Five Tips For Better Sightreading
Originally published in the Brass Herald Magazine
We don’t think twice about our ability to read words. As children, we learned the alphabet, started with simple words, ideas and phrases and gradually advanced until we became competent readers. Often in music, our reading level gets stunted. We feel self-conscious about our abilities and try to avoid having to read around other players for fear they will judge us.
Sightreading is a skill just like any other we face as brass players. We know we need to work on our sound, range, articulation, phrasing, etc. but we neglect this very important area and struggle through “sounding out” the phrases until we get a handle on them.
I have complied five steps for improving sightreading. They are tips I have collected over the years from the great teachers and players I have been fortunate enough to work with. Many of them were introduced to me when I was preparing for the USAF Band audition over 20 years ago and have stuck with me until today. I hope they provide you with some new ideas and help you become a better reader!
Tip #1, Scales, Intervals and Arpeggios
As I mentioned, I “learned to read” while preparing for a military band audition. At the time, sightreading was a crucial part of those auditions and if you couldn’t read, you weren’t likely to be hired.
My teacher at the time, Tucker Jolly (one of the greatest names in all of music) stressed scales, intervals and arpeggios. Each graduate student had to play catch-up to prepare for the end of semester scale jury. We were responsible for the usual suspects, major, all three forms of the minor, chromatic, whole tone, diminished seventh chords and a I-IV-V7-I progression in each key. He had a special deck of cards with each form written on a card and you had to play whatever card came up. No pressure!
Additionally, he stressed the interval and arpeggio studies from Arban. While he never specifically made the connection to sightreading for me, the results were shocking. I became able to read in “words” instead of “letter by letter.” The muscle memory of all of that theory came out whenever I read. Groups of notes jumped off the page, rather than one by one.
Tip #2, Check the Roadmap
This tip came from my colleague Andrew Hitz, the tuba player in Boston Brass. In countless masterclasses, I heard Andrew explain that the first thing he does before reading a piece is to check the roadmap. He does this before checking the key, looking for accidentals or fingering through any tricky bits.
The justification is a simple one. If you are caught off guard by an unexpected key or time signature change, you may miss a few notes or rhythms but, by and large, you are able to live to tell the tale. However, if you miss a repeat, don’t know where to look for a d.s or Coda, you can be dead in the water.
The fact of the matter is that recovery is paramount when reading and a survey of the roadmap can keep you on track.
Tip #3, Read the Rhythms and Contour and Keep Going!
The director of bands at The University of Akron (where I studied with Tucker) was Bob Jorgensen. Bob was a phenomenal euphonium player “back in the day” and studied with Leonard Falcone at my other alma mater, Michigan State University. Bob shared this next tip with me.
His advice was to read the rhythms, follow the contour of the line and keep going no matter what happens. This was a simple instruction that turned out to be harder to implement that I expected.
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The problem is that we don’t like to play wrong notes. Our tendency is to want to stop and fix them! I have heard players from beginner through professional struggle with this and my students at Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne Universities have this concept beaten into their heads.
The reason should be obvious. If you listen to two players, one of whom stops and fixes every mistake at the cost of rhythm and the other who misses some notes but plays the rhythm correctly, we usually prefer the second player. Even though there are errors, our ears tend to forgive them and we are able to hear the phrases. A stilted performance, even one with the correct notes is far more unsettling and leaves us with the question of whether the player has bad time or rhythm.
Tip #4, Attention to Eye Movement
I stole this concept from speed reading experts. It is related to Tip #1. When you read words, your eyes stop some number of times per line to collect information. The number depends on how many words there are in the line, how complex the ideas are and the ability of the reader. In speed reading, the idea is to reduce the number of times the eyes stop and increase the amount of information collected at every stop.
As with Tip #1, if you know your scales, arpeggios and intervals, the groups of notes become more recognizable and while muscle memory takes over on those groups, the eyes can look ahead.
Of course, the difference between speed reading and sighreading is that in reading music, we must maintain a consistent tempo. Reading too far ahead can cause the player to rush. The idea is to look far enough ahead to anticipate the next challenge, rather than to look as far ahead as possible.
Another key aspect of this is to keep the eyes tracking across the line. If the eyes stop, you can find yourself stuck. Additionally, as with Tip #2, a quick scan of the roadmap, tracking the eyes to the beginning of a repeat sign, d.s. or coda, can often save the day.
As en exercise, video record yourself playing and count how many times your eyes stop on a specific piece. Replay the piece and try to reduce that number by taking in groups of notes.
Tip #5, Do it Every Day, Especially When Tired
This one I came to all on my own. I know, shocking.
My routine for the Air Force audition ran from 9pm-3am every day. I was relentless. During that time, I was turning over every stone in my playing, doing a ton of listening and score study and generally burning myself out each night.
I discovered that by waiting until after 2am to do my sightreading, I was preparing myself to concentrate when I was at my most tired, mentally and physically. I had a huge (shockingly illegal) binder of photocopied euphonium parts, probably about 4 inches thick. Each night, I would challenge myself to get through one or more letters of the alphabet (the pieces were arranged alphabetically by composer). I basically played until I couldn’t make a sound.
The act of doing this day after day (actually, night after night) spurred incredible growth in a relatively short period of time (about six months). The only plan was to start at the top left of the page and keep going until the bottom right.
No stopping, no corrections, reading the rhythms, keeping my eyes moving across the page, reading words instead of letters. Night after night after night.
I hope there is something of use here for you. Happy reading!