Being able to sight-read is one thing, but what about interpreting while sight-reading? Is it even possible? In this article, I share how to develop the ability to interpret so that you can begin to interpret while sight-reading.
Recently, I recorded a video for my YouTube channel where I sight-read the second movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata. It’s a slow movement, a bit more than a page in length. After sight-reading the movement, I shared my impressions. One of the things I said was that it was not too difficult to sight-read.
If you are familiar with this movement, then you’ll know that it is simple in nature. It does not have many notes, it’s quite thin in its texture. But as one of my viewers commented, “Difficult not that there was a lot to work with, but the skill of the interpreter to bring out the simple melody and harmony into something monumental and august. Again, not what’s there but what’s put in”.
In other words, even if the notes may be relatively easy to sight-read, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to play and make it sound musical. It still requires you to interpret, that is, give meaning to the notes. And this got me thinking. How do we develop the skill of interpretation? How do we come to understand the dots and the lines on the page and turn these into music? It’s really quite perplexing when you think about it. How do we do it? Especially when sight-reading?
I think the ability to interpret mostly comes from experience – experience in being exposed to hundreds of scores by reading them, analysing them, and listening to various performances of the pieces. You start to recognise certain patterns, like four-bar phrases which are so typical of the classical era, or stylistic traits that come back again and again like sequences in a baroque piece or two-note slurs in a Mozart sonata. Even if unconsciously, you start to recognise and predict these patterns and traits and you learn to interpret these.
A deep understanding of music and theory
I think being able to interpret also comes from a deep understanding of classical music and music theory. But not just theory on paper but what it conveys musically. It’s knowing what the composer intended. It’s going beyond the written symbols and getting into the head of the creator.
And let’s not forget that not everything is written in the score. It would be impossible to include all the details that one hears as a composer. Some things are left out for the interpreter to extrapolate.
Besides, the expression is itself embedded in the notes and rhythm. For example, think of a dotted rhythm. What does that convey to you? And how does a dotted rhythm differ to two equal notes? Or what about a crescendo? Does it only ever mean “gradually getting louder” or could it also convey a sense of moving forward?
Something to think about.
The ability to sing
Another aspect that helps hone your interpreting skills is the ability to sing a tune, even if only in your head. When thinking of shaping a phrase, ask yourself “how would I sing this?” and “where would I take a breath?”. A melody usually arises from the voice in the composer’s mind.
Familiarity with different styles and composers
Being familiar with the various styles of music and the composers largely contributes to our ability to interpret music. A sforzando (which is a strong accent) in a Bartok piece will be played very differently to a sforzando in a Beethoven sonata or in a Chopin Nocturne. The context is what gives the symbols their meaning. It’s like a dash of black paint in a dark-couloured painting versus a light-coloured painting – the black paint will add something totally different depending on the painting. Same goes for an accent or any other symbol in music.
Using (or not using) rubato
Rubato, that is, the stretching and pulling of time, and knowing how and when to use it – or not – is also a key element of interpretation. And once again, this manipulation of time will depend on its context. Not all pieces will require it.
Interpretation is also about knowing when to bring out a certain harmony or a particular note. It’s about knowing how predictable something is and highlighting the elements that are not predictable to make it sound magical, like when a tune in a major key suddenly switches to a minor key in a Schubert piece. It’s knowing the significance of that switch as opposed to pounding through it like nothing happened. It’s about noticing what is about to happen and what just happened. It’s about actively listening.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is great and all but…
How do we interpret while sight-reading?
Well, it can be done but it’s going to take some time. First, you’ll need to work on the “surface-level” elements like the notes and the rhythm and all the obvious markings until you can read and play them automatically. Only then can you start working on the deeper level things like what’s really behind the symbols. And this will come with learning a lot of repertoire pieces, listening, analysing and studying music theory. Composing and singing can certainly help too.
It’s like when you’re first learning how to drive – first you have to learn the basics, like how to use the break, the wheel, the accelerator, and so on. It’s only much later, when you can do all these things on autopilot, that you can start looking around you as you drive and admire the view, the trees, the sky and listen to the radio.
There will come a time when reading the notes and rhythm will be automatic and you’ll be able to truly listen to the sound you make. That’s when you’ll be able to start interpreting as you sight-read.