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Sight Reading

By David Rock
(Revised 13 June 2006)

Every musician should strive to be a proficient sight-reader. Sight reading is the ability to interpret accurately a piece of music at a reasonable tempo upon first encounter. Sight reading is an important skill for several reasons. First, it saves a great deal of time and frustration in lessons and practice sessions if you don´t have to laboriously pick out an unfamiliar tune note by excruciating note. Second, it allows you to familiarize yourself with dozens, even hundreds of tunes that you would never become aware of otherwise, since there is a lot of great music out there that´s rarely performed or recorded. Third, regular sight reading practice is a great way to assimilate the basic structures of a given musical idiom - to develop an intuitive "feel" for the music. Fourth, if you aspire to be an instuctor, the ability to sight read will allow you to demonstrate for your students tunes or passages that you´ve never actually worked on yourself. Fifth, if you ever attend a piping school or workshop, you´ll find that the prevalent teaching methodology assumes the ability to sight read.

As with any skill, some people are naturally better at sight reading than others. Whether or not you are gifted in this regard, you can probably become a better sight reader through conscientious application of the following principles:

  1. Systematically practice sight reading for its own sake. Reserve a certain amount of practice time each week to simply play through unfamiliar tunes.
  2. Sight reading up to speed assumes a thorough mastery of basic rudiments. Don´t expect to be a good sight reader before you´ve mastered the essential techniques. The tunes you are sight reading should be appropriate to your skill level. Slow down if necessary, and try not to rehearse technical errors as you sight read.
  3. Build a collection of printed music. I recommend the Scots Guards collection Vols. 1 and 2 as a good place to start. I spent two years in Brazil with just a practice chanter and the Scots Guards collection and never ran out of tunes to practice. If you can´t afford both volumes, I recommend that you get Vol. 2 first, as it happens to have a very high percentage of great tunes, especially in the area of jigs and hornpipes.
  4. Start with the jigs, slow airs, and "round" hornpipes (i.e, no dots and flags). Then proceed to 3/4 and 4/4 marches, simple 2/4 marches, competition 2/4 marches, and finally strathspeys and reels.
  5. To better cope with the tricky rhythms of the competition-type 2/4 marches and hornpipes, try double tapping, i.e., tap your foot (or set your metronome) to the 1/8 note rather than to the 1/4 note (two taps per 1/4 note). This will enable you to feel how long the long notes should be and to correctly place the secondary beats relative to the main beats. The same strategy applies to reels, but in this case you´ll tap twice to the equivalent of a 1/2 note. In the case of slow airs in 6/8 time, you should triple tap (tap out each 1/8 note).
  6. Learn to let your eyes look a bit ahead of what your fingers are actually playing. If you´re surprised by something when you get to it, you´re playing too fast. Slow down, and strive for rhythmic accuracy as you go. With practice, you should be able to cope with the basic note sequence, embellishments, and rhythmic elements all at the same time, and nearly up to speed!
  7. Learn to see chunks of music larger than the individual note. Consider how children read out loud in school: the good readers focus on frases rather than isolated words or even letters. Good readers can predict what´s coming based on context, or by the general shape of the word, without zeroing in on the details. Reading music is like driving a car: it works best if you focus on where you´re going, not where you´re at.
  8. Trust your intuition and try not to think too much. Having just played a given note, you can generally predict the next notes by the general shape of a rising or falling sequence, and by the approximate spacing between the notes, without zeroing in too carefully on the individual notes. Also, as you become familiar with the conventions of the music, you learn to expect certain movements in certain contexts. For example, if you have a C doubling followed by a low A, chances are there will be an E gracenote on the low A.
  9. The ability to sight read improves quickly with intensive practice. If you have a whole afternoon or a couple of days during a vacation period, put in several hours and see if you don´t notice significant gains. Read through a whole book at a time, tune by tune. I once borrowed a fat brief case full of bagpipe music books from my instructor and spent a delightful week systematically reading through them during Christmas vacation.
  10. You can practice sight reading on the bagpipe. Cork your drones and use a music stand. This will do wonders to help improve your endurance and technical precision.