As I mentioned earlier in an article about cruise ship musician skill level, you should have very good sight-reading skills if you are going to work on a cruise ship, especially if you are planning to work in the show band. Its no surprise that sight reading is a big part of most ship auditions.
If sight reading isn’t your thing, I have a few suggestions. I often work as an audition accompanist, which is a job that sometimes requires 100% sight reading for hours on end, so I’ve learned a few tricks over the years.
Take a Breath
I’m careful not to just put the song on my stand and start playing the little black dots immediately. I take a minute and look at the whole thing before I start.
Read the Title
This sounds stupid, but in the rush of smoothing out the music and trying to start as soon as possible, sometimes I skip right past the title and start staring at everything else. Read the title and the tempo/style markings at the top. If I’m playing with someone that knows the tune, I’ll ask them for a tempo. Often when someone gives me the tempo, they also give me an idea of the feel and groove of the song.
Understand the Song’s Roadmap
Sometimes sheet music is just written poorly. DS’s and Codas are dumb ways to save paper, and they are no help to a sight reader. I circle all important symbols before I start playing.
Scan for Key, Meter Changes
Find any key changes, or meter changes. I always sing through the meter changes in my head before I start the song.
Notation as Shapes
As you become a better sight reader, you’ll find that notation often comes in familiar shapes. I find this especially true of piano music. As I’m sight reading, I don’t have time to look at each individual note of a chord as it flies by. Over the years my eyes have become accustomed to seeing familiar chords as shapes. You know what a basic, 3-note triad looks like, right? If the top note is G, I’ll bet you that’s a C major chord, depending on the key signature. I don’t need to look that closely at the other two notes.
You know what a fourth looks like, right? If there are two fourths stacked on top of each other, and you see that the bottom note has one ledger line, I’m certain that chord is C, F & Bb. I don’t need to sit and place each note, I can usually tell what the chord is from the shape of the note heads and the placement or span of the top and bottom chord tones.
You can see melody lines as shapes, too. See all notes as a collection of familiar patterns and phrases and it’ll help your sight reading immensely.
Beginners always look directly at the note that they are playing. Once they’ve played it they look at the next note. Then the next note. Its a slow process.
I like to be looking 1-4 measures ahead of what I’m are playing at all times, sight reading or not. To be a serious sight reader you need to acquire the ability to create a buffer between what you are reading and what is coming out of your hands.
Its a lot like an anti-skip CD player (remember those?) that is reading twenty seconds ahead of what’s actually coming out of the headphones. If the CD player gets hit and skips, it has 20 seconds to fix the skip before you’d hear it. Its usually fixed in those 20 seconds, so you never hear a skip. The same is true of a musician reading 2 measures ahead. If I get to a difficult part or a key change, I’ve already had 2 measures worth of time to look at it before I had to play it. It makes a huge difference.
If I screw something up, I never stop and go back. I make something up, or lay out for a minute, then get back on track. Remember, we aren’t practicing, we’re sight reading. If you are playing with someone else – a singer for example – and you mess up and go back…the technical term for that is “train wreck,” and its bad. Laying out for a few measures is better than stopping if it comes to that.
A Note on Music Notation
As I alluded to earlier – sometimes sheet music is just written poorly, and that doesn’t help with sight reading. Recently I received a piece of hand-written music that was a copy of a copy. The 15th measure was scratched out and it said “To Key of Db –>” with a big “Db” written on measure 16. There was a DS and a Coda. In my opinion, that is an unreadable piece of music, and luckily it wasn’t for a sight-reading gig this time. But I’d seen that and much worse, even in auditions.
You will always do better with a clean, original copy of music. You might not notice what a difference it makes when a copy machine skews the notation, lightens the staff lines, or cuts off the bottom of the page. It makes a big difference to your eyes, and that comes out in your fingers. At the very least, your eyes need the staff lines to be clear and straight.
To Get Better At Sight Reading, You Need To Sight Read
Practice will make it better, but practicing sight reading sucks. I think the best way to get better at this is to put yourself in stressful sight reading situations – again, like audition accompanying. When you start doing this gig, you’re going to screw some things up, and you are going to feel like a real idiot. And I guarantee you’ll learn something and be better the next time.
Also – get some friends together and read new music together. That’s a great way to get familiar with news songs, as well as hone your reading chops.
If you are practicing sight reading alone, play with a metronome. That will keep you from slowing down in the hard parts, and speeding up the faster parts.
The best piece of advice here is to sight read as much as you can. You will get better, and you will naturally begin to absorb the other ideas as you do.