Those two words have long been known to cause dread and fear in me. When I learned to play piano, reading the music was something I saw as a necessary evil – something which I would’ve gladly done without if I could. My dread of reading music was of course because it didn’t come naturally to me and I disliked it, and thus never practiced it, and thus was bad at it, and followed to dislike it even more.
However, sight-reading isn’t just for accompanists or for passing piano exams, as my own experience soon showed me. Having to rely solely on memorisation to learn pieces is great for performances, but the initial learning of the piece is fairly time consuming and tedious if notes cannot be read quickly. And so, I found, my repertoire growing ever so slowly, playing the same memorised pieces and always needing a large chunk of time to learn something new. Only playing a select few pieces, no matter how difficult they may be, grows tedious fairly quickly.
Another reason to read is an insight from Charles Rosen (from his book Piano Notes): relying solely on ear to know how a piece sounds implies that one will always hear the piece through the filter of the player’s interpretation. It as though one is hearing someone read out words rather than reading it themselves and inevitably, their own interpretation and perspective on the work comes through. In short, if we want to know what the composer is saying, we should learn their language.
With this in mind, I decided to be honest with myself and change things. In the paraphrased words of Elizabeth Bennett, if I am bad at something, it is because I did not take the trouble to practice it. And so, I decided to take the trouble of practising it.
I’ve come to realise that a little bit of effort goes a long way. I began by simply picking up easy pieces with the intention of only reading them. Hence, I would only play them once and keep moving. In addition to this, I had my handy app on the iPad, Music Tutor, which gave me sight-reading quizzes when I couldn’t play at night. I kept hungering for new pieces, pieces I’d never heard and was curious about, and kept stumbling through playing them solely by sight. I was realistic in my choices – for example I sight-read Traumerie but not did try to sight-read a Chopin étude. I kept pressing on despite mistakes and stumbles – part of sight-reading is to read through and not memorise.
One day I picked up the second movement of the Mozart sonata and decided just to read it. I had read it a few months ago when it refused to stick and didn’t get past the first page. This time, I got through the entire thing in a single reading, much to my disbelief. I read it again the following day.
The result? I had just learned an entire movement of a Mozart sonata in two days. By the end of that week, I had memorised most of it since it would be a part of my performance repertoire. It was a good feeling! Rather than losing time on the notes, I could spend it on tweaks, refinements and interpretation. And at the end of the day, I had a beautiful movement added to my repertoire. Yesterday, I poked around reading a Chopin Ballade and a Beethoven sonata – much tougher of course, but not as tough as it used to be.
There is no new lesson to be had here – like every other time, music rewards whatever you practice in. Furthermore, it is important to hone all the skills for piano playing. A good ear with bad sight-reading is no better than a weak ear with good reading skills. As musicians, we need both. And even the most talented people practice and work to improve their weaknesses. In that sense, practice never goes away – our unique strengths and weakness only change what we need to work on.