Successful Sightreading

Sightreading – what do I think about before I start? (a set of steps to remember)
We have all been in tough sightreading situations. Most often it happens during auditions or tryouts, when we are already in high-stress mode. You finish up the part of the audition that you have worked on, and are already evaluating your performance in your head, when you get handed a totally new piece of music to play – PANIC!

How do we prepare for this circumstance? Are there ways to fight off the stress of the situation, and still do a quality job of sightreading? You bet! You have to be able to do two things:
1 - think through the challenge before you jump in, and
2 - be able to maintain your confidence without giving in to nerves.

First of all, it is best to have a specific set of steps to go through. That way, every time you are sightreading, you will be in the habit of going through a predictable pattern, which will make it easier to remember when you are under stress.

Step 1 - Check your key signature, as well as scanning through for any key changes. Once you note how many sharps or flats are in the key, you will want to do your best to determine if the piece is in a major or minor key, if that is applicable. Why is this important?
Here is an example: your opening key contains 3 flats, and you make the quick assumption that it is in the key of Eb Major, so you plunk down your Bb thumb-key, in anticipation of lots of Bb's. If you had skimmed through the selection for accidentals, you may have realized that it contained lots of B-naturals. Oops – you missed the fact that it is most likely in the key of C Minor, and your Bb-thumb key was not a wise choice after all. If you are in an audition, you may have just missed your one opportunity to impress the judge with your sightreading ability.

Step 2 - Figure out your tempo. If your judge sings some of the beginning for you – FOCUS!! He or she may be singing it slower than the marked tempo, and if so, take that tempo! They may know that it is technically difficult, and are giving you a tempo that you have a better chance to succeed at.
If, however, you have to go from a marked tempo only, work from a “known” tempo, and estimate from that – I have a very solid 1-second count that I can hear in my head, and can calculate just about any tempo from that. Many people have favorite pieces that they know are performed at a specific tempo. However you work it out, if you are not in a judging situation, but only practicing, you will want to check yourself afterwards with a metronome to see how close you were with your estimate.
Once you have that tempo in your head, force yourself to think through the first few measures, to be sure that you have accurate rhythms in your head. After that, skim ahead to note any tempo changes (especially ritardandos or accelerandos).

Step 3 – Think through any tricky rhythms or time signature changes. Sometimes something as simple as quarter notes repeating on upbeats can be tough to get correct when you are sightreading, so look for anything syncopated. Also, any changes from very fast to very slow notes can be challenging when you are nervous.

Step 4 (for slow pieces) - If you have a slow selection, you will want to glance through all of the dynamic markings. Making music out of a piece you are looking at for the first time is one of the biggest challenges, but if you can do it, you will be judged much higher.

Step 4 (for fast pieces) - If your selection is technical or fast, you will want to skim ahead for technique challenges. Help your brain cue in to spots that are fast, but scale-wise or arpeggiated. If you have tons of ledger lines, watch for the highest notes in the passage, to orient yourself while you are playing through. Note measures that have lots of accidentals, and be prepared for them.

That's it – just 4 steps. With some regular practice of going through those four steps, you will be able to do them without even thinking.

Now, let's move on to PRACTICING how to sightread. This is the confidence builder exercise. You need to make yourself BELIEVE that you are A GOOD SIGHTREADER.
The best way to do that is to test yourself on a regular basis. Do you have an iPhone or a tablet computer? Even just a regular desktop computer?
Nowadays, there are tons of free recording applications that you can use to record your own playing. Try some of them! For this exercise, you do not need fancy or high-tech – even a video recording with audio will be fine – borrow Mom or Dad's camera if you can.

For this exercise, you will need the recording equipment, a timer, and a book of music that you have not played before (often, the best choice is the last few pages of your current solo collection). Alternate between slow and fast selections when you do this.
Plan to play through 2-3 lines while you are recording yourself. Don't cheat and look too closely at the music beforehand! Sometimes, just flipping open the book to a random page can work quite effectively.

Set your timer to 30 seconds for each of your four steps, and when that timer goes off, make yourself STOP that step, and move on to the next. It's all a matter of being thorough without taking too much of your precious time.
When that last 30-second timer sounds, immediately turn on your recording device, and run through your selection without stopping. Don't worry about missed notes or rhythms, just get through it. Then turn off your recording device.

Now . . . repeat the entire exercise on the same piece. Take another two minutes on the timer going through your four steps. Turn on your recorder, and run straight through the selection again.

The last part of this sight-reading practice is to put your flute away and sit with the music while you listen to the two recordings that you made. The main thing you want to focus on is which parts of the performance you were able to improve upon between the two recordings. Write out some notes for yourself about which parts of the music you evaluated more closely on your scond time through the timed portion.

The main goal for one month of practicing sight-reading is to get your FIRST TIME running through a piece to sound as good as your second time did the month before.
As a follow-up to any day that you had a difficult time with one of your sightreading selections, I encourage you to go back the next day, and look carefully at any of the challenging parts, and to work through the notes and rhythms that you feel you missed in your recordings.
Do this type of practice regularly, and I know you will see a difference the next time you find yourself in a sight-reading challenge.