Read ahead but not too far ahead? Sounds confusing, I know, but let me explain.
The common advice is to read ahead when sight-reading but I don’t think reading too far ahead helps because there’s only so much information we can retain. I’ve noticed that if I look too far ahead, I often predict the wrong patterns or notes and make mistakes.
For each piece that you sight-read, you need to find the speed at which to read ahead and how far to read ahead. This speed will largely depend on the tempo at which you’re sight-reading. If you’re sight-reading at a slow speed such as crotchet (quarter note) equals 60, you’ll have more time to read ahead but you’re playing slower so it doesn’t make sense to read too many beats ahead otherwise you might accidentally speed up your playing. So, you need to adapt your reading speed to that of your playing.
But beware because even within the same piece, there’ll be instances where you need to slow down or speed up your reading! For example, if you have a series of minims (half notes), you can slow down your reading but if you have semiquavers (16th notes), then you need to speed up your reading.
Unfortunately, the complexity doesn’t end here!
Reading ahead is useful in preparing you for the next notes but you also need to remain fully present and aware of each note that you’re playing. If you’re too busy reading ahead but not actually taking in what you’re playing, you’ll get muddled up.
Successful sight-reading relies heavily on being and staying in the present. It’s like a form of mediation. If your mind wanders for even a split second, you can lose your spot or get out of rhythm.
That’s why sight-reading doesn’t work so well when we’re distracted, worried or feeling tense. Our mind doesn’t want to cooperate. The mind complies and follows instructions when it’s free of worry and distractions. That’s when it can concentrate on something complex such as music notation.
So then, the question is: how can we both be present and aware of each note while also reading ahead?
That’s a tough question to answer. It’s like trying to answer the question “how do you ride a bike”? It’s hard to explain! But let me try to describe what happens when I sight-read. How I sight-read is not necessarily THE only way to sight-read. It’s just the way that I know how to.
When I’m sight-reading, I internalise the notes as I’m playing them, in other words, I’m singing them mentally. While I’m hearing and singing the notes I’m playing, my eyes look a few notes ahead. In that moment, I’m registering what my hands need to do, what position they need to go in, what fingers I need to use and I’m also registering the notes and the intervals, the accidentals, the articulation and the dynamics.
I know. That’s a LOT of information! But I do this gradually. I’m looking at the big picture but also at the smaller picture.
I tried observing what I do when I’m sight-reading, and I realised that rather than looking ahead, I seem to zoom out for a bit and then zoom back in depending on the material. It’s like I’m scanning ahead to see what’s remaining the same and what’s changing. If I see changes, then I zoom in. If I see that it’s the same pattern repeating, I zoom out and scan for the next changes.
For example, when I see a group of notes going up or down, I look for the top notes and the bottom notes and quickly scan to see if the notes are all moving stepwise or not. If I see there’s a change in patterns, such as some notes skipping rather than stepping, then I zoom in. Otherwise, if it’s all moving by steps, then I just look for the top and bottom notes of the passage, I don’t look at every single note.
Rather than thinking that you need to learn to read ahead, remind yourself to zoom out to look for patterns repeating and to zoom in for changes, like a camera lens. Look at both the small and the big picture.
Have YOU ever observed yourself sight-reading and if so, what have you noticed? How far ahead do YOU actually read? Share in the comments below.
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