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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: How are your music reading skills?

July 11, 2009 at 5:39 AM

Often people blame things like the Suzuki method for a music-reading deficiency; the idea being that because they learned for a while by rote, they simply never wished to learn another way.

I'd like to propose another reason why people sometimes develop a deficiency: they simply don't practice reading enough, whatever the method. You don't have to be a Suzuki student to have a good ear and to prefer "knowing how it goes" to decoding the written music. But if you seldom read music, you can't expect your music-reading to improve.

In my own experience, I have to say that being in a ton of youth orchestras helped me greatly, and even so, I don't feel like my reading skills were comfortably fluent until several years after I graduated from college and had been playing regularly in a professional orchestra.

Knowing theory certainly helps with reading, but I'd argue that nothing helps more than doing it, a lot. If you need to practice reading, get a reading book that is very do-able, not something that's at the edge of of your ability, but something that allows you to read and completely perfect a page or two every week and move on. Most students have repertoire that they learn to a level of perfection; taking weeks and even months to polish a piece. But they should also have a page-turner book; one which requires new reading every week. In addition, ideally, they should play in an orchestra or ensemble.

Like everything else we do on fiddle, reading takes lots and lots of practice. Where are you with your reading? And can we inspire you to do more, if you need to? Do you have any stories about learning to read, that might be of help to others who struggle? Or frustrations to vent?


From Gail Tivendale
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 6:04 AM

I agree fully with all you have said about practising sight reading. There has to be a balance and if all a person does is perfect pieces their sightreading skills will be sadly lacking.  Orchestral experience is a definitely an advantage in increasing this skill, and as a teacher I also find that a good grounding in rhythm is invaluable.

From Hayasa T
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 7:10 AM

Having studied with the Suzuki myself for around six years until I stopped, I must say that my sight-reading was pretty terrible (non-existant terrible). But with slow practice and LOTS of orchestra and ensemble practice, my I am proud to say that my sight-reading has improved tremendously! So my advice for those who want to strengthen their sight-reading skill is to join an orchestra or play in an ensemble! :)

From Jennifer Chen
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 10:05 AM

I totally forgot how I learned sight reading, that was...long long time ago. But I always remember one of my teacher told me... do not make any notes on score to remind you whether a note is sharp or flat. You've gotta read the key signature, take note of accidental marks, and play it as you read. He said it helps sight reading.

But since I never got the chance to become professional... I make my life easier by noting them... if I kept on getting it wrong that is.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 12:06 PM

I practice sightreading every day, even if it means just reading through a page or two way under tempo.  The various CD-ROMS and IMSLP has made this really fun.

The experience I've had teaching is that the transfer students that started out in a Suzuki rote program have less fluency reading music than students that start with a traditional reading method.  And the longer that note reading is put off, the harder it is for the student to gain fluency.  Maybe brain wiring?

From Karen Bird
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 1:29 PM

Playing the piano just for myself for decades, I didn't worry much about counting precisely and playing accurately. I played for pleasure. Then I took up the violin ten years ago, and joined a community orchestra three years later. I was surprised to discover that it was all I could do to just follow the music in orchestra--never mind actually playing along!. After seven years, I'm finally getting comfortable reading new music and hearing in my head something close to how it will sound when played. This has been a thrilling process!

From Anna Meyer
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 1:34 PM

My reading improved drastically with my participation in youth orchestra and chamber ensemble. I know feel much more confident when sight reading and I am now pretty good in it. At last much much better than I was, now I can sight-read but at the aame time use my musical ear to sense the music.

From Barry Nelson
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 2:21 PM

I had to choose lacking only because Ive only been reading for about 10 months. I started to learn to read music on guitar 35 years ago, but playing by ear put that to bed. But Im reading now and enjoying the process

From Donna Clegg
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 3:17 PM

I have to contribute my sight reading fluency to band days in high school.  A 30+ year break from music did not seem to affect my abilities; however, I've always thought that those who have an easy time with math excel with sight reading.  If your math skills require no manipulatives or paper/pencil, sight reading seems to  be effortless.   And vice versa, I've heard many parents credit playing a musical instrument for their children's improvement in math. 

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 4:42 PM

I started off as a pianist, so sigh reading violin scores is very easy in comparison.

The thing that make sigh reading with piano so much harder that you need to constantly keep an eye on the fingers to ensure which key is pressed. You don't need that at all on the violin anyway, so basically you just read, and play, you don't need to look at the left hand/fingerboard.

From Shailee Kennedy
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 5:19 PM

I don't know about the math/sight-reading thing. I'm pretty good at math, but my sight-reading ability is sub-par. Of course, I play fiddle, by ear (which I'm quite good at), and only do etudes to build my technical skills---that's the only sight-reading practice I get. So I'm more inclined to agree with Laurie that it's all about practice and familiarity.

The real problem for me is caring about sight-reading in the first place. It's entirely optional for fiddling, and I only do it because I want to be a well-rounded musician. But it's a real pain in the neck! Oh, well. Another few years and I guess it will be less tedious and more of an enjoyable thing.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 11, 2009 at 10:02 PM

 I had an all night long dream (so it seemed) that I was in an orchestra and I was being asked to play a passage but I could never find the right page in my music. Everyone else seemed able and I was sure that I could if I could ever find the passage.

Then I wake up to this survey. 

From Nicole Stacy
Posted on July 12, 2009 at 12:13 AM

Is that so, Casey?  When I was a piano student, I had the habit of memorizing new music so that I could stare at my hands the entire time.  My teacher would grab one of my other books and cover my hands so I couldn't see them.

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on July 12, 2009 at 3:35 AM

My sight reading is still not where I'd like it to be, but it has definitely improved in the past couple years at college. I'd say the most helpful things have been lots of orchestra and gigs, and most recently, playing viola. Even though for viola I have to read a different clef, it has improved my overall sight reading skills, because instead of learning music by ear all the time (which often happens with violin) I'm forced to read the actual rhythms and pitches on the page.

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on July 12, 2009 at 3:21 PM

Nicole - I guess there're 2 "school" in this regard. One being pretty dependent on the scores, they can read well, but have problems with memorizing the score. And the other one being opposite, can't read well, takes time to learn a song, but memorize scores with ease.

I'm being the formal who have problem memorizing my piano pieces. But I find I can actually do both on violin score, I can read fast (except those with full of accidentals e.g. atonal music), and will become independent from the scores very quickly, it just happen so naturally.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 12, 2009 at 4:30 PM

Great point, Laurie. But...  

There's. Just. Not. Enough. Time. 

One more thing to feel down/frustrated about. : (   (Typed out hastily as the sound of my son's footsteps grow closer and closer, which is about to produce a request to pay attention to hiimmmmm now!)

From Wai Yong Tham
Posted on July 13, 2009 at 1:46 PM

Greetings. Did anyone else get good at sight reading by sight-reading for their lives at the lesson after a week of forgetting to practice like me? :) I did that a lot throughout my childhood on the piano. I had a really lovely teacher though. Now that my children's teacher is teaching me the violin, she keeps saying how good my sight-reading is.......

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