In our two previous posts, we discussed what to do before starting to sight-read a piece. Now we’re ready to talk about what happens while we sight-read. There are three things teachers commonly tell their students to do when they play a piece at sight: keep going without stopping, try not to look down at your hands, and try to read ahead. These are all correct and excellent, but often quite difficult to do. So in the next several posts, we will address each of these individually, starting with the exhortation to keep going and not stop.
The ability to keep going while sight-reading is dependent on three factors: a strong sense of pulse, an acceptance that wrong notes and other mistakes will occur, and a willingness to simplify when necessary. Difficulty with any one of these can hold us back; ease with all of them allows us to move forward.
Paradoxically, a rhythmic sense of pulse does not seem to be innate in everyone, even though we all carry a constant pulse within us. Like so many musical attributes (harmonic sensitivity, aural acuity, musicality in general), this is not an inborn talent, but a faculty that must be cultivated from the earliest lessons. We hear again and again that students should count out loud while sight-reading, but this is futile if they are in the habit of practicing out of time. We are the way we practice. I believe that many pianists have poor rhythm because they play alone most of the time, and study pieces that are too hard for them, forcing them to play out of time. Students who have grown up practicing their music in time, playing piano duets, and doing rhythmic work away from the piano, will not need to use a metronome or count out loud in order to maintain a constant pulse when sight-reading. The idea of a regular beat will already be an imperative in their musical consciousness.
In modern performance, note accuracy is highly prized. It’s an admirable ideal, even if it is fueled by a standard set by highly edited recordings. But it also creates a fear of wrong notes that can undermine confidence and inhibit spontaneity. It’s always rather heart breaking to me that so many students feel they must say “sorry” after playing a wrong note. This guilt feeling makes them want to go back and immediately correct the wrong note, but that of course breaks the rhythmic flow, a habit which, with repetition, destabilizes their sense of pulse and, in some cases, creates a stutter that can be extremely difficult to correct. In repertoire practice, we can help students to avoid this tendency by having them practice always to the end of the phrase, only going back to fix any mistakes afterwards.
Perhaps the best way to overcome the fear of wrong notes is with improvisation. Good jazz musicians, piano bar players, harpsichord continuo players, and improvising church organists rarely seem to play wrong notes. No doubt this is mainly because they know their craft, but it must also come from the freedom of not being bound to a score for every note they play. Below are two improvisation activities you can use with your students. Many more can be found in books and online.
In sight-reading, we can minimize the temptation to go back and correct wrong notes by making sure that students play frequently in ensembles, and by giving them music to read that is within their means (the goal is 80% accuracy within 80% of full tempo, as I mentioned in a previous post). Most importantly, we must teach them methods for simplifying the music so that they can keep going even when they are not able to negotiate all the notes. This ability to simplify, reduce, or outline music is not only essential in sight-reading, but vitally important in learning repertoire. We will therefore devote a separate post to this issue.
Link to PDF: improvisation-exercises
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