My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Music Sightreading Tips Part I: How to Prep

Sightreading music is one of the most daunting and mysterious tasks for a lot of musicians. It's really no wonder when you think about all that's involved. There's a lot of information to process in order to bring what's on the page into reality, especially in a way that is palatable to receive. There are pitches and rhythm of course but there's all the other information on the page that we need to process in order to make the performance musical, or at least remotely musical. And then there's our constant quest for "perfection," whatever that is, which really has no place when one is sightreading (that's your first important tip!)

Every Sunday during the past few months, I've spent an hour livestreaming myself sightreading in a show I call "Sightreading Maverick." Friends on social media send me requests of music in the public domain that they've found on the fabulous internet resourse, IMSLP, and I read through them one at a time. Since sightreading is an activity I have always enjoyed - I consider it the musical equivalent of extreme sports - risk filled, adrenaline pumping, and energizing - I've loved just about every moment. I've also discovered a lot of new-to-me composers who write fabulous music and I've even had a few composers bravely send their own compositions my way to appear on the show.

During Sightreading Maverick, before I begin to play each piece, I narrate what I'm looking for in the music to make sure I'm somewhat ready and not caught off guard. I thought it would be helpful to share my process and tips with everyone in two blog posts so that others might get curious enough to try their own sightreading game. This first post covers the things I look for and ask myself before I play a note. The second one, coming next week, will cover some tips for when you are in the process of sightreading.

All of these questions and tips do take time to process but with practice it does become easier. My hope is that you'll also find that the prep work will make sightreading much more satisfying and successful. And please feel free to leave your own suggestions as a comment below the post.

Question 1: How long is the piece?
This may seem silly, but I find it's helpful to know how long the piece is so that I can pace myself. If it's a really short piece, I know that even if I get flustered somewhere in the middle, it won't be very long before it's over and I can breathe again. If it's longer, I know that in this preparatory stage I'm going to want to find places to breathe, blink my eyes, and regroup.

Question 2: What is the title of the piece? 
This might also seem trivial but titles can often give you a lot of information that you can use to your advantage. Pieces with titles like "Elegy," "Nocturne," or "Reverie" are my favorite because I know that I'll be able to take a slower tempo and use more rubato. Pieces with titles like "Tarentella," "Etude," "Toccata," or "Theme and Variations" immediately put me in the frame of mind that I'm going to need to carefully and thoughtfully choose a tempo to avoid trainwrecks and tears.  I should also note that in general, if I have a choice, playing one of these more challenging ones is reserved for days when I'm feeling brave and on top of my game. 

Question 3: What is the piece's tempo indication and does it change?
Most people check out the initial tempo indication which is a good thing. It's important to get an idea of what the composer wants and what was intended. Often the tempo will change though so it's important to keep flipping and scanning the pages visually to find those instances. If there's a faster section in the middle, I usually take a moment to tell myself that when I get there I might want to pick a conservative tempo. If there's a section that's slower, I rejoice and take note that when I get there that will be a really good place to breathe, blink, listen, and enjoy a bit more.

Question 4:  What is the key signature? Major or minor? Does it change sometime during the piece? 
Always good to know the key, and especially whether or it's major or minor. It'll help you set up your ear to have the right expectation. Especially for younger pianists, playing a scale in the key of the piece can also be helpful to get it in one's ear and to get the feel of the key in one's hands. It's also good to know if and when the key changes and what it changes to. If it's a particularly challenging key, I like to see if the tempo also changes at the same time. If it happens to change to a slower tempo, hooray! That means I have more time to settle comfortably into the new key. If it changes to a faster tempo I remind myself that I better try and stay calm when I get there and to choose a conservative tempo.
 Question 5: What are the different note values involved and in particular, what is the fastest? 
Answering this question is instrumental in me choosing a good tempo. It also can help set up a rhythmic framework for what to expect. I typically start with finding the fastest note value used consistently. Usually this will be the sixteenth note (semi-quaver) or eighth note (quaver). I will then count a measure out loud and clap through the different main note values that are used, starting with the main note value (usually a quarter note/crochet) that equals the beat and then subdividing for a measure at a time until I get to the fastest note value. While doing this, I'm very conscious of how the subdivisions sound and feel, especially in relation to the beat so that I can call on the sound and sensation of them while sightreading. 

Question 6: Are there difficult rhythms or passages that leap off the page?
If I see a rhythm that looks particularly complicated I take a moment to see if I can make sense of it quickly. If I don't have time to properly analyze it I try to make sure I can see where the beats are so that I can come up with a strategy for how I'm going to try and pull it off.
If there's a passage with a lot of accidentals I try and ascertain if they're there because it's a chromatic passage or if it's because there really is a key change but the composer chose not to change the actual key signature. Often times that's the case and noting it is enough to allow me to breathe more easily and not freak out quite as much. If it is a really chromatic passage I tell myself that some interesting things might happen and that my goal will be to keep the pulse and make it through. 
If there's a a passage with a lot of notes that intimidate me, or a cadenza-like passage with lots and lots of tiny notes that don't seem to stop, I look for patterns. Almost always they are there to be found; arpeggios, scalar motives, or other types of motives. Finding these can help structure the section so that I have some sort of guide to improvise around since in those types of passages, being note perfect is not the goal. It's more important instead to get the gist across without a lot of fuss and stress. Easier said than done, I realize. 
And last but not least...

Question 7: Are there any repeats?
There are two reasons why I like to look out for these. Repeats can be handy because they can give me an opportunity to give a section another go. Of course I can also choose to ignore them when things aren't going as well. There are first and second repeats, da capos or dal segnos where you return either to the beginning of the piece or to a specific sign, and there are also codas. If I'm not aware of these before I start they really can cause a lot of stress, especially if I'm sightreading with someone else. It's always good to know the general roadmap. 
So there are my tips for you! Happy sightreading and come back next week to get some tips on how to approach sightreading once you've started playing!

To read part II in this series, click here!

If you would like a downloadable PDF of this sightreading prep tips sheet, please check out my Patreon site. For only $3 a month you can have access to downloadables such as this one. For $10 or more a month you'll have access to all the downloadables I post, including practice tips. You'll also be helping to support me in my quest to make practicing more accessible, interesting, and effective for everyone! 

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