Last month I wrote about the importance of sight-reading skills and the different levels of ability. It’s a complex skill that involves more than just the ability to read notes and note values correctly on a sheet of music. It also requires musical instinct and an engaged musical ear, just like with learning and playing music by ear with no music in front of you.
Although it does take time to learn sight-reading skills, and even more time to develop confidence in your ability, there are specific things you can do beyond just using your musical instinct and your ear. This post describes how I have been teaching my students to approach a new piece of music they have never heard before.
Note Names and Note Values: The first thing students must learn is what notes they are playing (the note names, not just what finger to use on what string) and how long that note lasts. I ask questions such as:
These are the basic elements students need to know before I start teaching them to sight-read. I have found that my former Suzuki students are a little hazy on some of this, even though their playing is quite advanced. For example, they might or might not know that that note is called an 8th note, though they probably know it is faster than a quarter note. Because they have learned the music by ear first, and then are using the printed music as a reminder of how it goes, I need to figure out what gaps they have in their knowledge and fill those gaps in.
Next I introduce students to the steps for sight-reading a piece of music.
Key Signature: When we turn the page to a new piece, these are the first questions I ask:
Then I have the student figure out what the key is. If it’s sharps, then the key is the note above the last sharp (reading left to right). If it’s flats, then the key is the second-to-last flat.
This means there are two keys you have to memorize: C major, which has no flats or sharps, and F major, which has only one flat.
I also point out that the first sharp in the sequence is always F# and the first flat is always Bb and the order of the sequences is always the same.
Time Signature: The time signature is the first clue to the rhythmic feel of the music.
I have students clap the rhythm while I tap the beat on the stand with my pencil. Or I have them point to the notes while saying the rhythm: “One two-and three four”.
As they get used to these basic elements, I start to add more details. Next month’s post will talk about these details, and I might add a bonus section with some extras for more advanced students.
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)