Sightreading-phobia

October 12, 2005 at 02:54 AM · This topic is probably discussed somewhere before, but please bear with me.

I am a violin student in high school right now, but I am quite horrible at sightreading. Unfortunately I have to do it for youth orchestra as well as regional auditions. I have an audition next month and I am positively freaking out. I have heard people using etudes to practice sightreading, but what I am having most trouble with is weired rhythms only seen in orchestra music.

I have taken this problem to my teacher, and she tries to give me some orchestra music to sightread, but every time I see the rhythms (you know, the 8th note then a rest then another 8th note and a quarter tied to the next measure... you get the idea) I just want to break down and cry. It's like I have this mental block that won't allow me to sightread.

I know the importance of looking at key signatures and those kind of things, but I am very nervous. Does anyone have any advice on how to combat this fear or to boost my confidence? Many times I am simply too scared to play!

Replies (27)

October 12, 2005 at 03:30 AM · One thing you have to be comfortable with is that you WILL make mistakes. Nobody expects you to be able to sightread perfectly. You should lower the amount of pressure you put on yourself. So you miss a note. Who cares? Another important part of sightreading is doing it a lot. You can use your etude books and just sightread etudes. If you hear a piece, and you like it a lot, go buy the music and read through it. Aurally, you have an idea of how it's supposed to sound, so it becomes easier to read. The more you do stuff like this, you'll start to notice that a lot of music has patterns that you've played before, and will start to fall into your fingers. So, I guess my main bit of advice is expand your repertoire. There's no nice and easy way of getting into sightreading. You just need to be able to plunge in confidently. Sometimes judges forget if you make a mistake if you're playing confidently. I've had that happen to me.

October 12, 2005 at 04:45 AM · Ask you conductor to let you barrow violin parts from the music library - just get a part for each title that catches your eye, then read through it.

Good luck!

October 12, 2005 at 05:14 AM · Hi Stephanie,

I know what you mean! I do fine with sight reading and can play comfortably along as long as the rhythm is pretty standard. The measure that it starts throwing in odd rests, dots, slurs with dots and spicattos, my brain hits the wall.

The advice given to me recently was to work out through all the various rhymths: Go through different pieces of music and pick out a challenging rhythm pattern. Pick one or two rhythms a day and play it over and over so that when the eyes see that same sequence of timing or pattern, it's familiar and you won't panic.

Hope this helps you the way it's slowly helping me.

October 12, 2005 at 05:51 AM · There was a point when I was behind in sight reading and it was because of strange rhythms, so I know what you're talking about. The way I got past it was anytime I got hold of a piece of music, even it it was some example in a theory book, I'd play the rhythm in my head. It reached the point where I did it automatically. If something is throwing you, like say 6/8 and say you have an 8th, then a quarter tied to an 8th, followed by a dotted 8th and a 16, just sing it to yourself in your head. The pitches don't even have to be right. Just think monotone vowel sounds like a conductor might use. Tap your foot if you need to.

Eventually like in the example above you'll recognize it as several familiar patterns chained together. There really aren't as many molecular rhythms used commonly as you might think. You'll start to automatically recognize a pattern that causes syncopations, and accent the syncopations maybe. You'll recognize which notes are pickups to something else and sound them that way in your head. You can practice your bow direction in your head at the same time. Like somebody else suggested, just get hold of anything with unfamilar rhythms in it. Once it clicks you'll progress pretty fast.

For the auditions, make sure if you can't get the music ahead of time. It happens sometimes. All the sightreading auditions I did were for student orchestras with just a couple of exceptions, but the music was never as hard as I thought it might be. I was always relieved. In a pro situation I think a lot of players basically have the common sight reading tests memorized by that time. There was a time at least when the excerpts were pretty standard, and you can get books of them to practice. I can't really speak on that.

October 12, 2005 at 11:00 AM · It's definitely a good idea to break down the components of sight reading and practice them separately. Rhythm is one. It also helps to be able to mentally hear the pitch you are about to play. One way you can sharpen this skill is by sight singing. Do you sing?

You begin by learning to recognize intervals, both what they look like and sound like. Actually, church hymns are a good place to start. Pick simple passages and look for patterns like pieces of scales and arpeggios. When you transfer this to the violin, you also memorize what different intervals feel like to your fingers. For instance, sixths are a whole or half step apart on neighboring strings. So are fourths, only the fingers are inversed.

Sight singing is the main thing that improved my ability to hear and find notes on my instrument more quickly. When I sight read, I find that I am much more likely to hit the pitch if I know what it's supposed to sound like before I play it. But then again, I rely excessively upon my ear. This is why all those really high notes confound me. Throw me one of those notes balanced on a high rise of ledger lines, and I will have absolutely no clue how to play it. If you're lucky, you'll have some other note you can use as a reference point. Otherwise, get really good at knowing the names of the notes on the ledger lines and hearing how the note name fits into the rest of the piece. Then memorize what the note feels like on the instrument, just like all the other notes, I guess.

I should practice doing that myself.

October 12, 2005 at 07:54 AM · For high notes I mainly used a Schradiek book that had repetitive patterns in all the positions up to 7th. Higher than that and I was playing by ear. It's really satisfying to overcome some major obstacle. You just have to concentrate on those things instead of easy things.

P.S. You could start Schradiek over at 8th position, transposing 1st position up an octave, and just go on up the fingerboard if you wanted :)

October 12, 2005 at 06:44 AM · A very good source of sight-reading materials are quartets parts. I don't think it is a bad idea to invest in the Beethoven (or your favorite composer's) quartets and read through a random page each day.

Personally, I always try to devide complicated rhythems into seperate, individual beats, so that messing up messing up beat one regardless of its rhythem would not affect beat two. Try to heck through the page, if you stumble on a beat, recover yourself straight away in the next beat.

October 12, 2005 at 12:21 PM · My local music store just got in some CD's that are printed sheet music - just the violin part - for lots of orchestra repertoire. So for under $20 you can get the violin part to about 50-100 different pieces. This would be a relatively inexpensive way to get orchestra music to practice. Like the others said, if you practice sightreading, it becomes easier to do.

October 12, 2005 at 12:42 PM · Great suggestions. Here's another one. Let's keep this very, very simple for a start.

1. Can you "sight read" the just first note that appears in each measure? That should be pretty easy, right? OK, then get a piece of music you've never seen before, and play only the first note in each measure for 2 pages. Don't worry about rhythm or anything else. Just play the first note of each measure.

2. If you can do that (and ONLY if you can do that), then get a different piece of music you have never played or seen. "Sight read" just the first TWO notes that appear in each measure. Play through two pages that way -- just the first two notes that appear in each measure. Take your time; it's not a race. When you can do two pages...

3. When you've mastered the first 2 notes per measure, then "sight read" the first 3 notes per measure on yet another piece of music you've never seen before.

4. Then the first 4, and so on.

The idea here (as with previous suggestions) is to break down the seemingly overwhelming task into tiny elements that are so small and so simple that you can do them in your sleep. One advantage in what I'm suggesting is you are practicing by actually sight reading, but you don't have to worry about every single note.

Try it. If it works, that's great. If it doesn't, it still would have been worth a shot.

October 12, 2005 at 02:52 PM · When playing in a group or in auditions, the idea of sight-reading is to keep up with everyone else and basically give an idea of what the part should be. So if you can't get every note, that's okay. If you can't get all the weird rhythms, that's okay. The most important thing is to be in tempo, and in the right key (preferably!).

Sure, it's nice if you can play the part flawlessly. If you can't do that, then just don't cause a train wreck -- keep a steady beat, and if there's a weird rhythm that throws you off, ignore it. Just beat time through it, or play only the major beats, and come back in when you can.

If you can master the art of staying in time without worrying about the odd bits, then you might find that those strange rhythms just fit right into the framework of the key signature.

Orchestra is great for practicing sight-reading, especially for those of us too lazy to practice the part at home. ;)

October 12, 2005 at 08:06 PM · Thank you all for the suggestions! They are greatly appreciated.

I still have one question though. People have told me to go slow during sightreading, but how slow can I really go, especially when the passage is in allegro?

October 12, 2005 at 10:42 PM · Stephanie: The answer is to PRACTICE sight reading slowly, so that you can get comfortable with the activity. Once you're more comfortable with the skill, you can start PRACTICING it faster. But start slow.

Cordially, Sandy Marcus

October 13, 2005 at 12:01 AM · I like Sander's idea higher up about skipping notes. My gut feeling is among other things it would teach you to glance ahead, while you were counting the rests. Also, given all the permutations possible, it would be hard to run out of sight reading material. Probably anybody could benefit from it. First you need to be able to think them though, something like I suggested, otherwise trying to play them would be hopeless.

October 13, 2005 at 04:37 AM · My friends and I have many times in the past had sight-reading parties, which are lots of fun. It's a chance to socialize, eat some good food, play some cool music, and brush up on your sight-reading skills in a low-stress situation. :)

October 13, 2005 at 04:50 AM · Excellent idea Sander, I'm going start incorporating those steps in my practice and see where it takes me. I can get so flustered and bogged down that I loose count and then my place.

Thanks!

October 13, 2005 at 09:12 AM · Practice site reading with pieces you have heard but not have played. Do you understand what I mean? For exampel: You have listend to recordings of the Mendelsohn concerto many times and know I it quite well, but have never played it. Play the piece a prima vista and your "pitch" (absolute or not, I donĀ“t know the english word) along with your technical ability will facilitate the site reading. If you are playing tonal, "normal" music, this is going to be very helpful to you even when your a site reading pieces you have never heard before.

October 15, 2005 at 02:08 PM · I practice sightreading off of etude books. In the beginning, I use easier etudes than my level, so that i don't worry about notes and only focus on the process of reading new notes.

My strategy is that I try to get rhythm right *first*. I figured that orchestra conductors would realize that you'd get the notes eventually (that is, assuming that your 'wrong notes' are relatively close to the your target and that at least most of your notes are recognizable). So, I think they'd worry more about whether or not you'd stick with the rest of the section. I wonder what other people think about this strategy?

As for tempo, I usually scan the entire section that need to be sightreaded and identify the tricky rhythms, notes, etc. Then depending on that, I'd pick the tempo. Going slower and getting things right is MUCH better (in my view) than going faster and getting things wrong.

October 16, 2005 at 02:05 AM · As a Suzuki student I was branded with the steriotype of an inferior sight reader...so I set about proving this steriotype wrong (with the help of my teacher ^_^)

First, of course, I learned to sightread from the Suzuki books. It was really easy for me once I realized ZOMG the bottom is an open D...and it just goes up from there O_O

The best practice I have ever had sight reading has been playing in an orchestra and chamber music, you simply can't be unable to read so you catch up. Especially reading the score, which all the members of any chamber group I've played in do. When I'm reading bass cleft or Alto cleft, I think of the notes by their note names, whereas when I'm reading Treble cleft, I don't pause to think "this is an A" or "this is a C". I just play BAM (oo that sounds cheesy) eyes to fingers, no brain involved. There are also sightreading books that stress the use of the distance between notes to guess the length of the note, then justify the distance between notes to force you to look at the stems. It was very useful, but difficult.

The most important aspects of Rhythem, IMHO, are the abilities of counting and feeling. Clap a rhythem (or ta it), ONE-and-a-TWO-and-e-aanda-THREE-rest-...that's counting. Now listen to a recording of a Waltz (hmm, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Waltz) Hear the BOOM-chuck-chuck in the bass? Can you feel the whole measure as one beat, the whole melody as one unit, not an assemblage of note durations? That is the feeling aspect.

It is a combination of the two that allows you to play complex rhythems. You must be able to count the rhythem, or else you might create a rhythem of your own, however, the rhythem also has to make sense. You have to see where the phrase is going, what the music is doing and, when you have these crazy notes that look like they make no sense (say, 32 notes just flying everywhere) you have to understand what they are doing, as well as how long the note duration is. Like the rhythem dotted eight sixteenth rhythem, if you count this it will be insane...but if you look at both notes as one unit, baaaba, as opposted to onetwothree-and, you will be able to play it more smoothly and accurately. Tripolets will often, but not always, be played like a waltzs. Many teachers teach tripolets by saying, in time, tri-po-let tri-po-let.

In an audition setting, depending on how difficult the sight reading is, I usually can't FEEL the rhythem just as soon as I look at it. Very rarely I have the experience where I look at a sheet of music and it starts singing to me in my mind. (It's a wonderful experience...but you have to wonder if you're quite normal when it happens) In this situation you have to tactically decide how to sub-divide the notes. A big clue is the time signature, it gives you a clue, but you don't necessarily want to subdivide it like the time signature says when you first play it. (make sure to check the key when you do this too) Try to count it in your head in various ways, counting quarter notes as one beat, counting eight notes as one beat, counting a half note as one beat, and choose the one that is easiest for you to do. Also check for accidentals in the music while you do this. A big mistake is to get nervous and just jump in, the auditioners expect you to take about a minuite up to three to absorb the music. Finally, don't stop, ever. If you miss a note, the auditioners will be listening to see how you handle it. The are more interested in the rhythem than the notes. Ok, you hit a E instead of that F sharp...can you keep the music moving, or will you stop, say ummm, ummm, and start over?

Yep, that's my two cents...or five, or ten million...The rest is up to you, practice practice practice ^_^

November 11, 2007 at 01:39 AM · I also have trouble with sigh treading and would like further suggestions as well.

November 11, 2007 at 04:59 AM · Me too Chris, but don't get discouraged. I know this is too old for Stephanie's benefit, but....

For me it's more of a pattern of learning from the past--learn it once and never look at the notes again--that persists today.

While this pattern is actually a strength, it nonetheless hinders my learning new material quickly. Soooooo,

What I've done, is to 'make' myself sight read some every time I'm learning new material, without obsessing over it. I'll give myself a c- for effort.

But, the pieces over the past few years are falling in place. I can tell because my learning efficiency is improving. Even with that though, I still find myself having to focus as much on 'making' myself read to the point where the added focus sucks. (I am not a graceful person, and articulation, bowing and posture take everything I have).

So, be patient, and make yourself read just as much as you can. I have a friend who goes to the other extreme and would clap out modern Jazz if that were possible.

The point is that the effort should match the goals to some point. Can you learn music a'tall? I bet the answer is yes. So, you may wish to just focus on general efficiency and improve over time.

If you're in a crunch, call in the experts.

November 11, 2007 at 08:24 AM · In my view, you do not become good at sight-reading overnight. You have to do a little every day over a long period, and take passages which are neither too easy nor too difficult for your level.

November 11, 2007 at 09:18 AM · Stepahanie, from your original post, it looks as though you can sight read, but get "the fear". I know this fear too well, to the extent that I once had an intense panic attack, and froze, petrified, on a BBC Radio 3 session. Couldn't move.

How to conquer the fear? The clue is in what you say about rhythm in your post.

Firstly, when you get a piece to sight read, always look through it first, carefully working out the timings in your head.

If you find a passage that is tricky, isolate it, and work it through in your mind, splitting the bars into halves and quarters, even singing it to yourself.

But how do you become familiar with these rhythms in the first place? We need to develop the ability to see these timings as whole phrases rather than a series of separate notes.

I am not a top sight reader as I don't do it often enough, but what helped me conquer the fear was to get a book of rhythms for drummers that went through all the combinations of notes and rests in all the time signatures, simple and compound. I learnt how to recognise rhythm patterns as phrases.

A book that has similar exercises is Hindemith's "Elementary Training for Musicians "

Good luck.

gc

November 11, 2007 at 05:24 PM · I am terrible at sight reading, probably somewhat a matter a being an adult beginner, but (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) and I played flute, I was terrible then as well.

I don't know a lot of classical music... in that its in my head, memorized, that I would know if I got it right or wrong playing it. So I went and ordered a Beatles book of 60 songs for violin. I know that music, in my head anyway. I am practicing sight reading by re-arranging these (using the free Finale Notepad) and transposing them down an octave (since they are so high up they sound like chipmunks on cocaine.) Then I print it out and play it very slowly. Doing both things has helped me a lot.

But when I see a new piece of music I freeze. I tend to see it as one massive wall of hieroglyphics and not as notes and staves. I have no idea why. My teacher is helping me with this by pulling out something random, something I will have heard before (instant feedback so I know when its wrong,) and telling me I cannot look at my fingerboard, it doesn't matter if I miss the note or not, it only matters that I don't take my eyes from the music.

November 11, 2007 at 05:50 PM · My biggest suggestion is not to practice by sightreading etudes. You'll never find etudish music in orchestra. I have no idea why anyone would want to play etudes for practicing sightreading. What you should do is buy a book of orchestral exerpts (there are tons of them out there) and sigtread random exerpts for about five minutes every day. If you have access to your school music library, ask your director if you could snoop around and photocopy some first violin parts.

As for sightreading itself, I have a huge fear of it as well. I'm a sophomore in college and I've had to do a lot of this for various auditions and it is nerve-wracking for me every time. But it doesn't have to be your worst enemy. I've been working dilligently on sight reading in piano for three years and it has in fact improved. You have to take a deep breath, relax and analyze the music before you start to play. Figure out the tempo. Figure out where you'll have to shift. Look for funky rhythms. Look for funky accidentals. Oh yes, above all, make sure you know what key you're in. Of course, you already know plenty about the analytical stuff, but anyway... After you've briefly studied the music for all of this, take another deep breath and let all that glorious new music pour out from your f-holes. Don't think of it as sight-reading. Think of it as discovering new music. The judges are only looking to see if you can keep going assertively. Getting the right notes and the right rhythms are brownie points.

I've found that learning basic yoga and finding your center and learning how to breathe are good ways to stay calm during an audition. Eating bananas beforehand is also helpful. The potassium in bananas help your muscles and your nerves to relax.

Good luck with your auditions! Have fun discovering new music!

November 12, 2007 at 12:12 AM · There are several great orchestral excerpt books published but many of them are designed to provide the most "auditioned" passages and may not be a good starting point for more simple sightreading. You have recieved great advice above and now you know that you are not alone in your fears! I found that my sightreading skills became stronger as my scale work became stronger. Working scales (flesch) in 3rds,5ths, arpeggios etc. your fingers start to develop a memory. As much as I fought is when I was younger, everything comes back to scales scale scales.

November 12, 2007 at 02:33 AM ·

November 12, 2007 at 03:24 AM · Greetings,

here are three ideas:

1) Fiund a -very good- piano player and just paly straight through all the Haydn, Mozart, violin sonatas. Beethoven is a little tough..I did this as a teenager and it has serve dme in very good stead.

2) Expanding on what Nick said earlier, use quartet parts. Get a set of Haydn and and the relavnt cds and play along with the second violinpart;) (Then do the 1st...)ncidentally you don`t have to be holding the violin and bow to do this...

3) Practice the patterns from Gerles Art of Praciticng or in Drew`s new book everyday. But, crcially, also @practice bowing patterns everyday. You can get these from sevcik or Kreutzer. perosnally, I think the ones in Basics (key bowings) is perfectly adequate

Cheers,

Buri

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