Sight Reading Practice in the 21st Century

Dr Christopher Wiltshire

Three years ago I had the pleasure of addressing a group of embryonic piano teachers at one of Australia’s distinguished universities. The thirty or so students listened politely and attentively to my lecture. Several were taking notes on their laptops (although, come to think of it, they could have been playing Angry Birds or checking the latest cricket scores!). But when, towards the end, I began discussing the research I was carrying out into sight reading, I sensed that I had touched a nerve with many of the students. From being dutifully attentive, they were now engaged and eager to find out more. Indeed, when my ‘official’ lecture was over, they crowded round to see the prototype of a device I happened to have with me. There was a barrage of questions and they were keen to provide me with valuable feedback not least on the estimated price of this nascent gadget — ‘That’s cool — I paid more than that for a mobile phone.’

To this day, I cannot imagine how, to students, a device for the improvement of sight reading could even be mentioned in the same breath as a must-have mobile phone, let alone compared in price. But it may have been prescient since many teachers today are telling me that the result of my research and investment is indeed a ‘must-have’ in their teaching.

I believe it was the English music educationalist Paul Harris who coined the term ‘Fright Reading’ and, in my thirty-three years as an examiner, I certainly witnessed plenty of frightened candidates when the moment came in the exam room where I left my table and approached, sight-reading in hand. From Birmingham to Buenos Aires, Singapore to Sydney, in my experience the one consistent element from candidates was their poor sight-reading. Though not having examined for AMEB, I have a thorough knowledge of the sample sight-reading pieces the Board publishes. Last year, I turned ever y one of the pieces, from Preliminary to Grade 8, into files suitable for epublishing. At a time when sight-reading is being downgraded in importance in some examining areas, I was delighted to find a set of inventive pieces in a wide variety of styles that maintained a level of difficulty in keeping with the standards expected from one of the oldest music examination boards in the world.

The importance of fluent sight-reading cannot be overstated. The distinguished pianist and recording artist Howard Shelley remarked to me that, to him, the importance of being a good sight reader is that it allows him to explore new repertoire with confidence. Many times I have heard the claim ‘Show me a good sight-reader and I’ll show you a good musician!’ Antonio Pappano, Musical Director at the Royal Opera House in London (a very fine pianist as well as conductor), told me ‘Fluent sight reading is a sign of first-rate musicianship and is vital in the training of young musicians.’ The joy of making music with others is also immeasurably helped by good reading qualities, whether in duet playing or taking part in chamber and orchestral groups. Examination boards thus bestow importance on this vital aspect of training by including tests in grade exams. John Sloboda, in his seminal work on the psychology of music, claims that audition panels for membership of our professional symphony orchestras might as well dispense with hearing the applicant churning out a well known concerto movement and simply ask for sight-reading.

…the iPad app that was launched last January has improved their pupils’ fluency enormously and, most importantly, they have been given a great deal more confidence in their ability to read at sight

Worryingly, many teachers will have found that even very musical pupils who confidently know the basics of notation, are prepared to apply themselves and who want to read fluently find that the necessary continuity eludes them. Teachers who want to help often do not realise how difficult the process is and I confess that, before my research over recent years, I had little idea of what monumental tasks we ask our brains to carry out — pianists in particular. Non-musicians among the optometrists I have inter viewed have been staggered to find out how much information has to be taken in from musical notation by the eye and the brain: ‘You mean’ said one when I explained about pianists having a treble and bass clef to contend with simultaneously ‘that each hand has a different set of instructions?!’ He was incredulous.

My conclusion is that poor sight reading is a type of musical dyslexia. It is well known that specific parts of the brain are involved in controlling certain actions – balance, motor control, directional sense, multi-tasking, language, the senses etc. In weak sight readers, that part of the brain dealing with eye scanning (horizontally for the melody line, vertically for chords and, in pianists, retrograde scanning for the left hand) does not function efficiently. This is because the brain has never been trained to ignore the ear. This might sound heretical — ‘Ignore the ear? I am always encouraging my pupils to listen!’ Quite correct — except that, in sight-reading, continuity is by far the most important element. The sequence usually is this: pupil hears an obvious wrong note — the ear alerts the brain, the brain sends a message to the eyes ‘Look back — something is wrong’ — the eyes obey and, bingo, there is the stumble/hesitation which upsets continuity. More than that, it destroys the rhythm pattern and hence the phrasing, all of which results in what I call ‘non-music’.

And if I seem to be concentrating mostly on the plight of pianists, implying that their reading is especially difficult because of using two staves, I should point out that, having at one time played cello and trumpet, I am well aware that single line readers have the difficulty, which pianists do not have, of producing their notes via fingering, position work, embouchure etc. At least all the pianists have to do is press the correct note down!

Most sight-readers think that the vital job is to ‘Get the notes right’. In fact, the pitch of the notes is the least important element of all. In order of importance we have Continuity, Rhythm And Pitch — these words form an unfortunate acronym but those teachers at my meetings across the world amused by my slightly coarse joke certainly have something to remember in their teaching! Simple experiment: play your pupils Happy Birthday To You continuously, in precise rhythm but with ever y note wrong. I guarantee they will join in with the words of the last line!

So: how do we train the brain in the way described in order to produce fluent sight-reading? Users around the world are telling me that the iPad app that was launched last January has improved their pupils’ fluency enormously and, most importantly, they have been given a great deal more confidence in their ability to read at sight. The unique SightRead4Piano app, for example, contains 1,107 piano pieces from six examination boards from preGrade 1 to post-Grade 8. It does what no book can possibly do — it removes the music bar by bar as it is played so that when the eyes want to flick back in response to a wrong note, there is nothing to see! And since eyes will not focus on a blank piece of ‘paper’, there is only one way for them to go — for ward! I hope the university students I talked to in 2009 have kept abreast of this development and that many of them have downloaded the AMEB sight-reading samples onto their iPads. It might have made it worthwhile having to listen to the first part of my lecture. Unless, of course, they had improved their Angry Birds score! I hope, too, that they take with them into their teaching, the words of Daniel Barenboim. In his biography, My Life In Music, he writes ‘By definition, sight reading means playing bar one with your eyes while your brain is on bar five.’

To try the SightRead4Piano iPad app go to the App Store, download the free app and explore

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