In most sight-reading exams, students are given a few moments (from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes) to look over a piece before playing it. How they prepare themselves in that short time can determine whether their subsequent reading is successful or not. But it is how we, their teachers, prepare them for this moment that ultimately determines their success in this task.
At the beginning of the school year, when I ask students in my sight-reading class at Peabody to look over a piece they are about to sight-read, their hands usually fly to the keyboard, where they start to fidget in a rapid, chaotic manner. We then talk about how the fingers are just the servants of the mind, and can only transmit what the eyes have first seized, and the inner ear heard. But asked to simply sit and look at the music, they seem not to know what to look for. Their eyes glaze over and stare at the opening measures, not looking ahead to see what is coming; their bodies remain inert, not moving or swaying to an imagined beat. When asked what they are thinking, they are often unable to say.
So in the first weeks of my class, I spend a lot of time trying to draw my students out about what they see in the score, prodding them to see more, and prodding even harder to get them to exteriorize the music in some way other than playing (singing, conducting, counting). One can never take for granted that the clefs, key, and meter have been observed, but even before that, the title and composer of the piece yield important information about style and interpretation. After that, a fairly rapid scan through the score will quickly uncover dangers of different kinds: changes of key, meter, or tempo, unfamiliar chords, clusters of accidentals, tricky rhythms, technical obstacles, repeat signs, etc. Most of these are easily visible to the eye, but it is not enough for students to see these difficulties, they must resolve them before playing. Rhythm and tempo must be felt and expressed with singing and conducting before they can be played accurately. Chords are easier to play if they have been identified (root and quality are sufficient). Technical issues can be fingered silently on the keyboard or tapped on the closed lid of the piano beforehand. Repeats (including first and second endings, da capos, etc.) should be practiced with the eyes. As the students’ knowledge of the musical language grows, they begin also to see phrase divisions, formal sections, modulations, sequences and other patterns.
A quick scan of an innocent-looking Andante by Diabelli (see below) reveals an unexpected challenge in measure 8. This leap needs to be not only spotted, but also touched on the keyboard before starting. A more in-depth look at this score would take in the 4-bar phrase structure, cadences, and modulations, all of which help the student to give a more musical first reading.
A preliminary preview of Beyer’s Allegretto (also below) would show that the left hand has only three different chords. A closer look would reveal that whenever the right hand has a G on the downbeat, the left hand has an E, and vice versa, making it almost unnecessary to look at the lower staff while playing, particularly for a student who has some experience with melody harmonization.
Clearly, it is time-consuming to find all of these difficulties and resolve them before playing, and teachers are understandably reluctant to spend precious lesson time talking rather than playing. On the other hand, it is a valuable opportunity to find out what our students see and hear in a score, and what they still need help with. Sight-reading is a multi-faceted activity, and we teach it not only by making sure our students practice it, but by working on all the skills that feed into it: ear-training, keyboard harmony, analysis, style, and technique. These skills are of course also an integral part of repertoire study, and students who learn to practice their music mentally, to analyze it, sing and conduct it, are practicing skills that will also serve them well when they sight-read.
As our attentive readers will have noticed, I have not mentioned the most important thing to be determined before starting to sight-read a piece – choosing a good tempo. That will be the subject of our next post.
— Ken Johansen
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