How To Do Better In Your Sight-Reading Tests (Part I)

Now, I would urge you to focus more on sharpening your reading on rhythm with relation to a definitive pulse. A lot of players/students have little awareness on this aspect, and with too much concern only over the pitch, that is hitting the right note. Let me emphasis once again that playing a note correctly involves hitting the right key (pitch) at the right timing (rhythm) in the right time frame (pulse), so even if you hit the right key does not necessarily mean you play the note correctly -that is only one part of the tri-factor.

Learning to play with correct rhythm with a regular pulse requires separate training, sometimes better to take this aspect without pitch. Start with clapping the rhythm of some phrases from a piece you are working on and have trouble with the rhythm/pulse. You can first use metronome to define how fast your pulse is. Gradually you develop an inner pulse that even without a metronome you can set your own pulse/tempo immediately. So clap/play with the metronome then clap/play without it. Sometimes say the rhythm out loud helps as well.

To train getting the rhythm right, you must train yourself to be able to count all the subdivisions. That means not only you have to know how fast a pulse is (for example a crotchet/quarter beat in 3/4 time), but also how long the sub-beats are (in this example, the half beat- the quaver/eighth note, the quarter of the beat – the semiquaver/sixteenth note, the dotted quaver/eighth + semiquaver/sixteenth – three semiquavers/sixteenths + one semiquaver/sixteenth). You have to know EXACTLY how fast each subdivision/combination is, not just play by random guess/estimation, in the context of the chosen tempo as well. Then, you will be confident to read much better with the right pitch already in check.

A lot of piano players think that they should read the pitch first, then the rhythm. Or the right hand first, then the left hand. No, you don’t have time to do so. READ EVERYTHING AT THE SAME TIME. IN TEMPO.

Of course, if your reading is quite poor in general, then you should start reading more on individual clefs, especially drill more on bass clef, which seems to be a problem for a lot of players ( I suppose most people is right-hand-dominated/oriented, except me). And try to read the notes in accordance with their RELATIONSHIP, meaning you have to read the intervals between notes, how far/close apart the notes are. This will get you read much faster in the long run.

Another very important point is, NEVER PLAY BACKWARD. With this I mean never try to correct the mistakes you’ve just made in the last note/beat/bar/phrase, regardless of whether it’s pitch/rhythm problem. Forget about it and move on to the next beat/bar. Remember, it’s the continuous flow and steady pulse that counts, because, if you don’t keep going and keep trying to get the last chord right instead, what you are doing is simply repeating the same beat over and over again, so that no one can hear where the right pulse lies. For instance, if you keep repeating the last beat of a bar in 3/4 time, there would be 3 third beats and there is no way anyone can hear/feel it’s triple meter! Therefore, RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO GO BACK AND CORRECT YOURSELF. It’s quite pointless when you are trying to read something new yet wanting to play perfectly; it’s not a practice session. And bear in mind that even if you go back and play correctly after three trials of the same bar such act is not going to contribute to higher points – I think it makes sound worse because when you are not moving forward, no one can hear it as a musical work which should show A SENSE OF FLOW.

Remember, the point of sight-reading test is not to test if you can be perfect at the first read, but to see if you can try to understand and play as much as possible, based on your musical knowledge and experience, most of the characteristics/features/style in a new piece so that your audience – in this case your examiner- can comprehend it more or less as a coherent piece of music.

And what’s my secret of doing great at sight-reading? Keep a habit of reading a lot of new pieces in as much variety of musical styles as possible, so that when you are given something you’ve never read before in the test, you are able to play it through with confidence because you know the musical grammar so well in so many various versions of it. It’s the same way we study a language, that we know the grammar of it so well that even if it’s in different context and structure we cab still understand what it means.

Now, go have some fun with your sight-reading! (for me I really love reading new music all the time because it’s always exciting to get to know some new pieces!)

Teresa Wong

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