Sight-reading - reading music "down" at first sight - typically invokes intense feelings in all musicians, no matter how many years they have or have not played their instrument (or been a singer). No matter where you may fall in the experience category, these intense feelings can be positive or negative, or even a combination of both. Like other things in life, we often strengthen our abilities by facing intense feelings, rather than attempting to disguise them as a big lump under the proverbial carpet. Since sight-reading can be a component at auditions, including all-state auditions, college auditions, orchestral and teaching auditions, and other performance exams, let's all face this together to discover a few ideas!
At the very thought of sight-reading, we may feel a host of emotions. The real litmus test is experiencing sight-reading "under pressure," in a circumstance in which we are evaluated. Typically we take a risk when we sight-read: we have less control in the outcome since we haven't been able to prepare the music we are about to play. Not in any particular order, here's a list of most common symptoms and complaints I hear from my students, colleagues, and my own personal inventory when sight-reading under pressure: over-excitement, fear of making mistakes, worrying about taking an inappropriate tempo (read: too slowly) and therefore playing too fast, excess tension in the body, shortness of breath, losing a sense of time/tempo relationship, and only able to focus on each note (one at a time, note-by-note). Sit down and make your own list right now so that you outline exactly how you feel when you are asked to sight-read for an evaluation, or in public. Articulating our greatest fears can take the power away from them, so be honest! Remember that lump under the carpet? Don't allow it to trip you up!
Ok - so we have our lists: my composite list from above, and your list you just compiled (you DID make a list and check it twice, right?!). Do you see any similarities? Any differences? Any response to anxiety may be present when we undertake this challenge, so be open to acknowledging that fight-or-flight desire to literally run far away from you sight-reading exploration! Now let's make another list right alongside each. This will be the "empowering list" of actions you can take to combat each symptom or complaint. Don't be surprised if you come up with a few of the same strategies for more than one challenge. Here's an example in my own words, using the list from above:
Symptoms/complaints.................................................................................................Strategies to try
1. over-excitement slow nose breathing, count backwards, audiate
2. fear of making mistakes practice improvising, audiate, focus forward
3. worrying about taking the right tempo so playing too fast audiate a slower tempo, feel it, play it
4. excess tension in the body image being submersed in warm water, loosen
5. shortness of breath nose breathing a few times before playing
6. losing a sense of time/tempo relationship feel a physical pulse in smaller beats
7. only able to focus on each note look at larger chunks
Further explanation of these strategies:
1. slow nose breathing: practice doing this so it becomes a conditioned response to stress. Take a few cleansing nose breaths before the sight-reading section, or as a cleanse in-between each section of any audition. We have more time than we think! (Not sure this is possible? Try recording yourself in a mock audition!)
Counting backwards: if nose breathing just isn't doing it for you, try counting backwards. Try this in any stressful situation to see if it helps your mind relax and your body release tension. Experiment with where to start, using your stress-level as a gage (more stress? Try 7 down to 1. Mild stress? How about 4 to 1, etc.). The more you practice this, the more you can turn to it so the "cue" for relaxation and calming.
Audiating is slightly more complicated and deserves a blog entry on its own (remind me of that!). In a nutshell, this is "hearing" what you'll be playing before you actually play it. This can develop from your lifetime of listening to music, languages, and sounds so you have a library of things to expect and almost predict using your mind's ear. Likewise, if you see a lot of accidentals - thank you, eyes! - you know this is NOT going to be in your key area and therefore trickier to not only hear (audiate) but also process visually by all the information on the page. Sometimes things are harder to play when they just don't sound like we expect!
2. Practice improvising. Speaking of blog topics, this is another one! By no means do I mean to diminish the incredible artistry required to really improvising beautifully, but I'm only going to refer to this as a strategy to become stronger. Back to our pressing need right now: most "straight" musicians are terrified of improvising. I am more of a "noodler" than a great improviser, but the key is to not be afraid of making mistakes. Try picking out a simple tune by ear, like "Happy Birthday." If this is super-hard for you, just "noodle around" until you can find some of tune at first, correcting errors (no big deal!) and reconnecting through any rough patches so that your ear and your fingers agree that you have that section, even if it's just "Happy Birthday to you" and nothing more. Now try to listen ahead (that's where audiating starts to really kick in!) so that you "hear where you're going" before you get there! Keep playing your tune, noticing the similarities and differences of sections ("Happy Birthday to you, 2nd time! Happy Birthday TO [higher!] you....3rd time a whole octave: Happy BIRTHday dear so-and-so....etc.!) to make even more connections. NOW try this in another key - or try adding fun things, decorations, fancy it up somehow. There are no mistakes, really - if you've ever played Balderdash (a game of bluffing), consider this the musical equivalent! Just put it out there and recover quickly - learn from where you get off, reconnect, and proceed ahead = important performing and learning strategies!
Focusing forward is really like putting blinders on that only allow us to look ahead, rather than at what we've already played (see the previous paragraph!). A relative of audiating, it stokes our energy source to plow onward rather than robbing energy by being tempted to fixate on what may have not worked a few beats ago. That doesn't mean we shouldn't learn from errors or look for patterns - use the information at present to apply to the future! But getting bummed about a small hiccup can totally snowball into a domino disaster if we aren't mentally tough.
3. Playing at a slower tempo AND 6. Losing a tempo relationship: try playing something you've actually prepared by 1. pressing record, 2. singing your first measure to establish your tempo, and 3. playing the first few measures. Listen back to your recording. Do you notice anything? Most musicians actually play their piece much slower than they "kick it off." How does this apply to sight-reading? For some mysterious reason, perhaps being all hyped up on adrenaline and anxious over being judged, we often tend to collapse our perception of time. Think about it - when you're nervous, do five seconds seem more like three seconds or three minutes? I typically fall into the three-minute category! I sometimes find it helpful to have some physical, non-observable response to a tempo like a subtle toe squeeze, perhaps even in smaller beats in the measure (subdividing). The other important strategy is to practice hearing as much of what you have to play - from the rhythms to the actual notes - before you play it. Yes, there's that audiating thing again! This is a hugely powerful tool, and the more we use it, the sharper a tool it becomes!
7. Larger chunks, or chunking: try reading some of the above paragraph by focusing on just one word at a time. Pretty awkward and frustrating, right? How do we NOT do that at this point in our lives? Do we have a broader view, relying on peripheral vision? Perhaps more to the right than the left (see "Focus forward," above!)? Chunking is basically the ability to use our short-term memory by grouping smaller bits of information (perhaps one to two measures, or even two to four beats depending on the meter you're playing in) into a manageable "chunk" rather than coping with the long string of information (complete phrase). Doing this successfully takes practice, especially when staring down new material, but it helps us feel less overwhelmed and more in charge as we organize the sight-reading material into manageable bits.
Although some of these ideas may help at this time, some may not. The key is to practice these concepts and apply them so they fit best to our needs. The best way to be an expert sight-reader is to practice sight-reading! Playing etudes, being comfortable in our scales and arpeggios, remaining curious and active listeners, and memorizing music all help us be more secure and confident as players and sight-readers.
...and for further reading:
See Noa Kageyama's great blog on sight-reading
NaFME's advice - just 15-minutes a day!
Strings Magazine: 3 Ways to Improve Your Sight-reading
Effortless Sight-reading from The Musicians Way
What are your favorite strategies to work on sight-reading? Are you excited at the thought of reading music for the first time (wow!) or terrified (gah!)? What advice would you like to share with others? Feel free to comment!