I have a couple former Suzuki students whom I am teaching to sight-read. Typical of Suzuki students, they are both beautifully set up: perfect left hand form, consistent intonation, excellent bowing technique. But as is also common with Suzuki students, they are not good note readers in spite of their advanced skill.
Learning to play “by ear” is an extremely useful skill which I teach to all my students. But learning to read notes is equally important, especially if you want to play in an ensemble or do well in an audition.
I think of sight-reading skill in three stages.
Beginning: Learning what finger to put down on what string when you see a particular note on a specific line or space, but still needing to hear the melody, either someone else playing it or listening to a recording, in order to understand how it sounds.
This is like the child just learning how to read. She’s heard the story before and know how it goes; she could tell it to you herself. And now she has the book in her hands and is learning that that three-letter word starting with a “p” is probably “pig” because the story is about the three little pigs.
Competent: Knowing the note names on sight (not figuring it out by using “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “F-A-C-E”) and playing them accurately (including sharps or flats in the key signature) in “real time”, with correct rhythm.
This is the student who can read a book out loud in his reading group, even if he doesn’t know the story yet, with the teacher there listening to correct pronunciation or help with an unfamiliar word. This student is now starting to know when a vowel is short or long – just like sharps and flats – and can figure out by context how a word should sound.
Fluent: Looking at a piece of music and hearing it accurately in your head before you play it.
Eventually you want to be able to read any book on your own and understand the story as it unfolds. Unfortunately, a lot of musicians don’t get to this stage until college, when they are forced to take sight singing classes!
My former Suzuki students are both at the beginning stage. They know what finger to put down, but aren’t sure when it should be high or low (and why), and they need a significant amount of help with rhythm and counting.
Sometimes they write the finger number and string below the notes, or color-code notes to indicate when to play it sharp or flat, but I encourage them to drop these habits as soon as they can.
Ironically, these habits are an indication that the student’s ear is disengaged and their musical instincts are asleep. They are simply reading by rote with no musical comprehension, and can’t tell when they make a mistake.
However, if you are forced to rely on your ear & instincts while reading music, you will begin to be able to tell if that sharp or flat makes sense in the phrase. It’s this experience – deciding if a note you played makes sense in context – that begins to develop your fluency.
The same is true for note values. If you are “feeling the beat” (i.e. your musical instincts and ear are engaged) then you’re less likely to short-change rests or play a series of eighth notes twice as fast or slow as they should be.
It is a difficult thing to do at first, especially if you haven’t grown up reading the notes. And developing confidence in your ability to sight read takes time. But there are specific things you can do to build your skill, which, along with using your ear and instincts, can help you become a fluent sight reader. I’ll address these in the next part next month.
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)