The first church orchestra I joined was quite small. Our string section consisted of 2 first violins, 1 second (me), and one violist. Because I was always good at memorizing music, or playing by ear, I had never developed the skill of sight reading music. One day, our string section was practicing some Christmas music and the section we were playing had the firsts play a line, and the seconds echoing it. The firsts played their line, and when it was my turn, there was dead silence. Our violist leaned over and whispered to me, “That’s why I play viola!” Since I wasn’t very good at sight reading, I panicked when it was my turn to play. Needless to say, I took the music home and practiced a lot the next week so I would be ready when that section came up at the next rehearsal. I learned the hard way that sight reading is essential if you want to play with a group.
What is the best way to learn or improve sight reading skills?
- Start easy! Get some music that is relatively easy to play and force yourself to keep your eyes on the music while playing. I make it a habit to watch the music even when playing a simple, 3 octave scale. I have had people ask me why I do that. “You know that scale!” My answer is that I am practicing my sight reading. What better way to associate notes – especially those on ledger lines, with the corresponding position on the fingerboard.
- Practice, Practice, Practice!
- Force yourself to watch the music – even when you don’t think you need to. Playing by ear or by memory is fairly easy for me. The problem is that when I come to a section I don’t know, I have lost my place in the music and I can’t play what comes next. The cure? Always keep your eyes on the music.
- Force yourself to count! You will never be able to keep up with the group or figure out complex rhythms if you don’t count. I remember one conductor used to tell us to “sing the words” of the piece we were working on. Then he would say “You do know the words don’t you? ‘One e and a two e and a three e. . .” We got the point.
- Have a routine. Set aside some time to work on sight reading every time you practice. Use a routine that works for you such as:
- Scan before you start playing
- Count as you play
- Look ahead as you play
- Keep going. There is a time when stopping and playing a section over again is good. However, this is not possible when playing with a group.
- Learn patterns (etudes are good for this)
- In tough places, play the note of the main beat.
With the start of the new orchestra season, I have been reminding myself of these recommendations. They are not complete, and your teacher can help you with areas you are having problems, but they will help. I know they help me.