Welcome to another Flute Friday. Hope all of your summers are winding down successfully and those returning to school are prepped and ready to go for an inspiring new school year.
One of the most common weaknesses for any performer is the ability to sight read. Whether this is due to general, audition-induced panic or a lack of focus under pressure, many musicians struggle to retain their composure and musicality when faced with a piece of music they have never seen before. For many who struggle with this skill, poor sight reading performances may keep one from securing important chair placements, entrance into prestigious music programs, and higher scores in performance-based competitions. After years of trial, error, experience, and an incredible amount of research, I have compiled the following list of sight reading tips for those of you struggling with this skill. Sight reading skills do not necessarily make or break a musician but definitely give strong performers an important competitive edge over their contemporaries.
Learn your Key Signatures and Scales. This may be general practice advice, but it is very important to know how to identify all major and minor scales just by looking at the key signature and the first few notes. This will save you precious time figuring out which accidentals are likely to pop up in the music and which you know will be critical to the key of the piece. If you have an opportunity, warm-up by playing a single octave scale in the key of the work. This will help your brain anticipate the coming excerpt.
Pay Attention to Tempo Indications and Time Signatures. Another good general practice tip is to become comfortable playing in a variety of different time signatures. Make sure you know how to count the beat, how many beats are in a measure, and if there are any special tempo indications that will be helpful to you. I once auditioned for entrance into a very prestigious college music program and, although I played my prepared solos relatively well, I made a disastrous mistake misinterpreting the tempo of the sight reading excerpt that, without a doubt, cost me the audition. I had performed the excerpt twice as fast as it needed to be played and by the end of the work I realized too late that I was already familiar with the piece and had butchered it. Take the time to set the tempo in your head first before you begin to play.
Check for Any Complicated Rhythms. Adjudicators often test their strongest players by using sight reading examples that include tricky rhythms to see how well they can think on their feet under pressure. With that in mind, search for those “gotcha!” rhythms prior to beginning your sight reading example and work out quickly how to count these in your head. A good way to practice this ahead of time is by devising clever mnemonic devices for a variety of rhythms. The following chart has made its way around Facebook lately and it is a brilliant, simple, way to remember some basic and not so basic rhythms with clever word patterns:
Remember the Rests. Do not skip over shorter groups of rests out of nervousness. You must always count your rests. Take a moment to search for rests in the music and keep these on your radar as you perform. It is very easy to take rests for granted however sometimes the silence is the most difficult, yet most profound, part of the music.
Search for Repetitive Phrases or Common Patterns. Does the music repeat itself? Are there any commonplace scales or broken arpeggios? You can simplify the sight reading example by finding short cuts or patterns you already have underneath your fingers. Remember – music is often easier that it looks.
Don’t Forget to Breathe. If you are anything like me, the first thing to go out the window under the stress of performance is breathing. Forgetting to breathe is detrimental to sight reading. Taking a breath in an inappropriate place costs precious time and interrupts the flow of the beat. Quickly identify obvious places to breathe in your passage and take large enough breaths to last you longer than you anticipate. Be prepared for your breathing to weaken under pressure and use the moments before your performance to come up with a basic game plan.
Keep your Eyes Moving Forward. Instead of reading the notes you are playing as you play them, keep your gaze fixed on the notes in the upcoming measure and maintain this forward gaze as you perform the excerpt. The primary objective in sight reading is to keep the music moving no matter what. Looking forward will help you do just that.
What can you do to practice sight reading in your normal practice routine?
Set Aside 10-15 Minutes Per Day to Work on Sight Reading Skills. If you do not program a block of time to work exclusively on sight reading, you will likely procrastinate and come up with numerous excuses to avoid testing yourself (I have been there….it happens).
Open Up an Etude Book, Set the Timer, and GO! Etude books are great for working on sight reading skills because they are filled with short, technical excerpts in a variety of speeds and styles. Of course you should select an etude book that you have not studied or exercises you may have skipped over in other etude books to prevent a false sense of confidence at the end of your practice (you are trying to build up a skill, after all – no cheating!).
Record Yourself Sight Reading. This is terrifying because you will need to be comfortable hearing yourself struggle through a passage. Get ready to hear yourself at your worst and look for ways to improve rather than kick yourself for not playing the correct rhythms or accidentals. Recording yourself helps you envision your sight reading practice as a real performance, complete with a clock ticking in the background. Speaking of the clock …. Set a timer. This is another way to make the sight reading exercise feel like a real performance and keep you on track.
Download and/or Purchase Principal Flute Parts to Major Symphonies for Sight Reading Excerpts. If you are preparing for an orchestra audition of any type (professional, community, school orchestra, etc.) you will no doubt be asked to sight read an excerpt from a standard orchestral flute part. You may find several First Flute parts available for purchase and download on Fluteworld.com or imslp.org. You may also simply exchange parts with friends in other orchestras or ask your director for a few parts he or she has used in previous sight reading tests.
Finally, there are 2 very important “golden” rules to Sight Reading:
- Keep going no matter what!
- Brush off any mistakes. As Freddie Mercury reminds us, “The show must go on!”
How do you practice sight reading? Have any of the above approaches worked for you? Do you have a painful or successful sight reading experience that has helped you devise new ways to improve your sight reading skills? Please comment below!
Happy Fluting (and sight reading)!