Jun. 15, 2016

Sight Reading, Part II

(con't from Part I)
Fear can be tremendously distracting when we're contemplating taking on a task that makes us vulnerable, like trying to sight read a piece of music.
One of the greatest things we'll ever read in Steven Pressfield's book "The War Of Art" [See blog, The Book] is that the amateur believes they must first overcome their fear in order to take on a task outside their comfort zone, such as sight reading, transposing, or improvising.
Nursing this belief is one of the things that keeps an amateur from becoming a pro.
A pro knows that fear associated with a new task can never be overcome, that there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist; a pro forces themselves forward in spite of their terror, knowing that once they get out into the action, their fear will recede.
There are certain components that will greatly improve our ability to sight read music; each skill is dependent on the next, so it's important not to skip over any of them:
The first one, is concentration; our mindset and focus as we look at a page of music is the single most important factor to our success in reading that music.
Without it, we miss notes and accidentals, we screw up rhythms, we find ourselves disconnected from the time, and we lose our place in the music; most mistakes we make in performing music can be attributed in fact to a lack of concentration.
So often we read the page in performances with only half our concentration and, what's worse, we don't even realize it; random thoughts pop into our head, we review the day, sometimes we just zone out altogether; we're looking at the page, we see the notes, but our minds are not completely involved and focused on the task at hand.
This is a recipe for disaster; step one on our journey to becoming a sight-reading master is to put a stop to this mindless music reading.
Instead of going through the motions, it helps to mentally say to ourselves, "Okay, I'm going to nail every note and rhythm on this page, no mistakes," clear out any unwanted or distracted thoughts, and aim for 100% concentration on the music.
When we take this mindset with anything we read, whether it's in a rehearsal, performance, or an average day in the practice room, we'll immediately find that our reading improves.
We'll also find that extreme concentration is difficult to sustain for long periods of time; we can start a piece totally focused, but after a minute our mind begins to wander and, little by little, we're back to day dreaming; be aware of this tendency and quickly pull back your concentration when it starts to fade.
By learning to control your concentration like this, we'll ingrain the habit of becoming totally focused any time we read music, and the next time we sight read something, this skill will be carried over, and things will be much easier.
The next thing to consider is how to look at and read bigger chunks of music; the habit of looking at, counting, and processing every single beat of music that we see will get us into trouble; to become a better sight reader, we need to do the complete opposite; we need to be looking at larger pieces of music and feeling bigger chunks of time.
An inexperienced reader counts every beat and looks at each individual note; a great reader would first visually see where the major (stronger) beats fall (beats 1 and 3 if we're in 4/4 time).
Next, read the music as if it was in cut time (2/2), looking at 2 beats at a time or even an entire measure at a time.
Reading in this fashion is much easier and relaxed than counting every single beat; we should aim for visually interpreting music in this way; it will take some practice and experience, but the payoff will be worth it.
Next, there are only so many combinations of rhythms that we'll encounter; becoming familiar with these common rhythms and note patterns, and recognizing them at a quick glance will greatly enhance our ability to sight read a piece of music.
In addition to quickly identifying rhythms visually, it also helps to learn to readily identify scale fragments and arpeggios.
It's not the familiar rhythms and patterns that we have to look out for, it's the occasional off-beat rhythms and syncompations that throw us; most of the time, we get through a piece just fine until we see one of these off-beat rhythms; suddenly our brain freezes, we lose track of the beat, and get completely off; this happens because we're unable to visually line up where the down beats are happening.
The way to deal with these difficult rhythms is to figure them out at a slow tempo and then commit them to memory.
Oftentimes, we're so used to looking at notes that when we see rests, our brain turns off, especially when rests are interspersed throughout a line; to deal with lines like this, again, it helps to find where the downbeats fall, then isolate where there are rests that fall on a strong beat; these are tricky places because we're feeling a beat, but we're not playing anything; in these places, it helps to mentally say a syllable (like "uh") during the rest, which can help place every note exactly where it lies in the measure.
Next, we need to get into the habit of looking ahead; one of the main factors that contribute to our mistakes in sight reading is the simple fact that we're not ready for the notes we see on the page; they simple catch us off guard; our eyes come upon a measure that we must immediately play, and our brain can't process the information fast enough; next, we have to stop and think for a half-second about an accidental, a fingering, or a rhythm, and by then, it's way too late.
To prevent this, we need to get into the habit of continually looking ahead at the notes and rhythms coming up; that we don't get caught staring at the music that we just played, but be prepared for the notes coming up; to do this, we need to keep our eyes a beat or two ahead of the notes we're playing, all the time.
This skill, like all of the above elements, requires and uses a combination of all the previous ones; we need to be totally focused on the task at hand, see the music on the page in larger groups of notes, not individual beats, and recognize rhythms and patterns; then, as we play one measure, our eyes are always scanning ahead so nothing will catch us off guard.
Finally, it's inevitable that we'll make a mistake when we're sight reading; we all aim for 100% accuracy, but eventually we're going to miss a note; it's just a fact of life.
That being said, a small mistake is no reason for our sight reading performance to completely fall apart; some mistakes however are definitely worse than others; a missed note is unfortunate, but a wrong rhythm or faulty counting can completely throw us off track.
As we sight read, there's a definite hierarchy for our attention:
First, we need to keep the tempo of the piece firmly planted in our mind and body; this is the glue holding everything together; next, we need to look at every rhythm that we come across and visually see where the downbeats (first beats) are falling, the bigger chunks of time that we're able to process, the better; finally, we need to pay attention to every note, interval, and accidental.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that when you make a mistake, DON'T STOP; a note may not come out, we might hesitate for a second on a rhythm, or we might miss an accidental; whatever it is, we need to forget about it; it's gone; history; we just keep going and pick up where we left off.
When we're playing with a soloist, this is much easier, to continue through mistakes; when we play a wrong note or rhythm, the time continues and we have to get quickly back on track.
This can seem like a lot to think about every time we look at a piece of music, but they're small, easily applied tricks that can have a huge effect on our reading; chances are, we're already doing some of these things, and the key to improving may lie in making a small adjustment or incorporating just one of these elements into our playing.
This is your mental check-list every time you see a piece of music, which will help take all the fear and terror out of sight reading it:
1. Get into the mindset of total concentration and tune out distractions.
2. Before proceeding, memorize the key signature and scan the page for trouble spots.
3. Look at the music in larger chunks of time (see the page like it's in cut time).
4. Recognize common rhythms and watch out for tricky rhythms.
5. Visually identify scale fragments and arpeggios.
6. Remember to keep counting through rests.
7. Continually keep the eyes scanning ahead so we're always ready for the next measure.
8. Don't be fazed by your mistakes, keep the time going, and get back on track.
If you make all of this a habit, in a short time you'll be able to confidently approach sight reading any piece of music.
(con't in Part III)