Just as we might learn and practice piano technique or vocal technique, we can learn the technique of sight-reading.
Paul Harris's How to sight-read is a groundbreaking new book which breaks down some of the common misconceptions around sight-reading, the fascinating science behind it, and how anyone can learn the technique of sight-reading. We caught up with Paul to hear more about the inspiration behind the book and the key areas it explores.
At the start of your new book, How to sight-read, you introduce the idea of the ‘sight-reading myth’. What is this myth, and how can we dispel it?
The sight-reading myth is the idea that some people are naturally better than others at sight-reading, and that it is essentially an innate skill that can’t be taught.
I want to completely dispel this myth, and instead reframe sight-reading as a technique that can be taught. Just as we might learn and practice piano technique or vocal technique, we can learn the technique of sight-reading.
Why is sight-reading important?
There are practical reasons such as being able to learn pieces more quickly and, of course, gain more marks in exams. However, I think the importance of sight-reading goes much further – it allows us to play with other people and join in with music-making more easily. And to use the metaphor of harmony – music brings people together to create something beautiful with the sum of each part.
Understanding the importance of sight-reading is so crucial in instilling a positive mindset for both teacher and student. If there is going to be any chance of someone wanting to improve their sight-reading or wanting to teach sight-reading, they must first believe it is important, that it is central to their development as a musician, and then understand that it can be taught.
You talk in your book about some of the parallels between music and language. What lessons can we draw from reading and language teaching that apply to sight-reading?
One of the things you are doing as you are reading is subvocalisation – you look at the words and hear them in your head. If we think of sight-reading as essentially speaking out loud (reading + speaking), then we begin to see why subvocalisation is such an important skill to develop in our musical reading. An easy way to start developing this skill is simply to pick up an easy music book and start reading it like a book, trying to hear everything in your head, including articulation and dynamics.
An activity I have developed to further explore this connection between music and language is something I call ‘Walking the course’. The phrase is borrowed from horse racing and show jumping, where the rider will walk around the course ahead of a race. In applying this to sight-reading, the idea is that we are breaking down the piece into chunks, or phrases, or events, and verbalising exactly what is happening in the music before even attempting to play anything. This is an incredibly valuable tool for teachers because it exposes the student’s thought processes and helps them to see what the student understands – and what needs further work. Try it out and see!
How can improvisation help with sight-reading?
Improvisation is quite interesting to think about in relation to sight-reading. We might feel like it is on the other end of the spectrum from sight-reading – improvising is making it up, while sight-reading is reading the notes. In fact, there are quite a lot of parallels:
- they are both undertaken without much preparation,
- they both draw on one’s musical predictive skills and musical instinct,
- both require quick mental processing speeds.
In How to sight-read, I have devised various activities building on this connection between improvisation and sight-reading to help you build confidence and improve your ability to quickly absorb and understand the key elements of a piece.
You have also created a web app, developed by John Williams, to go alongside the new book. Can you tell us about it and the areas of sight-reading that it will help to develop?
In the book there are 9 developmental areas to improve our sight-reading technique. The app covers three of these – brain processing speed, peripheral vision, and subdivision – and provides adaptable and developmental exercises to practise each one.
The first part of the app focuses on brain processing speed: everyone can develop their brain processing speed, and there is some fascinating research in this area, with some studies showing for example that playing certain video games will improve your brain processing speed!
Then we move onto peripheral vision: we are often told to ‘look ahead’ when sight-reading, but what does this mean? This is using our peripheral vision to start processing things outside our central vision so that when we direct our focus to them, there is less information to process all at once.
The final part of the app is designed to tackle something I call the ‘one and a half’ syndrome. If you are thinking of a dotted crotchet as one and a half, you are never going to be able to count it accurately – you need to be subdividing! The app helps you to practise ‘layered’ subdivision and develop your internal metronome.
So… sight reading is a really great skill to have – and it’s really not so challenging to acquire it!
How to sight-read is out now and available from the Faber Music shop and other retailers.