A Different Approach to Sight-reading

Skill at sight-reading is traditionally considered a trait of an accomplished musician. From All-State auditions to Hollywood recording studios, excellent sight-readers are revered for their skill.  However, I’ve found sight-reading quite difficult to teach from the standpoint of methodology.  I suppose the classic approach to improve sight-reading is to simply do more of it, and I do encourage my students to practice sight-reading.  Although this method seems to work in some cases, I am not entirely sure how effective it is across a diverse range of students with varying ability levels.  Of course, a solid grounding in ear training and music theory is crucial, but I wonder if it would be possible to create an actual method for improving this ability.  I often hear students claim “I’m a terrible sight-reader – I just need to hear how it’s supposed to go before I can play it.” I plan to post more about this in the future, but in short, there are a number of ways to practice sight-reading, although no one method is necessarily a guarantee for improvement. In The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney presents a fresh view of sight-reading, along with a few precautions about its “dangers.”

He notes that “Not only can good sight-reading be a useful, marketable skill, it is further glorified by the chorus of praise (and envy) from those who find sight-reading a struggle.” (p. 133) However, he goes on to say that too much sight-reading can create tension and a lack of physical awareness in some performers.  Here is his explanation.

Why are they at risk? Because everything about sight-reading is technically unwholesome, according to the principles outlined in this book [whole-body learning, mind/body awareness, etc.].  If healthy playing is characterized by full awareness, relinquishing of control, and thorough physical commitment, sight-reading encourages the exact opposite…Skillful sight-reading depends on more self-supervising, more self-consciousness, not less. And one can never play with physical thoroughness while sight-reading, because it is based on shrewd approximating–or, to put it more bluntly, faking. This is why, if you’re planning to learn a particular piece of music, you shouldn’t sight-read it very much or introduce sight-reading into your practicing.  It simply confuses the body.[emphasis added] (p. 133)

In a later passage, he provides more information on the potential negative effects of too much sight-reading.

Sight-readers pretend to know, by playing in a pseudo-polished way, notes which their muscles don’t in fact know at all, since there has been no chance to program the requisite motions with the patience that is so essential. In this respect, sight-reading is a lie. Physically, it is terribly inefficient as well; the same muscles which should be used for well-integrated actions are now used instead for reactions–hunting quickly and shallowly for the notes as quickly as the eye spots them, and playing tentatively just in case the eye happened to be mistaken. As a result, energy that should flow from the body-center out through the extremities now backs up, from clever fingers inward. This lack of good energy flow leads to muscle tension, incomplete playing, and a colorless tone quality. (p. 134)

And he closes the chapter with this advice for the student.

The ability to sight-read well can be enjoyable, and a major musical asset, and it makes sense to develop this skill. But to safe-guard our health, we must do it for only brief periods of time and–most important–treat it as a separate musical activity entirely, not to be mingled with the technical learning of a piece. (p. 135)

In general I agree with Westney’s comments, although I think he has a particular kind of “sight-reading” in mind, that which attempts to render the never-before-seen work as close to the notated music as possible, with full dynamics, tempo, etc., without stopping.  However, I think sight-reading can also refer simply to the first time one plays through a piece, or its sections,  which we all must do at some point.  When faced with a brand new piece to learn, I tend to sight-read each section extremely slowly, sometimes at half the marked tempo, stopping often to mark important places to practice later. I often don’t make it through the entire piece within a given practice session.  I agree with Westney that plowing through a piece full-tilt the very first time doesn’t really do much to help us learn the piece on a deep level, and can in fact create hangups which hinder our future progress. Yet, this kind of sight-reading is a reality of music making, and one which we have to learn to handle in a healthy way.

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Terrific post, and it makes me want to read that book. Sounds like there could be some overlap with embodied cognition, which seems increasingly “in the air” these days. I’ve posted some on sight reading, suggesting that it’s a wonderful skill, but spending some time on improvisation, no matter how simple, can balance out some of what I think Westney might be getting at (improvised music being more over on the action side of things, compared to the reactions of sight reading). Look forward to your continuing this series. Really impressed by all the non-mainstream approaches to music making you’ve sought out and posted on since you started up. Much appreciated.

I’ve frequently found that young and amateur musicians regard sight-reading as some black art given only to professionals to master, and beyond the ken of mere mortals.

I regard sight-reading as an eminently learnable and useful skill. it is useful in that it helps you survive the first rehearsal of a new piece. But more important, it means that you start “further on” when you learn a new piece or etude in private study. Knowing how not to panic in sight-reading is essentially the same trick as learning how to practice playing something right.

I’ve written on the art of sight reading and on effective practice of a difficult passage and looking back on those two articles, I can see that many of the same habits of thought are involved.

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