A Unique Sight Reading Challenge for Pianists

A Unique Sight Reading Challenge for PianistsPan and I spend hours waiting in the emergency room for a scan he has to do and while I’ve done more exciting and pressing things in my life, I’d also rather know that my best friend is okay. I am writing this on my phone in the emergency room and thinking back to all the times my piano students had trouble sight reading. Ironic, but I really liked the non technique parts of a music exam—sight reading, ear testing, clapping, you name it. It felt like a game to me.

My favourite analogy about teaching music is that your music teacher is supposed to be like a doctor, not a judge. They work with you to figure out what’s wrong and help you improve.

In any case, sight reading is more of a skill that takes practice and perseverance. In an exam setting, you only get one try to play it right and so the pressure is high

Today, I’ll talk about a unique challenge in sight reading that a lot of people may encounter.

the big picture

When people first get a piece of music, they tend to dive straight in without preparing themselves for that music. That’s a mistake because they haven’t prepared themselves mentally for the piece of music.

Outside of an exam setting, people don’t see sight reading as a unique skill in itself, like improvisation or playing by ear, but it’s just as important to be able to play any piece of music that is set in front of you. It’s a unique skill to practice.

Once you practice sight reading systematically as a skill on its own, you will see improvements and be able to play more new music quickly. This is different from practicing technique and playing skills, so I would encourage you to have separate pieces of music to first practice sight reading before you move on to learning technique.

When you first get a piece of music, look over it and play the tricky sections–lots of accidentals or complicated rhythms–on your lap. It will really help you get a feel for the music and prepare your mind for these encounters later on. It’s like when you’re on a road trip, you want to look over the entire map of the trip and zooming into the specific complicated sections of the route before starting the GPS.

Sight reading is a unique challenge in music; there’s no other skill where you’re expected to perform well when presented with a fresh piece of music. So treat it like a unique challenge and give it the time it deserves. Sight reading is different from picking apart a piece to study its progressions step by step.

a little bit of homework

Pick three new pieces to practice sight reading on, but only play one new line a day (around 5 bars). Make sure they are difficult enough to challenge you a little, but still simple enough that there is only 20% of the passage that you would struggle on. It’s sight reading, not sight crying.

In any case, each day you progress to a new line, you would find that you might struggle less on that piece because of similar passages in previous days. That means you’re getting more practice in that type of passage. I used to think that it was pointless to replay sight reading passages I’ve already sight read, but it really gives your fingers more experience in playing that type of passage. Music is about patterns, and once you’re able to give yourself a chance to adjust to a certain type of pattern, you’ll excel when stumbling across it again in the future.

Better yet, if you are gung-ho on improving your sight reading skills, you can check out sight reading books that include line-by-line passages that you can try each day. For example, Four Star is a good series that I used when I was doing RCM exams. It felt so satisfying to complete each line!

Finally, most people who mess up when sight reading tend to notice it as a glaring mistake. My heart beats faster and I feel like everything is over. But the best thing to do is to ignore it and keep playing, because sometimes other people don’t even notice your mistake until you make a big deal out of it.

In fact, make it a habit to gloss over your mistakes. It will help even when you’re performing, to ingrain the “gloss-over technique” into your brain.

my little challenge

I am also glossing over the fact that it’s now 1:40 am and hours before my flight to Asia where I will explore the world. I spent a lot of time with Pan this week because he was sick and in the ER earlier and I haven’t had too much time to write nor pack. But Pan is okay. After hours in the ER, he left with a piece of paper that says he needs medication.

Sometimes I don’t know how to deal with Pan.

“I need to go to the ER,” he said, earlier in the day.

“What?” I said.

“The doctor says I need to do a scan, and it’s faster to do it in the ER.”

“Should we go now?”

He refused and wanted to go at the end of the day.

I was torn whether to strongly suggest him to go because there could be something seriously wrong, or let him make his own decisions as a grown ass man. No one likes to be forced to do things, but it would suck if he passed out and I could’ve twisted his arm to the ER. I could consider dragging him down the street to a cab.

We did a silly quiz six months ago where we chose words that describe ourselves, and we described ourselves using opposite words, him with “Carefree,” and me with “Intense”, and now I see that this is true.

Pan is like my unique challenge. I don’t know how to measure this. He pushes me to have a healthier, relaxed mindset, but he also infuriates me when he doesn’t care about important issues. He makes me a better person and I’m trying to make him care a little more about the world around him.

In music, sight reading is a unique challenge because you can’t measure progress properly. The next peice you sight read could just be the hardest piece ever, but that’s because you’ve never played anything quite like it until now.

Sight reading can be your personal project for music. Practice sight reading by picking three new multi-page pieces of music to work on day by day. Make no excuse but to progress one line (or five bars) each day, no matter how hard or easy. Slowly but surely, you might find yourself improving at sight reading by the end of the piece.

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