"Those little squiggles? I assumed they were just typos." My new student, Harold, was playing the Burgmuller Arabesque. I'd asked him if he knew what the eighth notes rests were.
How had this happened? Harold, age 67, was a new transfer student. He'd been studying for years, but his teachers had let him down. He couldn't read music. He didn't even know what the most basic symbols meant.
In my years of teaching, I've met many Harolds. Each one arrived at my door with their particular mix of limited knowledge and illiteracy.
It's turned me into a champion and teacher of sight reading. I, myself, was a child who didn't learn to read music until well into middle school. My combination of perfect pitch and a first teacher who didn't notice I hadn't learned to read had left me musically illiterate. It wasn't until playing flute in my middle school band and accompanying the chorus forced to learn to read that I finally did. By that time I was already playing the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto. Not able to read it, but playing it nonetheless.
I think we owe it to our students to teach them to read well. It is a matter of making it a priority and assembling the right materials.
Here are ten tips to make you a better sight reading teacher.
1. Every musician plays better than they can sight read.
This may seem obvious, but it isn't. I can play Rachmaninoff Concertos, but I can't sight read them easily or fluently. There's a relationship between the music I can sight read and the music I can play. I am an excellent sight reader, but even I can't play at sight the music I can play after hours of thoughtful practice.
My student, Audrey, with diligent practice, can play a piece like Fountain in the Rain by William Gillock, but it would be too difficult for her to sight read. She sight reads fluently a few levels below Fountain in the Rain. At her last lesson, she sight read through my entire Sight Reading Book One . In fact, she blew right through it. (Her Mom joked that perhaps she should get a refund since I clearly hadn't taught her anything!)
2. Students do best when their sight reading stays only a few levels below their performance ability.
Brent, another transfer student, came to me at age twelve, able to play Joplin Rags and Beethoven Sonatinas. As I got to know him better, I realized that he couldn't read a note. I mean, he literally couldn't read music. Didn't know the difference between an eighth note and a quarter note. He vaguely knew whether notes went up or down, but couldn't tell a second from a third.
His previous teacher simply hadn't realized that every time she demonstrated something for him he was swallowing it up and regurgitating it note-for-note.
When we started working on sight reading, we went back to nearly a Primer level to find something he could play fluently at sight. It wasn't fun, because his playing ability had gotten completely out of the range of his ability to read. There was no relation between what he could read and what he could play.
3. The bigger the discrepancy between reading and performance level, the more the student will try to hide it.
Students who perform their practiced repertoire well may often not realize that their sight reading level is not expected to be at the same level. If the only music they are given to read is music that takes weeks or even months to learn, why would they think otherwise?
It's embarrassing to admit that one doesn't know how to sight read a piece. Teachers need to take the time to explain and discuss the perfectly normal gap between reading and performance ability.
4. Sight reading music that's too difficult isn't really sight reading.
Playing at sight means exactly that — playing it at sight. Not fussing around and making mistakes and apologizing and making the same mistake and apologizing again. Sight reading should be done with music that one can play when one looks at it.
Struggling and stumbling through difficult music, and by that I mean music that is difficult for any given student, isn't the same as sight reading. It's more like driving your car into a wall again and again. You're in the car, but you're not taking it for a drive. (Is this the metaphor I chose because one of my student's mothers drove her car into my house this week?)
5. Sight reading should be enjoyable.
Reading music for pleasure should be the same as reading books for pleasure. You should know the vocabulary, the basic sentence structure, and be able to figure the rest out by context. It shouldn't feel like reading this dissertation on C.P.E. Bach.
C.P.E. shoved aside the decorous roccoco style of the era to embrace "Sturm and Drang" – "storm and stress" – as well as Empfindsamkeit, or "intimate expressiveness." The dark, dramatic, improvisation-like passages that turn up in pieces by Haydn and Mozart bore the direct influence of C.P.E.
(If this is your thing, please feel free to read the rest of the article here...)
6. Too easy is better than too hard.
Reading a book that you can understand is more fun than reading one that leaves you puzzled. It's the same with music. Finding the sweet spot of what one can do easily and mixing it with teeny, tiny challenges can require some thought and preparation. It's also why materials made specifically for sight reading can be so helpful.
7. Do it with them.
In my studio, this usually takes the form of me playing one hand while the student plays the other. Some of the benefits to this kind of sight reading are learning:
- The value and meaning of rests (if one doesn't observe them, the piece will fall apart)
- Listening and keeping a consistent tempo
- Playing something slightly more difficult than the student could play alone
- Hearing a new piece in a more complete way
- Hearing me make a mistake and realizing even teachers make mistakes
8. Prepare the score