A lot of the music we play, we tend to hear it first. We know how it sounds. We know what we’re shooting for when we got to actually play the piece before us in black and white dots sprinkled along the page.
And then there are the other times.
In auditions. evaluations, competitions, etc., there’d usually be a section on sight-reading. This bear of a task involves basically sitting down cold to a piece of unfamiliar music and playing it straight off. No clue how it’s supposed to sound.
Basically, we’re challenged to fake it. Not only fake it, but fake it well.
There are several reasons for this exercise, at least as far as I can tell and being somewhat removed from the situation these many years:
- Sight reading weeds out those who play primarily by ear, those who just follow along, and those whose sheet music skills are a bit lacking. There is, after all, faking it until you make it and out-and-out fraud.
- Sight reading shows observational skills: did you see that crescendo in the 12th measure? What about the key change or the coda? Missed that repeat in the second section? When we don’t pay attention to the signs on the road we could find ourselves out of sync or, worse, in an accident. [Talk about dissonance!]
- Sight reading shows how we react under pressure. It’s stressful facing the unknown head-on, especially if we’re being graded on it in some way! Calmer minds usually prevail and are less likely to miss those very important musical cues.
The different between a sight-read performance and a practiced one is as obvious as the actor whose still learning his lines, his character, and stumbles over large words and mannerisms that should be second nature if his portrayal is to be believed. There’s a huge quality difference, just like playing notes robotically is miles away from playing them with confidence, inflection and a feel for the piece as a whole instead of one breath after the other.
Of course, both musicians and actors are given at least a moment to go over their pages before diving in. This was especially useful in band competitions when it wasn’t a single piece of music but a composition of many instruments, melodies, harmonies, counterpoints and rhythms that had to be puzzled out in 5 minutes or less. We’d practice even this, on new pieces in the band room, learning techniques to be used later.
- Start at the beginning. What’s the key signature? How fast, slow, loud or soft do we start? Does everyone play on the first note or is there one clear leader that we all can then follow when it’s our turn.
- Look down the road a bit for changes to the way things began. Notes can change mid-song and usually have a good reason for doing so, to add depth or clarity to a piece or just make things interesting. But missing that change can leave you feeling lost.
- Scan the pages for large sections of notes. The more black ink on the page, the harder you’re going to have to work to keep those individual notes straight when you play them. Spend what time you have preparing for the tough stuff, knowing that the basics you’ve already got down.
Sure, in life we’re sometimes handed a situation with nary a moment to think before we must act. But those, I think, are pretty few and far between. It may not always feel like it, but we all have the capability to say to those in front of us “wait, let me look at this a minute” before we act or react. Knowing where the question or problem started is helpful in gauging the original intention or tone. If things changed: when and why? And being able to examine our options and think them forward a bit to try and anticipate any snarls to come prepares us for the moments that true split-second decisions are required.
And they keep trying to take music out of schools…