Sight Reading vs Fright Reading




I get many musicians who contact me about how to approach sight reading which for many is more like “fright reading” that sight reading.  When I was teaching a lot at universities such as NYU and Princeton I created many books for my sight reading courses.   There are many concepts and considerations that I considered while writing these books but here are 10 quick key points that come to mind.

1.  It is important to read different manuscripts. You need to train your eye to be comfortable with many styles of penmanship and music fonts, as you never know what will be thrown at you unexpectedly (see #10). This is why I put up the downloads of classical music in the member’s area.  

2.  Learn to FEEL time and not count time.  I usually get into this with students that have read for a while but it’s a crucial step in taking yourself to next level of rhythmic understanding which will greatly benefit your ability to sight read, have a great feel when you play and strengthen your foundation so that you can superimpose other rhythms and feels when improvising.  I discuss this a lot in the Big Metronome. Also the use of the MetroDrone is not only super helpful with these issues, but working with it also helps with your ear training at the same time as you are sight reading.

The next 5 points are dealt with in New York Guitar Method Ensemble Book One which goes into more depth on the subject and has midi files and MP3s for some exercises which will really help you develop these concepts.

3.  Your eye and how it reads music is directly affected by its ability to move ahead of the music. You can learn to take in information much faster than most people, and read more accurately at the same time, if you can master the technique of what I call “beat reading,” where you read only what is on certain beats of the measure. This will make a huge difference in your speed and ability.  This is “beat reading” and it is your secret weapon to improve your sight reading in an incredibly short period of time.

4.  Understanding Straight 8ths vs. Swing 8th.  As many of you know there are two major ways to feel eighth or even sixteenth notes: where you play them straight (like in rock music) or with a swing feel (found in blues and jazz). In the latter, you are playing eighth notes something close to beat one and the 3rd note of a triplet. There is much more to this idea of feel, especially when we talk about a swing feel, but I’m just touching on key points.

5. Counting through a piece of music. If you don’t approach this correctly you will find you have wasted a massive amount of time.  Each piece of music, rhythmic level and even style requires different considerations.  Of course, this was also a consideration when I was writing New York Guitar Method Ensemble Book One so it contains a full explanation of how to approach the counting of many of the sight reading exercises.

6.  Understanding rhythm notation.  There are two key factors with this. One, for rhythm section players is understanding how to read rhythmic notation along with chords.  Second is being able to read on multiple rhythm levels. There are four common rhythmic levels in music.  Think of it like this: you could have your basic beat be a whole, half, quarter or eighth note.  Fast jazz is written at the whole or half note level, jazz is written at the quarter note level ( but felt at the half note level), Really slow music in any style is written at the eighth note level. NYGM along with the whole Rhythm Series of books is all about rhythmic levels so it’s an excellent source for mastering each one.

7.  When you work on reading it’s best to use a bunch of different types of sight reading materials rather than just one book by one composer.  Commonly when students decide to learn to read they grab one of Bach’s masterpieces. While it’s great music you should be using more that one book. Bach’s music isn’t going to help you read that chart in a funk band; it’s just not rhythmic in the same way.  So mix it up, get written music in as many different kinds of styles as you can to prepare yourself for the real world of sight reading.

8.  You need to be consistent in your practice.  I did one hour a day of sight reading for 5 years which put me at a super pro level but if you can do 15 minutes a day within a few months you are reading better than most musicians and in a year or two you will be approaching an “OK” pro level.

9,  Sight reading improves your musicianship.  When you have to address learning rhythm and how to play melodies you get into a host of issues that will help raise your playing, composing and ensemble balance skills.  It will help you understand how music is felt and written.  It will help you see and solve the problems you might have with speeding up or slowing down as you play.  You will be able to understand how to organize music and styles into different notational conventions.  It will allow you to get inside a composer’s music to understand their inner workings from a very fundamental place because you are playing, rather than only reading, the music.  I could go on, but again these are just a few key points among many.

10.  You can make money sight reading.  I have many examples like this but this is short and sweet.  I got a call 8pm at night when I was living in Boston.  The guitarist that was supposed to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Boston the next day just had an attack of appendicitis.  I walked into symphony hall and started sight reading on the spot from a book that I’d never seen before.  I think I missed two or three notes throughout the evening but no one seemed to notice.  I made enough money from that one gig to live in Boston for six months.  Reading pays, my friend.

These are 10 quick points off the top of my head but in Skype and regular lessons it usually takes me two or three lessons just to get through all the things that are pertinent to sight reading.  So when you decide to get away from “fright reading” and move towards sight reading get in touch, and I’ll make some recommendations.