Every Tuesday I’ll be writing tips for you to learn from and use in your daily practice.
One of the most difficult things a musician can be asked to do is play a song on the spot, having never seen the sheet or heard the music before. Sometimes just looking at all the notes on the page can be dizzying, overwhelming and disheartening. No matter how difficult it looks, it’s not impossible, though! Follow these 11 steps and you’ll start reading like a pro.
- Become familiar with musical terms. Know what the composer means when he writes “Cresc.” Know what you’re supposed to do when you see an accent sign or dynamic symbol. Does it feel like you’re reading a different language? Well, you kind of are. Music is the universal language. Most of the musical terms you see on a sheet are not in English. You can see a glossary of musical terms and symbols here. Better yet, get flash cards and drill yourself daily.
- Learn to identify key signatures at a glance. Again, use flash cards to drill yourself. Use a timer and see how many cards you can accurately identify within 30 seconds. Know without a doubt which notes are sharp and which are flat. Know what your normal hand position is for starting a song in each key. Is it a major key? Is it a minor key? Learn which keys you like and which you don’t. Practice the keys you don’t like 2x as much as the keys you are fond of. (Personally, I prefer sharps over flats, which I think is due to at least in part to the violin).
- Learn your scales backward and forward. Practice scales each day and make them a regular part of your “warm up” routine. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous step of knowing key signatures without hesitation. Scales are the key that unlocks all music. Play scales in every key and learn them so well you can play with your eyes closed!
- Play & read music every single day. Whether you’re playing a long song or a short exercise, play every single day. The more you play, the easier it becomes. Make reading music a part of your every day life and furnish your mind with the knowledge you gain. Make it a part of you that you know by heart so you don’t even have to hesitate to play what’s in front of you. The only way to do that is to play every single day. Read music every single day.
- Get familiar with a multitude of rhythm patterns. It’s easy to remember whole notes are held four beats, quarter notes are one beat. But when you have a new rhythm in front of you as you’re playing a song you’ve never heard before, your eyes have to “hear” the music before you play it. This means you have to again, drill yourself on different rhythms. What’s the time signature? How are you going to count it? When listening to a song on the radio, think to yourself what the notation for the rhythm would look like on paper. When you look at a new song for the first time, tap the rhythm out on your lap before you play the song. This will reinforce all you know about those note values.
- Practice without looking at your hands. Of course if you’re a singer this doesn’t help you, but for any other instrument, learn to keep your eyes on the music through the entire piece. Remember, you are teaching your eyes to “hear” the music.
- Learn what different intervals sound like. A perfect fourth is the interval used at the beginning of the familiar song “Here Comes The Bride.” If you see a perfect fourth on a piece of sheet music, play the starting note for yourself and then without playing anything else, hum “here comes the bride.” After you have that interval, you are able to move forward knowing you are on the correct pitch. This is an essential tool for vocalists who are sight- singing.
- Even if you’re not a vocalist, sight-sing through your piece. At least hum the different pitches to find areas that may sound dissonant or rhythms that you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Sight singing is beneficial for any instrument.
- Play or sing along with a metronome. Make yourself continue moving forward through the song. After you’ve played with a metronome, play along with a CD or the radio. The act of pushing forward beat after beat without the option to pause and think activates your memory better than anything else. You will be surprised what you can accomplish when you are put to the test. The first few times will be a real struggle but once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’ll be ready to play along with other musicians!
- Now, when you’re put on the spot and asked to sight read, take a minute to look over the piece. What is the time signature? What is the key signature? Where will there be “tricky” areas? Where do the dynamics change? Do your hands move a lot? Plan out how you’re going to attack and execute.
- It’s all about repetition. Repetition. Repetition. If you think about it like reading a story, you know that when you first read something you may not fully comprehend every detail of the picture the author is painting with words. When you read something a second time you pick up on more of the inflection, syntax and expression. You read the story a third time and you may have it almost memorized so certain terms, phrases and words jump off the page and come to life. The same is true for reading music. The first time you read it, you may just see the notes and only comprehend the mechanics of “okay, first finger here, second finger there… this rhythm is tricky… what interval is that?” The second time you play the piece you start to see more of the dynamic markings and expressive prompts. The third (or fourth or fifth) time it starts to actually sound like music! Sight reading doesn’t only mean the absolute first time you’ve ever played a song. Sight reading happens for about the first three times you play something.
Now go put all this to work and tell me what helped you the most. I look forward to your feedback! What do you want to get tips on next Tuesday?
Be patient as you learn more about your instrument and all the beautiful music you can make. Remember it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress!