When we first learn to read, we tackle one word at a time, and hopefully as we revisit the same words again and again they become more familiar. Some longer, less familiar words can cause problems though. This ……. is ……. my ……. ??
At this point, we might get stuck. ‘This’ was a tricky word compared with ‘is’ and ‘my’, but we’ve encountered it a few times before and we’re wise to it now! But the last one in the sentence, the long one beginning with ‘t’, is going to take some working out.
There is an easier solution of course, and it’s the one which we hope the more observant child will work out for himself. The answer is that on the page, along with the tricky word, there is a great big picture of a lovely green tractor. That starts with ‘tr’ – that must be it – tractor!
If the task set was to read the sentence, we just passed. Technically we might not have read the last word – we sort of guessed it – but it was a good guess, based on plenty of very strong evidence, and we got it right. Job done.
“I won a g……… at the fun fair, but sadly it didn’t even survive the journey home.”
If this conjures up the image of someone standing in a lay-by, wondering how on earth they are going to explain to the police exactly what happened to the giraffe, then I suspect that you have never been to a fun fair!
In both of these random examples, context has a big part to play in our understanding of the words. We can fill in the gaps with relative ease by drawing on additional skills which we have, aside from the purely cerebral task of decoding letters into words. We do this all the time, and I mean all the time – whatever we are doing, in fact, our intuition is assessing past experiences in order to give us the most appropriate response in any situation. In everything we do, in every moment of every day.
So why should we approach sight-reading music any differently?
All too often I encounter young musicians (and some older ones too) who are so intent on decoding the dots on the page that they completely forget to observe the context – or worse, it has never even occurred to them to observe it in the first place. These are the ones who spend ages trying to work out the word ‘tractor’ when there is a huge picture of a tractor staring them in the face!
Sight-reading needs to involve sight-understanding, even at the most elementary level. A Grade 1 pianist needs to know what key the piece is in, not in order to test her on her knowledge of theory, but much more importantly, so that she can put her hands in the right place on the keyboard. She also needs to know that if two successive notes are on adjacent spaces, they are a third apart; armed with this handy piece of knowledge, she can play the second note without reading it, but instead by knowing where it lies in relation to the previous one. If her ears are switched on, it will not be a surprise to her when the piece ends on a note which previous experience says she should expect to hear. None of these things involve reading as such, but all improve her reading enormously.
As a student progresses it is imperative that these musicianship skills are developed at the same time – otherwise they will simply find themselves wading through more and more complex music with less and less understanding. It is not all about reading, far from it in fact. It is about understanding the context of the notes, and allowing our musicianship to take some of the strain by plugging the gaps with answers based on plenty of strong evidence provided by ear and intellect – that is, just in the same way as we read words. Approached in this way (in my experience, both of doing it and in teaching it) sight-reading soon becomes much easier, and therefore more enjoyable, and we do more of it, and get even better…. Very empowering!