Sight-reading is often one of the most worrying parts of an exam or performance; this fear of the unknown is hard to surpass even for the most experienced musicians. Luckily, there are a few things that we can do to prepare ourselves and use the adrenaline rush in a more positive sense.
When boiled down, sight-reading is essentially recognition of patterns on the page. The more complex these patterns are, the more difficult it is for our brain to recognise them. Some patterns are more recognisable than others and their priority (notes, rhythms, dynamics etc) changes depending on the type of the piece.
Start off by scanning the complete piece of music in front of you, recognising as many individual elements, or “ingredients,” from it as possible. Here is our first example:
To do this, use a template such as this series of questions.
1. Key and clef – What tonality is this piece in? What are the most common accidentals of this tonality and are they present? What clef is defining the notes we are reading?
2. Metre and rhythm – What is the metre of the piece? How many beats are there in one bar? What rhythmical values are the notes, and do patterns exist?
3. Character – What is the title of the piece and how does it affect the character and the speed of the performance? What are the dynamics and how do they contribute to the overall character? Who is the composer and do we know anything about their style?
We already have lots of information before even playing a note of the piece. Identifying consistencies can also help us summarize and stay grounded as we play. Here, the consistencies are the tempo indication moderato, time signature 4/4, treble clef, and key of G major. The dynamic forte is also consistent for the duration.
When observing the note values, we notice our first anomaly. The first three bars have the same rhythmical pattern of one minim and two crotchets whereas the last bar has a different rhythm of two quavers, one crotchet and one minim.
Having identified several patterns and thoroughly prepared, one should stay calm while choosing their speed of performance. Regardless of the tempo marked, it is important to balance the to the character of the piece with the confidence to perform the whole piece without stopping. For example, if the marked tempo is too fast for you to play well, don’t be afraid to scale back slightly for the sake of accuracy, but not so much that the piece no longer sounds “fast”. This delicate balance can take some experience to find!
At this point we have done everything we could in our preparation and have understood all the material that the piece consists of. This gives us confidence, which is (more than) half the battle of sight reading. Again, the top priority is not to stop, even while missing some details along the way, and not to react to errors as they happen. A convincingly sightread performance is not necessarily 100% precise, but it is in the character of the piece, generally accurate to the notation on the page, and is done with confidence.