David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
The Secret to Sightreading
Many musicians are worried that their sightreading skills are not strong enough. Yet, sightreading is seldom made a regular part of practicing.
The Real Goal of Sightreading
It’s important to spend a little time at each practice session reading something new. (You won’t be surprised to hear this, but I recommend 10 minutes a day.)
Don’t worry about getting every note. Playing all the pitches perfectly is not the real goal of sightreading. The real goal is to go through the music at a steady tempo – without stopping.
Think about it: In the real world of rehearsing and performing with other musicians, everyone needs to know where they are on the chart at all times. You and all the other musicians have to end up at the same place at the same time – even if you missed a few notes!!
The Secret to Sightreading without Stopping
The secret to playing without stopping is constant counting. If you can’t play the notes in one measure, just keep counting and jump back in at the next downbeat. Do not lose your place!
Even if sound stops coming out of your instrument, you are staying in time and following along visually. This counts as “not stopping” when you’re sightreading, so keep your eyes on the page!
Being willing to count even when you’re missing some notes may mean changing your usual concept of playing a song “correctly.” Instead of focusing on playing the right pitches (even if you occasionally stretch time), you’ll need to focus on correct rhythms (even if you occasionally play the wrong pitches).
Keeping this rhythmic integrity in your music will make your sightreading stronger over time. Eventually, you’ll be able to play more and more of the pitches themselves.
Why Sightreading Seems So Complex
Sightreading is an unusual process. Unlike reading language, in which your only task is to interpret the meaning of symbols (letters and words) on the printed page, sightreading music contains an extra element:
Your brain must interpret the symbols (notes) and send messages to your muscles so they can play your instrument.
This is a complicated process. To keep your muscles in shape for sightreading, they need regular practice. Much like speaking a foreign language, sightreading is a “use it or lose it” skill.
So, keep some sightreading materials in your practice area and take a look at them every day.
And, remember: Never stop counting!
“But I Don’t Read Music”
I hear from a lot of rock, blues, and folk musicians who tell me that reading music is irrelevant to them. They play everything by ear and don’t see how reading sheet music could help them be better musicians.
What I’ve found working with thousands of musicians, ensembles, and bands in every genre is that seeing music on paper – whether it’s traditional notation, chord charts, or tablature – can help musicians understand the structure of songs and help them play rhythms accurately.
Plus, there are a lot of great teaching materials that use music notation. If you can’t read music at all, you’re missing out on some very helpful information.
My Advice to All Musicians – in Every Genre
I take a specific stand: Pop and jazz musicians should learn to read, and classical musicians should learn to play by ear and improvise. That way, everyone gets the best of both worlds.
Anything you do musically that makes you uncomfortable can only lead to musical growth. Constant growth and improvement is always the goal for our musical journey.
To Your Musical Success!