I blog about piano sight-reading, I sight-read daily and use sight-reading when teaching and accompanying, but how did I get here? What does my journey look like? And I am really that good of a sight-reader?
As you’ll see, it’s not a skill I was born with. Rather, it’s a byproduct of the countless hours I’ve spent sight-reading through books as well as the education I received, the background I was brought up in and my temperament. Neither is it a skill I worked hard for in that I’ve never considered sight-reading as hard work but as pleasurable.
My musical background
I was born in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. (For those who don’t know, it’s the small country nestled between France and Germany, all too often ignored…). My mum’s side of the family is musical. A fun fact is that her father, my grandfather, is a descendant of César Franck, the Belgian composer most well-known for his violin and piano sonata (check it out if you don’t know it).
I was lucky to be brought up with music all around me: my mum played the piano, my brother played the violin, and my dad enjoyed listening to Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. Naturally, wanting to copy what I saw, I took up both the piano and the violin when the time was ripe. I also have relatives who are musicians too.
My musical education
I started piano lessons at age five and violin a year later, but I didn’t learn how to read music properly until three years later when I took weekly solfège lessons with my brother.
These lessons were not for the faint-hearted, but this was (and still is?) the norm in Belgium. To learn an instrument at a music academy, you had to enrol in solfège classes. In hindsight, I’m glad we did! We had to sight-sing in different clefs, sight-sing rhythms, do dictations, learn music theory, etc. I remember crying once after a lesson where we had music dictation… Things didn’t always come easily.
The great thing about all this is that by the time I was twelve, I had a solid understanding of music theory, a good ear and great reading skills. Not because I was more talented than others but because I had had the chance to learn all this consistently for three years. Had I grown up in Australia, I doubt I would be as proficient in sight-reading as I am now. No offence, Australia…
In piano lessons, sight-reading was never addressed because it was never an issue for me. I learned the notes of the pieces very quickly, so my time in lessons was spent on technique and interpretation.
I’ve always been curious and an explorer. For me, curiosity trumps fear, at least when it comes to learning. When I was little, I always liked flipping through piano books and trying out pieces because I was curious about them. Or if I heard my mum or a friend play a piece I liked, I would find the music and sight-read it. But not hands separately. That would’ve been too boring and too easy! Not afraid of challenges, I would always sight-read pieces hands together to hear what the piece sounded like.
Curiosity has led me to play through most if not all of the music books my mum owns and that I own which is why I’ve now resorted to digital sheet music from IMSLP and Scribd. For a time I would also go to the library every few weeks, peruse the music scores they had and select a couple of piano collections to sight-read at home. Collections like “Pieces by Russian composers”, “the Joy of Rags”, or pieces by composers I didn’t know.
And then there’s all the music I’ve sight-read when accompanying instrumentalists, choirs and vocalists. I have a huge folder with all the music I’ve played over the years. Accompanying is definitely a great way to improve sight-reading.
So, how good of a sight-reader am I really?
Well, to give you an idea, I can sight-read pieces in any styles up to grade 8 (AMEB) and beyond. Having said that, I can’t always sight-read pieces at tempo. Sometimes there are just too many notes and too much going on to process it all. But I find that sometimes it’s not my reading skills but my technique that lets me down. That’s why it’s always a good idea to keep working on technique.
Am I the best out there? No, of course not. Some pianists are far better sight-readers than I am. Seeing concert pianists on YouTube like Tiffany Poon or Josh Wright, who sight-read advanced pieces at tempo is a great reminder that there’s always room for improvement.
This is the story, in a nutshell, of how I got here. It’s one of the many journeys you can take to get to where you want to be.
Whichever journey you’re on:
Fall in love with the process and the results will come.
Over to you
Wha’s your story? How far are you in your journey? Let me know in the comments.