Sight-reading and notation

Many of the world’s finest musicians do not read music, so perhaps  we teachers worry too much about notation! Pupils have different learning styles with some depending more on aural ability, while others are ‘visual’ learners who are unhappy unless they have ‘the dots’ in front of them. Occasionally, we may encounter a pupil who is downright resistant to reading from the score and I have one of those at the moment – very frustrating! Nevertheless, the player who cannot sight-read is generally at a great disadvantage: opportunities for independent exploration of new music and playing in ensembles are far more limited for the non-reader. So, while I’m unfazed by the pupil who wants to take a predominently aural approach, I want to do all I can to foster reading skills.

Most of my pupils are exploring new pieces all the time, as they learn lots of quick-study pieces and I insist on covering a broad repertoire at each grade. We adopt a creative approach, with most using the commonly-encountered rhythmic and melodic patterns in
improvisational activities. The familiarity of these patterns to mind and fingers is key to elementary sight-reading.

Fluent sight-readers are looking ahead and recognising familiar patterns coming up. Each bar or so is rapidly memorised and executed by the fingers, while the eyes scan the next. Page-turners are often amazed at how far ahead the performer wants the page turned! We can practise this skill in the same way that school-children practise their spellings: Look at a bar of music for a few seconds, then ‘cover’ it and try to reproduce it from memory. Go back to the music and check the ‘spelling’. Repeat the process until accuracy is achieved. We can do this with each or any of the bars of a piece of music that is new to us before attempting the whole. It is good to note down the date and tempo and return at a later date to read it through at a faster speed.

In the field of literacy, the research behind the “Ladybird Keywords Reading Scheme” found that 12 words make up a quarter of all the words we read every day and 100 words account for half those encountered daily. Similarly, a few rhythmic and melodic patterns account for a high proportion of those encountered in music scores. My “Rhythmic Reading Through Improvisation” is designed to familiarise pupils with the patterns used in sight-reading tests at grades 1-3 and to make learning more fun. Part 1 uses just rhythms and mastering these generally has the biggest impact on sight-reading. Part 2 follows the same
sequence with pitched notes. Part 2 has to have a different pitch range for different instruments and I haven’t made that available online, as yet.