V.com weekend vote: What is your sight-reading skill level?

August 2, 2019, 1:16 PM · I suspect that for most string players, sight reading is a real challenge.

This week I greatly enjoyed watching TwoSet Violin's new "Impossible Sight-Reading Challenge" video, in which they challenged themselves to sight-read three lines of an orchestra part without messing up. They had five different levels, starting with Handel Water Music and progressively getting more difficult, until they were trying to sight-read "Ein Heldenleben"!

What I loved is that Brett and Eddy messed up on every single level, even Level 1, just as most of us would probably do. Despite that, they clearly have some pretty impressive sight reading skills. It just goes to show that this is a very challenging skill!

A person's sight-reading skills tend to be somewhere behind their overall level as a violinist or violist or cellist. For example, just because you can play the Vivaldi A minor concerto, or the Mendelssohn, or the Tchaikovsky -- this does not mean that you would be able to sight-read a piece on that same level.

Playing in orchestra or in a chamber group can greatly help with sight-reading, which does require a degree of courage and risk-taking. Orchestra playing allows one to do it in the safety of a group; quartet-playing makes a person more accountable for his or her part. Personally, I feel like my sight-reading skills are something I picked up outside of violin lessons. The sight-reading ability also continued to grow for years after I stopped my formal lessons and training, as I played in orchestras and other groups.

What is your sight-reading level, the point where you could play three lines of music with reasonable fluency and without making a mistake? I would argue that our friends at TwoSet are very advanced sight-readers, despite their humility about it - they were still hanging in there with Bartok and Richard Strauss!

Here is a key for the levels for the vote, pick the one that best fits your ability, and then tell us about your sight-reading journey:

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August 2, 2019 at 08:17 PM · I clicked "Advanced," which has a plurality -- 39% -- at the moment. During my later student years, when I was doing a lot of orchestra playing, it was probably "very advanced" -- I'd already had the higher positions and had been reading and playing in keys with 4+ flats or sharps for some time before this. I haven't done orchestra since 21 y/o, though, so I don't have as much incentive to sight-read in tempo as I once did.

I do remember one summer session in CSO's training school -- before the regular season began. Summer was for sight-reading sessions only -- no performances -- not sure how it's done now. I was 19 y/o. One afternoon, we had Sibelius 2, which I'd heard since early childhood and knew well; and Richard Strauss's "Tod und Verklärung" (Death and Transfiguration), which I had never heard before.

Even though I'd never seen the sheet music for either piece, I found the Sibelius relatively easy to get through, because I already had a firm concept in mind of how it should sound. If memory serves, the high Bb, first movement, five ledgers above treble staff, is the top note.

The Strauss was more of a challenge. The very high notes, leading up to G in altissimo, just before the final section, weren't hard -- you have plenty of time to play each note. The real challenges were complex rhythms, syncopations, complex runs with one accidental after another thrown in. At the downward run from high G, mm. 29-30 into the Allegro molto agitato, my desk partner took one look and said, "Oh, forget it!"

August 3, 2019 at 04:50 AM · in the level 2 excerpt from Brandenburg 5, the first guy doubles the E on the 3rd beat of bar 13 and they don’t notice. Pfft!

And the tempo for the Strauss suggests that the Hero is using a walker to get around...

August 3, 2019 at 05:05 AM · What a great Subject!! I'll be Back!!!

Elisabeth Matesky *

*Voted Advanced ~

August 3, 2019 at 06:25 AM · This is where playing piano for 12 years before starting on strings helps immensely. My reading is often much faster than my ability to play the notes -- I am generally able to sight-sing even atonal music in a fairly quick tempo, but it often takes a while to translate that into actually playing the notes. I do have some difficulty with complicated rhythms.

August 3, 2019 at 06:50 AM · Over the years I've probably spent more time sight-reading than practising (make that "definitely") but I'm still deeply in awe of many pianists' sight-reading ability. They're often required to play four or more times as many notes as we do in two simultaneous clefs, hands performing conflicting rhythms. How do they even read the music when there isn't time to switch fixation between the two staves; it must all go past in a blur!

August 3, 2019 at 02:51 PM · I find that I can sight-read something generally about half as well as I can eventually play it with "infinite" practice. Okay, not the really nasty-tricky stuff, but general passage playing, orchestra parts, etc. It's great on the one hand but kind of frustrating because it means that my ability to really polish things is somehow lacking. Even with easier stuff it's hard to ever really play it wonderfully. Once in my life I'd like to be able to do that. Ergo, I keep practicing and taking lessons. Improvement is there ... but it's glacial.

August 3, 2019 at 08:37 PM · As Laurie hinted, "sight reading" for string players is a bit more difficult in that the very same note is often found at many different places on the fingerboard. The complexity happens because it isn't just each individual note, but the positional relationship of all the notes within a measure or phrase.

I'm a very basic "sight reader" largely because I'm also analyzing those relationships trying to determine the "ideal" position to play the measure or phrase so my brain is trying to calculate the ideal position while the music is moving forward.

That being said, I can, with time and trial, come up with the ideal way to play the notes and rhythms but it takes time and effort. I do not do well with a brand new piece of music dropped on my desk. Hence, I do not accept offers to join chamber sessions where the music isn't announced and/or distributed ahead of time.

August 3, 2019 at 09:13 PM · I witnessed an extraordinary example of virtuoso sight reading when I was at school. One of the boys, a year older than I, sight read Mozart's Symphony 39 in E-flat from the orchestral score at the piano, chatting to us gathered round as he did so. He went on to Cambridge University (UK) a few years later to read music, finishing with a DMus.

I ticked "Advanced" in the vote.

August 3, 2019 at 09:45 PM · I checked Advanced. I have trouble sight-reading the high notes with more than 3 ledger lines. At first glance they look like a forest of pine trees. I usually prefer the 8va notation. What helps a little is to remember that the notes of the lines up there are the same as two octaves lower, on the staff; E-G-B-D-F. I don't know if there is an organized way of improving sight-reading. Just do a lot of it, and play in orchestras. Sight-reading is a survival skill for pro orchestra players; there is very little rehearsal time.

What also helps; know your scales and arpeggios at the instinctive level, so that you recognize patterns, instead of playing note-to-note. Also, this is a little difficult to train, but have your eyes a little ahead of the music, your mind will go with your eyes. Otherwise, the next note catches you by surprise.

I have heard that the London SO has the best sight-reading skills. They recorded those difficult John Williams movie scores with very little rehearsal.

August 3, 2019 at 10:22 PM · My hat's off to anyone who can sight-read "Hedwig's Theme" and record it in one take!

August 4, 2019 at 01:15 AM · I checked Intermediate as it describes me closer than anything else.

Sight-reading is interesting - some 4 decades ago when I originally learned how to play the violin, my ear was so good that none of my teachers or school orchestra conductor knew I wasn't reading but playing by ear - it was a large group and I picked up very quickly what others around me were playing and memorization was quite easy. I could read enough to have an idea, but I depended on my ear for the most part.

Fast forward past a 40-something year break to my return to the violin a short 9 months ago. Even with tinnitus 24/7, my ear is still quite good, and my instinctive "go-to" is still to play by ear. It's taken a lot of work, and a patient yet quite strict teacher where this is concerned, all of which has resulted in my being able to sight-read far better than ever. It does get a bit confusing reading notes above 3rd position - but as I've only recently started to dip my fingers into 5th position this will change. I hope...

August 4, 2019 at 07:02 PM · I'm definitely an intermediate-level sight-reader. I've spent my whole life working and polishing the heavy-duty solo repertoire over and over again. But I was humbled when I signed up recently to play with the Pinellas Park Civic Orchestra. They threw me into the first violin section (I had been the concertmaster of my junior high and high school orchestras), but it was quite painful for me to feel so inadequate! Everyone at the PPCO made me feel most welcome and at home. Yet just because I can play Bach, Paganini, and Ysaye, does not mean I can feel equally comfortable playing in an orchestra. It's a whole other ball game. I have tremendous respect and admiration for orchestral players (amateur and professional) and studio musicians. I've read that David Nadien (one of my violin heroes) was an astonishing sight-reader.

August 4, 2019 at 08:53 PM · I started playing the violin before I was 5 years old. My father was my first teacher. I learned to read music immediately, and we would play duets at gradually more difficult levels (Pleyel, Mazas, etc). In my early teens I was coached by Frederic Waldman, who eventually became head of the Mannes School of Music. After rehearsing the music I was preparing to perform he would say, "Now lets play some music" and with him at the piano, I sight-read most of the Sonata Repertoire.

My father, Samuel A. Stochek, was a violin-maker and repairman. His shop was right down the street from Carnegie Hall, and many of his customers were members of the NYPhil and the NBC Symphony. For several years, my parents hosted informal gathering, inviting them to get together and play chamber music for fun. Nothing was organized, whoever wanted to come was welcome. For me, it was all sight-reading, playing 2nd violin parts, and eventually 1st violin. It was the best experience any young violinist could ever have, playing with New York's finest musicians, who were willing to give a young person the benefit of their knowledge and experience. The culmination of all was when I auditioned for Leopold Stokowski while still in my teens. I had prepared Unaccompanied Bach, and Mozart, Mendelssohn and Glazunov violin concertos. After playing all of that, Stokowski then put the first page of Don Juan on the music stand and asked, "Have you ever played this before?" I said "No" (I had never even seen it), and he said, "OK, lets go." and conducted the whole page. He then stopped and said "very good". No, I didn't play every note perfectly, but I could manage most of it. (That's what sight-reading means). I was accepted into the City Center Opera Orchestra and also the RCA Victor Recording Orchestra. For that there was no advance music given, I was expected to be able to sightread anything that I didn't already know.

I am telling you all this because of what happened subsequently. For a few years after that, I never needed to sight-read anything. As a soloist, chamber music and orchestra player, I always had music learned before rehearsals started, so I did no sight-reading. And then there came the day when I realized I was losing the ability to do so as easily as I once had. I learned that sight-reading, like any other skill, can be acquired or lost. I started to pick music at random, just to get back the ability I once had to sight-read almost anything, since it is one of the most important assets a professional musician can have. In the real world, there is seldom time or opportunity to do much advance learning of the music you might need to play. Auditions almost always include sight-reading. Since you can't "practice" sight-reading, except by just taking new music and PLAYING it, I suggest everyone get together with friends and sight-read music at whatever level you wish. You'll be surprised how much easier it is after a while. Don't worry about mistakes. That is "practice" and defeats the purpose of a "sight-reading" session! Enjoy!!

- Bernice Stochek Friedson

August 5, 2019 at 08:21 AM · Always been my weakest skill and made me fail a number of auditions- even though my playing is advanced

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