If you want to improve your sight-reading, focus on quantity, not quality. This article will go into why.
Quantity over quality
Yes, you read that right: quantity over quality and NOT quality over quantity.
I know that sounds controversial but hear me out.
If you want to become a good sight-reader, you have to let go of reaching perfection. You have to let go of quality and instead, focus on quantity. As much as you want it to sound like the real deal when sight-reading, with all the right notes, the right rhythm and the right character, you have to realise that in the beginning, it’s not going to sound the way you want. It’s not going to sound like a performance.
It’s okay to make mistakes
There’ll be mistakes, you’ll miss accidentals, you’ll stumble over difficult rhythms, you’ll miss dynamics or articulation. It won’t always sound pretty or accurate but that’s okay.
It’s okay because you’re practising in the comfort of your own practice room (at least, I hope so!) and not in an exam room where all your mistakes count. Take advantage of the fact that you can make mistakes and nothing bad will happen.
(In case you are taking a sight-reading test soon, I recommend you read this article: How to Prepare for a Sight-Reading Test.)
Learn from your mistakes
Rather, take note of the mistakes. Are you misreading notes? Is it the rhythm that’s confusing you? Or is the key signature the problem? Notice the type of mistakes you make so that when you go on to sight-read the same piece again (if necessary) or some other piece, you’ll be a little wiser. Maybe you’ll realise that sight-reading at a slower tempo gives you more chance to process the information and play more accurately. Or you’ll make a note to yourself to remember the dynamics next time around.
Whatever mistakes you make when sight-reading, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, observe your mistakes so that you can focus on the things that matter, the things that you find hard to do.
Sight-read a lot of music
Besides, to become a good sight-reader, you have to sight-read A LOT of music! Not just one piece a week. I mean dozens of pieces a week. I don’t mean you have to sight-read one hour a day, although you can if you want, but try to sight-read a big number of pieces at each practice. Aim to sight-read 5 to 10 pieces, as opposed to 1 or 2 over and over until you get them perfect.
The way you spend time on pieces you sight-read should be totally different from the way you spend time on your current repertoire. The aim is to practise the process of playing something new for the first time, not get everything polished.
The story of the pottery class
This concept of quantity over quality is something I heard recently in a video by YouTuber Ali Abdaal where he recounts a story (taken from the book “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland) that goes something like this:
There was once a pottery teacher who announced on opening day that he was going to divide his class into two groups. One group (A) would be graded solely on the quantity of the work, the other group (B) solely on the quality. Group A would produce one pot a day for 30 days while group B would work on one pot during the 30 days.
What do you think happened? Well, at the end of the 30 days, the teacher graded the pots and it turns out that the works of the highest quality were all produced by group A (the “quantity “group)!
It appears that while the “quantity” group was busily producing pots one after the other and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat thinking and planning about making the perfect pot but had little to show for their efforts other than big theories of perfection and a pile of clay.
What can we take from this story?
Do what the “quantity” group did (no, I don’t mean go out and make one pot a day, haha!). Sight-read piece after piece until the process of sight-reading becomes easier and almost second nature. Don’t you think you would become a better sight-reader if you sight-read 5 pieces a day (meaning 35 a week), as opposed to once a week?
So next time you sit down at the piano and sight-read something, I’d like you to remember the lessons from the story of the pottery class. Sight-read as many pieces as you can in the time you’ve allocated and play through the pieces, as best as you can but without worrying about the mistakes. Quality will come gradually.
LEARN MORE >> How to Improve Sight-Reading with Julian Zalla