however, it is critical for musicians to not let the fear of making mistakes paralyze them from performing! Sometimes the very thought of playing wrong notes when sight-reading increases the number of wrong notes played due to frayed nerves! Take a deep breath before you begin any passage. Take an extra second or two to calm nerves and focus on playing your passage. If mistakes are made as you sight-read, allow those mistakes to simply roll off your shoulders and double-down on focusing towards playing the rest of the piece well. Mistakes are only as powerful as you allow them to be in a performance. Make an extra effort scan and note the beginning and ending measures (the “bookends”) of your piece so you can play these especially accurately. It has been said that a listener best remembers how a piece begins and ends, along with how it made them feel. If mistakes happen in performance, don’t overthink them and respond by finishing the remaining of the piece well. Analyze your mistakes later, after the run-through, and use them as a launching pad for direction in future practice. Mistakes can be turned into opportunities to grow later or they can quickly dissolve confidence as you play if allowed to fester. Do your best to avoid mistakes, shrug them off when they happen as you play and when in doubt, finish well!

8) The Fastest Way to Improve Your Sight-reading: Do It Often and Fear Less! Sight-reading testsyour musical reading, technical playing and ability to handle pressure under performance. A big part of sight-reading is battling fear and mental pressure. I’ve heard students say “I can play this song better when I do it at home on my instrument by myself!” Usually, sight-reading in front of a teacher or audience elevates the nerves and pumps the adrenaline which can derail even the best performer if left unchecked. The best remedy is to keep practicing sight-reading! Don’t save it only for “special” moments or only for “testing” – this only serves to make future sight-reading events more high-stakes! Daily practice and exposure to small, short, new passages offers the musician regular opportunities learn how to cope, survive, and thrive with performing under pressure. Sight-reading skills become more ingrained and natural through daily practice. Faster scanning skills and accurate playing will increase with habitual consistent practice and exposure. Through regular exposure to sight-reading reading, familiarity and focus should increase as the fear of failure lessens.

What’s stopping you from finishing your sight-reading goals? Go for it! Sight-read often and fear less!