Most of what we do is not sight reading: solos, excerpts, etudes, chamber music, technique exercises. Why bother?
Couple reasons: sight reading is one of the best measures of all-around musicianship. It tests how deep and broad your skills are very quickly and how expeditiously you can solve problems and adapt to new situations. This makes it an attractive addition to many kinds of auditions, even for situations (educational or professional) where you will seldom have to sight-read. Conductors and colleagues are delighted to work with quick studies, those who can play the chart down right away. Anyone with any ambition to be a freelancer needs to be razor sharp in the sight reading department. Sight-reading skill has benefits for everyone, even if you don’t audition much or intend to be a freelancer. For one thing, the skills involved in sight-reading are very similar to regular work and practice of new pieces, just highly compressed, and if we are good sight-readers, we will cut the time it takes to learn new pieces dramatically.
How do you work on sight reading? By doing it regularly: every day, read something new, something you’ve never seen before (it doesn’t even have to be horn music). Look it over (more on this below), then play through it. Rhythm is paramount: keep a regular pulse; if (when) you miss something, don’t stop and try to “fix” it, keep going. Take a guess at what tempo you can play through it almost perfectly (regardless of what tempo is given) and then play it a shade faster. You want to push your self a little to force yourself to focus and to make yourself a little faster each time. If you get every note perfectly, you were a bit slow. If you miss many notes, you were a bit fast.
One thing that will greatly aid your ability to read new material at sight is a problem-solving routine that you can apply in the few seconds you have before beginning. Here is one such:
1. Don’t just start playing. Take time to solve as many problems as you can first. When you’re first practicing this, take more time, say, up to 30 seconds for a page. With practice and the accumulation of skill, you may be able to get this down to under ten seconds.
2. First scan the selection for Rhythm problems. Look for the problems, the sticky bits, and ignore anything that looks easy. Check the meter (3/4? 4/4? 7/8? and see if there are any changes. Check the tempo marking. Isolate any tricky rhythms (including rests – sometimes these are worse than the notes) and tap them on your leg or whistle them softly. Rehearse them at a tempo you can do them exactly right, even if slower than what’s asked for.
3. Next is pitch. What’s the key signature? Is it transposed? Are there changes of key signature or transposition? Accidentals? Look for tricky leaps; whistle them softly if you can. Scan rapid scale passages and/or arpeggios and identify the scale involved if you can. You are trying as much as possible to break down the piece into bits of things that you already know so that you can play groups of notes rather than one note at a time (a Db minor scale passage may be slow going if you are playing it note for note, but if you recognize the grouping as a single scale, you can ‘program’ your fingers more quickly and accurately (this assumes that you have practiced that scale already…).
4. Last is expressive markings, including dynamics. These are clues to the style of the piece, and turn the technique into music, the same way that actors use the rise and fall of the voice to impart emotion to dialogue.
With practice you can run this routine very quickly through new music and solve many problems before you start. A couple more parting tips: as you play, scan at least one beat ahead of where you are playing, or better, a measure ahead – lay down some track for the train before it gets there! After you’ve completed your run-through, make a note of what didn’t work and take the time in the near future to work on those points, such as certain leaps, rhythms, scales, and so on. Consider what you might have missed in the pre-routine that would have helped you do it better. It doesn’t matter that you missed a few things (as I said, if you didn’t miss anything, it was too slow); as in all our practice, it only matters that you learn from your mistakes. Be aware of them, plan ways to correct them, and then do it. Be consistent in sight-reading every day, even just five minutes – quantity counts! (Duets are an enjoyable way to pile up quantity!). The last thing is to read all kinds of different music – old, new, borrowed, blue, high, low, transposed, staccato, legato, fast, slow, jazzy, odd meter, atonal, lots of flats/sharps; read other instrument’s music, world music, anything. It’s all compost for the well-rounded sight-reader, who, in the end, is like a world traveller, a bit at home anywhere.