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A New Look at Sightreading

Lisa Polisar | December 2010

    Good sightreading skills are about neither sight nor reading. To become a great sight reader takes four things: a willingness to make mistakes, some creativity, patience, and practice. Good sightreading skills will build confidence, improve your marketability as a musician, and help with improvisation and auditions.

    Too many students bring a tension-filled perfectionism to the study of music. Aspiring towards success and greatness too often comes with a price – an unwillingness to allow yourself to make mistakes. This creates a rigidity that hinders learning and development as musicians. Fear of making mistakes, performance anxiety, frustration, even panic are all typical feelings that arise when we sightread.
    This is why sightreading is such an important differentiator in competitions and auditions. Success at auditions is less about skill and technique and more about knowing the trigger points for fear and anxiety, and learning how to work with these feelings.  Judges over the years have commented that when it comes to auditions, relaxation separates the top flutists from the rest of the pack.
    Unlike other aspects of playing, sightreading is not just about memorizing a methodology. You should master sightreading basics, but more than that, you should learn to be comfortable playing unfamiliar music under difficult circumstances. This is a separate skill that involves a different mindset than just developing good technique.
    Pattern-recognition remains one of the primary building blocks of learning. The brain learns through repetition, and the brain can be trained. So if you practice daily sightreading, your brain will remember. When you can be relaxed while reading an unfamiliar piece of music, the brain similarly makes the association between sightreading and relaxation. You can consciously assist this process by thinking, “When I sightread, my body is relaxed.” Repeat this mantra over and over. The caveat, of course, is that if you feel fear, frustration, or anxiety while sightreading, your brain will form a pattern around those emotions instead.
Sightreading Difficulties
Sightreading requires the brain to do a number of things at once. In addition to the usual demands of playing the flute, you are quickly scanning the music to assemble a pattern of facts to make decisions – such as “three flats means that this piece is either in Eb major or C minor.” Then you are looking for time signature changes, key modulations, accidentals, rhythm, dynamics, etc. At first this can feel overwhelming and mentally exhausting.
    Mistakes are dealt with completely differently in sightreading. Typically when we make a mistake in playing, we immediately stop and fix it before moving on. While sightreading, we have to do the complete opposite – keep going and play right through the mistake. This can be difficult to accept because it implies a tacit acceptance of errors, which for the average perfectionist flutist, goes against the grain.
    It is much easier to sightread in the comfort of your living room compared to an orchestral audition. The more you practice sightreading difficult music in a variety of situations, the better prepared you will be the next time you are sightreading under pressure.

Rhythm – The Achilles Heel

    Rhythm can be the trickiest part of successful sightreading. Says Richard Striano, lifelong flutist and teacher from Boston, “Rhythm is a sub-division of the space and time within a beat. With this in mind, sightreading is really a mathematical process: get the right notes in the right place at the right time.” Likewise, when you play the right notes but the wrong rhythm, you quickly become lost. Sightread pieces with difficult rhythms on a regular basis. Eventually, you will reach a point where no rhythm is completely unfamiliar.
     Make sightreading a part of your daily practice routine – either at the beginning of your session or at the end. The following are six things that will improve your sightreading.
1. Variation: Sightread something different every day to get used to seeing and reading different pieces of music. You should also vary the length and difficulty of sightreading pieces.

2. High Beams
– Always have your eyes one measure ahead of what you are playing. You can train yourself to read ahead of what you are playing. It is like driving on a dark road with your high beams on. Anticipate the next phrase, always staying a step ahead of where you are.

3. Transposing – Albuquerque flutist and teacher Carla Beauchamp instructs her students to play a familiar melody by ear and then transpose it to other keys. “This requires the brain to understand the relationship of the notes to each other and to the tonic. As students improve their ability to do this, they become more adept at anticipating notes and phrases when sightreading.”

4. Sight Singing – When I was in college and singing in a chorale, our director had us begin each rehearsal with a sight singing exercise. I found that the next time I sightread flute music, there was a huge difference in my skills and confidence. The voice is also an instrument, so sight singing improves your ability to read and perform unfamiliar music.

5. Spot and Speed Sightreading
– Jump from one place to another in one piece, or put several different pieces of music on the stand at the same time. Choose eight random measures from each piece. Speed sightreading is a faster version of spot sightreading. Just do it faster. This does not mean playing at a faster tempo, but instead developing better agility to easily jump from one thing to another.

6. Duets and Piano Accompaniment – Practice sightreading flute duets or something that has a piano accompaniment. Playing with other musicians activates different parts of the brain and forces the ears to work harder. 
    By far the most important things you can do to improve your sightreading is to do it every day and bring a sense of relaxation into your practice. There is an endless amount of great music out there to read – find it, devour it, and have fun in the process.