March 28, 2011

The Secret to Sight-Reading

Filed under: 20-minute,music,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 1:19 am
Tags: , ,

Newt music

I’m known in the local musical community as being a good sight-reader.  I’ve been invited to sight-read concerts, subbing in groups that have had a player go missing for whatever reason.  Put a piece of music in front of me, and 99 times out of 100, I can play it.  I might not play it perfectly, and I definitely play them better after I’ve had a chance to work on them. but I can play them with enough confidence that folks are impressed, or else think I’ve put a ton of practice time in on it.

The funny (scary?  lame?  sad?) thing is that I’m a good sight-reader because I hate to practice.  I love playing my horns in groups, or the occasional solo, but I loathe practicing.  I dread the idea of unpacking my trombone or bassoon alone in a room somewhere, and then playing through some etude or exercise or piece over and over again, alone.  And then packing up alone and heading back to whatever else I was doing.  I rarely practiced during my formative band years from fifth grade through my senior year.  Even today, I rarely practice.  Maybe I noodle on stuff before rehearsal, but that’s it.

One thing I hate worse than practicing, though, is sucking in public.  I hate messing up a solo.  I hate missing an entrance, or worse, coming in early.  I hate a run that’s uneven.

That’s quite a dichotomy.  You not-suck by practicing.  And here I am bragging that I don’t practice.  That’s where the sight-reading skills comes in to play.  All during high school, after I figured out I didn’t want to suck, I determined the best way to not embarrass myself in public: become a good sight-reader.

So what makes a good sight-reader?  There’s a couple of things to know, but the big ones are knowing your scales and arpeggios.  Which, of course, you learn by practicing.  “Gee MarkD, going around in circles again, aren’t we?”

I was lucky enough to take some bassoon lessons from an awesome teacher when I was growing up.  Each lesson or two I had to master a scale, straight eighth notes spanning two and a half octaves. The bassoon has a nice wide range, so even a fairly new student can do two-plus octave major scales.

So I learned my scales and arpeggios.  When you look at music closely, a lot of stuff is based directly on scales and arpeggios.  I the Loudoun Concert Band was doing the Holst Suite # 2. There’s a run at the beginning for the tubas and the euphs.  They just weren’t getting it. Finally the director said “guys, it’s just a freaking F scale”.  The next downbeat, they played if perfectly.

If they had realized “hey, it’s just a freaking F scale” before the conductor told them, they would have looked totally studly.

Likewise, trombone parts in band marches frequently have some fast, seemingly difficult parts.  These are usually based on, you guessed it, scales and arpeggios.  Also, the same kinds figures tend to turn up over and over again from march to march.  If you keep aware of what you’re playing you’ll see the same figures again and again.  When you see a familiar figure, you can just sit there and toss it off, not worrying about learning it beforehand, alone, in a practice room somewhere.

It also helps to sight-read a lot.  I love the sight-reading rehearsal for a new concert cycle.  You get used to figures, patterns, plus it’s no longer stressful if you do it a lot.  Plus I have a bit of musical ADD, and love reading new music.

Scales and arpeggios.  Spend your alone time building yourself some good tools, and you can escape the lonely drudgery of practice.  And sight-read a lot.  Soon you too can become studly.

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