Many times we are held back by our inability to read new material quickly and accurately. This weakness can surface while playing in a band, on a gig, or in a recording session. Some players seem to be able to read anything placed on their stand while others fumble with even the simplest passages. Teachers many times will explain to their students that the only way to improve their sight reading skills is to do more reading. While this is true, it doesn’t address the basic problems facing the student. I have learned that “just reading more new music” is not a time and energy efficient approach to solving this situation. I will try to break this weakness down into three basic areas and suggest activities which should improve a players ability to sight-read more quickly and accurately.
Don’t Avoid it, Do it
From my experience, I have found that those with less than acceptable sight-reading skills usually are the ones who spend little if any time reading new material. This observation seems pretty basic and for that reason, the first thing you need to do is set aside time in your daily practice for reading new music. Just five minutes a day will make a big improvement in your reading skills. The difficulty of the new material should not exceed your comfort zone so when you begin to add to your practice sessions, do not load up on something as difficult as Charlier 36 Transcendental Etudes Pour Trumpet. A much more productive book would be something like the First Book of Practical Studies: Cornet and Trumpet by Robert W. Getchell followed by his second book. Reading this material for the first time should be a pleasurable, not a nerve wracking experience. As you read each simple exercise, you need to strive for perfection not just to bolster your ego. Keep it simple and play without errors. Get in the habit of playing it correctly the first time. Once you have completed book one and two, and you feel confident with this level of music, it would be time to begin your real assignment.
Our ability to sight read fluently is sometimes hampered by our natural tendency to slow down on the difficult passages of music and rush on the easy passages. Practicing with a metronome will help to control this urge but a more productive way is to practice with someone else. Playing duets with another player has many advantages such as keeping you consistent, pushing you harder and forcing you to play at the best of your ability. If you have no friends to help you, try recording yourself while playing with a metronome. A “click track” is essential when trying to play duets with yourself. It is also helpful for keeping a steady tempo. The best collection of duets I have found is the Amsden’s Celebrated Practice Duets written by Arthur Amsden and published by C.L. Barnhouse Music Publishers. There are more than enough duets in this collection to keep you and a friend busy for a long time.
What Makes Sight Reading Difficult?
One of the most difficult issues when sight reading is not the inability to read the notes, it is the inability to read the rhythms. I have a fellow trumpet player from the Les Brown Band that is kind enough to visit me each week to play duets. We have been doing this for several months and I have enjoyed the company as well as the chance to benefit from his experience as a working musician. While playing through the Amsden duet book, we both suddenly stopped playing and looked at each other in disbelief. We both realized that each part had missing beats. The feeling we both felt when trying to play that measure was comical. It felt like someone pulled the plug on our brains. We looked at each other and began laughing. Previously while playing together, we were able to miss a note or two (or one-hundred) and continue without missing a beat but when we tried to play a measure with the incorrect number of beats, we both froze and could not go on. When sight reading, most of the time our fingers react quickly to the pitch of every note but when our eyes come across a rhythm that is new to us, we go blank. We know how to finger every note on our instrument but when faced with an unfamiliar rhythm, it stops us from continuing. This is the reason why many people cannot sight read quickly. It’s not the notes; it’s the unfamiliar rhythms that slows them down. One area you will need to improve in your sight reading will be the ability to recognize unusual rhythms. We are slowed down in our sight-reading more from the inability to recognize rhythms than not being able to play the notes.
I have searched the internet for a simple, beginners level rhythmic etude book which would address this issue. Unfortunately I have not been able to find one that I thought was worth the cost. That is the reason I have decided to write one which would address this area in a way which would be both educational as well as interesting for the student. The collection of rhythmic studies will be completed and available by the first of November. In addition to the etudes, you will have the option of purchasing a CD which gives the student the opportunity to play along with a click track as well as listening to a professional trumpet player playing the exercises. This will accelerate the students reading ability and they will also find it fun to practice.
In conclusion I have listed my suggestions on how to become a better sight reader. I hope you gain from these suggestions and please feel free to submit any comments or questions you may have on this topic.
Suggestions for Improving Your Sight Reading Skills
- Set aside time each day (10-15 minutes) for reading new music (keep it simple).
- Once or twice a week play duets with a friend or with a recording of yourself.
- Practice a little every day in rhythmic study book
What are some of the ways you have discovered that help you with your sight reading? Add your comments below.