Over the last two months I have been writing about sight-reading skills. First I discussed the importance of developing these skills, and the levels of ability. Next I outlined the basics I start with when teaching young and less advanced students. Here, I go into more detail, and I'll post a bonus section for more advanced musicians next month.
More details about key signature
Major & Minor Keys: Usually at first, we are just working with major keys. But when we come across a minor key, I explain the concept of relative minor and show the student how to find the minor key a minor third down. It’s a little tricky for younger and less experienced students to understand, but with repetition everyone gets it eventually.
To explain the concept of relative minors, I talk about relatives having the same signature – the same last name – but are different people. This helps students remember that E minor and G major, for example, are relatives; they have the same last name and “sign their names the same way” – with an F#.
Next I point out that a lot of music starts and ends on the tonic (e.g. C is the tonic in C major). Not always, but it’s a clue if you’re not sure (and might be a clue that this one is in the relative minor). And I have them find the lowest of that note on their instrument and play a scale in that key so they orient their ear.
Accidentals: I ask students to look for accidentals, so they’re ready when they get to them. And I ask: Will you just slide your finger up or down when you get to that note, or is that going to be an extra wide stretch from first to third finger, or…? Those might just be chromatic notes, or they might indicate a modulation to another key.
More details about rhythm and meter
Rhythm: In addition to clapping the rhythm, I also have students look for anything unusual; for example, a triplet in 4-4 time, syncopated notes, or ties across a barline.
Tempo Marking: We look at the context for the rhythms and meter, because the tempo can have a dramatic effect on how the music sounds and is played.
Form: I might also have students take a step back to look at the big picture, the “road map”.
Putting It All Together
Once a student can do all of the basics pretty easily with prompting, I start having them do it silently in their heads. We turn the page to a new piece of music, and I wait while they look at all the basic elements. When they’re ready, they give it a shot (starting with a quick one-octave scale if they want to orient their ear), and then I compliment them on the parts they got right and have them take another look at the sections they missed.
What we are aiming for is a musically expressive rendition of what’s on the page. Slowly (with practice) students move from the music equivalent of “See – Jane – run – see – Dick – run – see – Spot – run” to a dramatic interpretation of whatever the composer wrote. And eventually, musicians learn to do all of this pretty quickly. You won’t need to play a quick scale to orient your ear to the key, because you’ll be able to hear the notes in your head and translate that as you play.
Things that help:
Have fun, and don’t be in a hurry. You will learn how to do this, but it will take time. If you want, record yourself trying to sight read something today, and then in a year record yourself again. If you have been working on it consistently, you will be amazed at how much better you are!
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)