The most important one isn’t what you think it is…
Are you a good sight-reader?
If no, why do you think that is? If yes, were you born that way?
My guess is that you said no. If you are a good sight-reader, it’s because you practice sight reading all the time.
I don’t think anyone is born a good sight-reader. If you say that you were, I’m guessing you are an anomaly.
One of the major “criticisms” of the Suzuki method is that Suzuki students aren’t good readers. Historically, there is some debate about why that was the case, but nowadays, it seems like most students have a fairly decent grasp at note-reading.
If this is true, why are the sight-reading portions of auditions so catastrophic? Why do many students falter when they begin playing in youth orchestras?
My hypothesis is that our note-readers are really good at reading the notes, but not great sight-readers. Playing in orchestra requires spectacular sight-reading.
What’s the difference, you ask?
Well, when (successfully) sight-reading, you can’t focus on pitch names. In fact, you can’t really focus on the pitch much at all. The majority of your attention should be placed on rhythm, contour, structure, and dynamics.
This flies against the very fiber of our beings. We want to play the right notes! It’s important!
(Actually it isn’t. Not at this moment. Don’t stone me, hear me out…)
When you are sight-reading a duet, or in orchestra, what happens if everyone stops to correct notes? Or waits to play the next note until they are sure of what pitch it is? Or hesitates so they can walk through their mnemonic, “Every Good Boy Does…oh that’s a d!”
You guessed it. The whole thing falls apart. It’s an unrecognizable mess. Oftentimes, if you can at least get the rhythm, even if the notes are incorrect the piece is recognizable and your ensemble can stay together. If you play notes without rhythm? It’s note soup. Is it easy to focus on rhythm over notes? No way! It has to be consistently practiced.
When you are sight-reading, you don’t have time to count ledger lines or think about “F.A.C.E. All you have time to think is “step or skip? up or down?” If you try to get the general melody contour right, while playing the rhythm, of course, you will come out ok.
Repeats, Codas, Da Capos, all of these things strike fear into the hearts of music students. Where do we go? Second ending? What does that weird S mean anyway?? Our students need to become familiar with these markings in order to be spectacular sight-readers. It’s pretty embarrassing to be the one person who forgets to go to the Coda in orchestra. Being a kid is hard anyway, let’s help them out by exposing them to lots of sight reading material with these markings in a nonjudgmental environment, like the lesson and home practice.
Dynamics? I know what you are thinking, “If they can’t even play the notes, why are we talking about dynamics?” Have you ever played forte in a subito piano spot? Then you know why! Play a wrong note, by all means, but don’t play forte when it should be piano. Playing the dynamics is a vital part of whole musicianship. It’s not extra, it’s not icing on the cake. Dynamics are the sugar IN the cake.
Where do the notes fall in this hierarchy? I’d say near the bottom. Rhythm, Contour, Structure, and Dynamics are far more important to sight-reading survival. Notes you can get right later. In the moment, when the chips are down, when your orchestra teacher sets a piece in front of you…you just gotta stay with the pack.
How do you teach your students to do this music triage? How do you help them to prioritize rhythm, contour, structure, and dynamics over the “right notes?” You have them practice sight-reading. Consistently. Repeatedly. Often. As often as you can.
In my studio? I’ve done a poor job of this, but I’m recommitting. I don’t want any more of my students to get frustrated and quit youth orchestra. I accept responsibility for their missed opportunities, and I feel that weight heavily. I’m thinking that once a week is not enough.
One of the obstacles facing violin teachers who want to teach sight reading is finding appropriate material to read with their students. It can take a lot of time. McKenzie and I decided to just create our own. We wrote a fun Carol of the Bells duet to read with some of our students this season, and want to share a few of our favorites with our newsletter subscribers.
Not a subscriber yet? You can get your copy of the Carol of the Bells duet by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.
How do you teach sight-reading in your studio? Do you agree/disagree with my music-reading hierarchy?
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