I am a keen chess player, but I wouldn’t rate myself as particularly good. My dad taught me to play chess when I was young – although I suspect that a more accurate way to describe it would be that he taught me how each piece moves, and to take care not to lose pieces too readily (although this still happens even now!) To be perfectly honest, I find the whole concept of teaching someone how
to play chess – that is, how to really play – a bit of a mystery. I think I’ve learned a few things over the years, mostly by trial, error and humiliating defeat, and I’m still hopeful that the more I play the better I’ll get. But I have no doubt that what I really need is some quality teaching if I am to significantly raise my game.
When it comes to sight-reading music, I wonder how far different our approach is? Read the key signature, choose a steady tempo, keep going if you can. Perhaps with some (unhelpful?) comments along the way – “that should be F#”; “nearly; well done, keep going!” And probably the least helpful of all: “okay, not bad, let’s do some more next lesson.”
To make a significant difference to the level of our pupils’ sight-reading, two things need to be happening. The first is that it needs to be taught. We need to give our pupils plenty of strategies to help them along the way, so that they feel able to make progress rather than just struggling through yet another sight-reading test in the vain hope that it might be better this time. I believe that the real key here is understanding, and not at a superficial level either. Aural skills are also vital, so that the student can use her ears and her musical experience in addition to simply reading the notes; in my experience, once a student can hear the key signature, they are beginning to sight-read much more effectively. A clear understanding of pulse is critical, and if this hasn’t clicked with the student yet (forgive the pun), then this needs addressing first – without it, reading all but the most basic of single line rhythms is fraught with difficulties. Even the most simple of strategies can make a world of difference if we take the trouble to share them – take nothing for granted!
The second thing which needs to be happening is practice, and lots of it; the more you read, the more fluent you will become, especially if in the meantime there is good teaching taking place alongside. I will quite often hand a Grade 2 sight-reading book to a Grade 5-ish pianist with instructions to play through every test before next lesson – or even better, learn every test. It can be a huge confidence builder, and can also give us the opportunity to go back a few spaces if necessary, and point out some of the basic elements of the music. Simple harmonic patterns are generally easier to identify in the more elementary tests, and once introduced can really help musical understanding as things get more difficult. Easier tests can also be easier to sing, and if you can sing it, you can play it!
Teaching our pupils to sight-read is empowering, and yet we seem to spend a disproportionate amount of our teaching time on repertoire. Whilst the average 15 year old child might have spent x hours reading words, both in school and at home, it is worth considering how many hours that same child might have spent reading notes. For the average child, it is likely to be very significantly lower. We need to take this into account, and continue to take every opportunity to nurture their basic understanding of how music is put together – otherwise a huge gulf appears between what they can ‘perform’ and what they can actually understand and read.