Reading music is a handy tool when you’re a musician. But what makes for a good sight-reader? Here are some tips I've picked up along the way.
1. Listen to a lot of music.
Music is a language, so hearing is a natural predecessor to “speaking” and “reading.” For example, students who listen to a lot of jazz read syncopated and swing rhythms much better than those who don’t listen to jazz. In fact, this carries beyond reading to composing. I once had a student whose father was the leader of a popular afro-cuban jazz band. Growing up an environment that pumped jazz music, she heard complex rhythms all the time. She surprised me one week by showing me her own latin jazz arrangement of Beethoven’s Fur Elise--crazy rhythms and all. She never could have "spoken" the language without hearing it first.
2. Read new music.
I know, it should go without saying. But very often students spend way too much time perfecting and drilling current pieces without reading new ones. The great pianist and Juilliard professor Adele Marcus made her conservatory students sight-read for an hour a day. She saw the value in reading and passed it on. Anna and I have our elementary students read for about 10 minutes a day (in addition to regular pieces). Even this modest amount of reading builds tremendous skill.
3. Read at the right level.
Surprisingly, reading extremely difficult music won’t help boost reading skills as much as moderate level music. I was first introduced to this idea in a class taught by concert pianist Sam Rotman. It seemed odd at first, but as he explained things it made sense. Moderate-level music allows the brain to fully engage in the reading process. Music that’s too hard causes the brain to switch functions, going from reading to learning. Learning is just fine, but it should never be confused with reading.
4. Check eyesight.
OK, this one is probably off the radar for most people, but it is important! We noticed recently that our oldest daughter has been relying only on her ears and not much on her eyes when reading music. I pulled up a downloadable eye chart on the web and printed it out. Sure enough, she failed miserably--even at a close distance. It seems only months ago that she did just fine on her vision test. Obviously, we’re going to the eye doctor soon. Hey, now she’ll get to see what I really look like.
Do you have any ideas on what makes a good reader? Please share!
Adam Bendorf and his wife, Anna, are private piano teachers in Santa Clarita, CA. They have two girls and another kid on the way. They enjoy long walks on the beach, as long as the beach doesn't have crabs, dead seals, or people wearing Speedos.