In this guest post by Juan Jose Rezzuto, you’ll learn basic strategies for sight reading, or what I prefer to call “sight playing,” since that is actually what we are doing – playing at first sight!
When we face the challenges of reading music composed for a polyphonic instrument (one capable of producing many sounds simultaneously), we need to put complex strategies in place. These help us to assess and deliver the most critical information in a polyphonic score: the variations in note register, duration and quantity.
The clefs give meaning to the score. The main clefs we need to learn are the treble and bass. The clefs are named by the notes they indicate. The G clef has mutated through the centuries from its original design of an archaic letter G:
The same is true for the bass clef – the “F clef.”
“Fields” on the staff are of two types: line or space. Notes may move stepwise (generally the distance from a line note to the nearest space note, or vice versa) by alternating between lines and spaces.
When learning how to read polyphonic music, we must pay special attention to the distance between two notes. We assess this distance by counting fields.
As we develop our sight reading skills, we can learn to identify leaps (any distance between two notes larger than a step) quickly.
Notes on the staff progress forward and upwards or downwards (or by remaining the same).
Motion is defined by the relationship of one voice to others. It relates to the concept of pitch direction. There are three basic motions: similar, oblique and contrary:
This variable remains one of the most important when reading. It defines the type of motion we need to deliver. In the example below, the duration of the bass note in relationship to the dotted quarter notes makes this an oblique motion:
When learning to sight read, we need to sequence how we approach this new challenge by ensuring that we can address the least number of variables at the beginning of the process. An excellent resource for practicing sightreading is Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. Mikrokosmos deploys the factors involved in the sight reading process in a genuinely organized way.
In the first piece of Mikrokosmos Vol. 1, Bartok creates an approachable challenge with the following characteristics:
Motion is not only similar but also parallel, meaning the notes travel not only in the same direction but also through equal distance vectors pitch wise.
- The note durations are of only two kinds: half notes and whole notes.
- He introduces rests in bar four.
- The movement is stepwise.
- The hand position is static.
In this framework, we are left to assess only:
- Note direction
- Note duration
- The absence of sound
As we progress in the book, we encounter progressively difficult reading challenges. For example, we will learn to identify larger intervals – the 3rd, 4th, and 5th – as played by a single hand.
At WKMT London, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos is the main consultation book. The head team has thoroughly analyzed the material so all piano teachers can implement each exercise, anticipating and developing each sight reading challenge sequentially.