top tips for how to prepare oneself before sightreading a piece of music. Today I want to share with you some of the things I think about and do once all that prep work is done and it's time to give it a go. Hang on - sightreading can be a wild, but fun ride!
Tip 1: Selecting a good tempo
Finding a good tempo requires a combination of observations that I made in my prep work. First I remind myself of the fastest, most regular note value - usually it's sixteenths (semi-quavers) or eighths (quavers.) Next I hear in my head, or physically play a passage of those faster notes at a tempo that seems appropriate and doable while also bearing in mind the title and/or tempo indication. Once I find one that I think will work I figure out what the pulse is and use that for my tempo. Sometimes, if the piece seems like it might be on the more challenging side, I'll knock the tempo down just a little bit to give myself a little extra breathing room. It's always good to strike a balance between what's indicated and what's realistic in terms of setting me up for success.
Tip 2: Counting out loud as a lead-in
Once I've found a good tempo and I'm ready to go I take a good breath in and out, count a measure or two in the tempo and, without a pause, begin the piece. I say, "without a pause" because I've noticed some people will do a count-in measure but then break the pulse momentarily before starting. That defeats the purpose of the count-in measure. For me, those preparatory pulses are to help me get in the groove so that I'm more likely to start playing at the desired tempo. It also gets me in the mindset that it's the pulse's continuity that is the priority.
Tip 3: Prioritizing what's important
People often think that the priority when sightreading should be playing all the correct notes. My answer to that is, "No!!!!!!!" My first priority is keeping the pulse and playing rhythmically; second priority is playing as many of the notes on the page as I can musically. That last word, "musically," is really important here. If I can't play all the notes musically, then I don't try to play all the notes. I keep simplifying the music until I can deliver it with some musicality. It's that simple and there's no shame in that.
Tip 4: Look ahead and listen
Sightreading is a mix of being in the moment but also looking at and processing what's coming up. How far ahead I look depends on the speed and complexity of the piece. If it's more difficult and/or fast I generally don't look as far ahead. For easier pieces, on the other hand, I try to look as far ahead as I possibly can. For an extra challenge, I also try to listen ahead as well, meaning I try to hear what's coming up so that the aural picture can guide my hands into playing notes that will sound good. This is a skill that usually needs to be practiced and developed over time but it's well worth the challenge. I also try to be actively listening to what's happening in the moment as well so that I can be responding musically to what I'm doing. Amazing isn't it? That we can be looking and hearing ahead while also playing and hearing what's happening in the moment? You can thank an amazing brain for that!
Tip 5: Read by patterns rather than note by note
Processing the music by seeing it in patterns makes tip 4 even easier because it's less information for the brain to process. Patterns come in all shapes and sizes. Chord, scales, and arpeggios - these are all examples of patterns that pop up all the time. Then there are more complex ones too. I have a whole dictionary full of patterns I've grown to recognize and that help me read more fluently and musically. This also enables me to be able to read farther ahead in the music.
Tip 6: Take advantage of phrases, cadences, ritards, etc...
Whenever I have an excuse, like at the end of a phrase, at big cadences, in spots marked with tenuto marks, or where there are ritards, I make sure I take time to breathe, blink my eyes, give myself a brief pep talk, regroup, or look ahead at what's coming next. Especially in slower pieces, rubato is my friend. As long as I don't add beats that aren't there and the sense of pulse is still there, even if it's stretched and pulled a bit, I feel that's perfectly acceptable.
Tip 7: Keep eyes on the music
This is a terrifying concept for a lot of people but it's a really important skill to develop in order to be able to sightread more easily. As much as possible I keep my eyes tracking where I am in the score and a little bit ahead of where I am, as discussed in tip 4. If I break that tracking to look at my hands or the instrument, I more often than not find that I'm lost when I look back up at the score. It takes a moment to reorient myself and feel like I know what I'm doing which jeopardizes my ability to keep the pulse consistent. I've worked with a lot of pianists on sightreading and I can assure you that just about anytime a pianist looks down at the keyboard and then back up at the music, there's a microsecond of two extra that's added into their pulse. That's not fun to listen to and can be an issue if you're sightreading with others.
Tip 8: Sightread with others
There is something magical about sightreading with others, especially when there's at least one person in the group who's good at keeping a steady pulse. I also think it makes the experience more enjoyable because I can play off the other person and respond musically rather than having to come up with musical interpretations on the fly all by myself. I can focus instead on successfully reading more notes.
Tip 9: Don't expect perfection and have fun!
I already touched on this in tip 3, but I'm going to say it again in hopes that it will really stick. Dropping my desire for perfection is imperative when sightreading, otherwise I am sure to get tense and discouraged which leads to me not having fun. If I'm not having fun, I get even more tense and discouraged which...you get the point. It creates this circle of unpleasantness. With that said, I want to mention that there are days where I am simply not in the optimal frame of mind to sightread. When I find myself in that situation I either try again another time, when I'm in a better headspace, or I purposefully select more straight-forward music that I can sightread more successfully. Those are definitely not times to pull out something that is extra challenging.
There you have it! Those are my tips. I imagine I left something out. If you think of something to add, please do add it in the comments.
Happy sightreading everyone!
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