I’m a decent musician. I work at it, slowly, note by note. Sometimes only one note, moving the bow back and forth to master a constant speed, a smooth transition. I don’t “do” fast, which makes sight-reading a challenge.
Sight reading is when someone plops a piece of music on your stand, and you’re supposed to play it. Without stopping. At only slightly below performance tempo. Of course, there’s always a first read of any piece of music, but generally I get to do it in private. I always dread our first orchestra rehearsal, because it’s like flying without a net. After we finish, I take the music home and work it obsessively for the next week, listening to recordings, working through the fingerings and the difficult passages so I won’t be caught flat at the next rehearsal.
My orchestra has four evenings of sight-reading during the summer. I used to avoid going because I found it too stressful. For the last couple of years I’ve had to go because I’m the librarian and I handle the music. We met Monday night for our first reading and believe it or not…it was fun.
I’ve been studying with my teacher for a year and a half. That’s definitely helped. I recognize patterns faster, and my fingers are more nimble. I think the bigger shift, however, has been my attitude towards perfection and a focus on process rather than outcome. Sight reading requires one to experience the music as a whole, rather than perfect note by perfect note. You play the note and keep moving, or don’t play the note, but keep moving. If you can’t manage a passage, fluff it, fake it, or forget it, but it can’t stop you because there’s another note waiting for you right after it. And another after that, and so on.
When I would sight-read before, my focus would turn inward–what I was playing. Now, it’s turned outward–what we are playing. Viewing my music as part of a whole keeps me in the flow. I may not know the piece, but I know enough about music to know how my part works within the context of others. Unless we’re playing Hindemith or Schoenberg. Then all bets are off.
I’m beginning to think perhaps life is not unlike sight-reading. One never knows the plan of a moment or a day. It unfolds in front of us in real time. We can move with it, or be left behind, but it doesn’t wait for us. If I pay attention to what is going on around me, even if I miss a note or two, or even blow an entire passage, there are others to help me find my way back in. Being in harmony and in synch is more valuable than being perfect and solitary.
I would still prefer to be able to play what is on the page with preparation and confidence. I cannot read the notes quickly enough to get them all–I need faster glasses. The more I work at sight-reading, however, the less daunting it is. Learning to lighten up a little wouldn’t hurt either. Worrying about how I’m doing it prevents me from actually having fun while doing it. It also helps to remember that most everyone is too busy worrying about their own mistakes to concern themselves with mine.
“Winging it” has never been part of my personal lexicon, but then again, neither was noobtuber. Stranger things have happened.
Words by J. B. Everett
Comic – Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller