Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum - Part 2
Sight-reading is not practising. When we practise a new piece, we have the luxury of stopping whenever we like to repeat a phrase, ponder an interpretive approach, or fix a technical problem. We are free to play slowly, hands separately, in small sections, taking the time we need to assimilate new information. Indeed, to learn a piece properly, we must do all of these things. Sight-reading, on the other hand, requires us to play a piece straight through, without stopping or losing the pulse, at a tempo that is at least close to performance speed. It is, as Sylvaine Billier put it in the subtitle of her wonderful book, The Art of the First Interpretation.
To give an interpretation of a piece we have never seen before requires flexibility. It demands a willingness to accept wrong notes, technical stumbles, and botched details, in the greater interest of maintaining rhythmic cohesion, following the broad outlines of the score, and plumbing its emotional climate. To be sure, it can be difficult to let go of our instinct to control and correct, born of the constant striving for an illusory perfection that may pass for the very definition of practising. But paradoxically, this release of control actually helps us to feel more confident and secure, in both sight-reading and performance. Both of these activities present surprises and unforeseen challenges, which a flexible mindset allows us to confront with greater poise and equanimity.
Flexibility is not only a mental attitude, however; it is a set of specific skills we can cultivate and call upon in our daily practice. Recognising patterns in the score, seeing the essential harmonic progressions underneath the surface detail, being able to improvise when we haven’t had time to read all the notes, knowing what to leave out in order to keep going in difficult passages – all of these skills are among the most highly-prized abilities of accomplished sight-readers. To be able to call upon them in times of need, however, we must first practise them until they become second nature.
Seeing the big picture, rather than getting lost in the details, starts with reading notes not as separate entities, but as parts of intervals and chords, which in turn combine to form melodic patterns and harmonic progressions. Accordingly, the first module in this part, Reading by Intervals, prods us to look beyond individual notes to the ways in which they are connected. We use a number of strategies to accomplish this task, including one of the highest forms of musical flexibility – transposition.
From identifying intervals, we move to identifying chords. The module on Harmonic Reading starts with recognising chords simply by naming them, then moves quickly to the practice of harmonic reduction, which is a way of demonstrating in real time that we “see” the chords on the page, and not just a collection of individual notes. Playing passages, and even entire pieces, in block chords allows us to experience the broad outlines of a piece – its phrases, cadences, modulations, and form – up to tempo, yet without sacrificing any of its expressive value.
In Figuration, we approach harmonic reading from the opposite direction. Instead of reducing the pianistic texture to block chords, we start with a harmonic reduction and add figuration – rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic detail – to it. This helps us to read ahead, and puts us on a path toward improvisation, which we will follow more deeply in Part III.
The final module of Part II uses some challenging vocal scores, concerto accompaniments, and chamber music to practise various Simplification Techniques that allow us to keep going when playing together with others.