Four sight-reading tips

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Here is a question I get all the time:

My choir director throws a piece of music on me at the last moment and I have to play it on the spot. How can I do this without struggling?

I have a few practical thoughts to help you with this one.

1) Talk about it. Remember that your choir director may not understand your challenge. Many of them just don’t. Maybe they don’t play any instruments themselves or maybe they are the world’s greatest sight-reader and can’t relate. But your first step should be to talk to the director about the situation and ask for more lead time. You might have to have that conversation every year or so to refresh his/her memory.

2) Ditch the guilt. Let me say this about piano accompaniments for choir songs. In general, they are not very good. They are very often written as an afterthought to the vocals by writers who don’t really play the piano much if at all. We are not talking about masterpieces here. So you should not waste one second worrying about changing them to match what you are comfortable with.

Just giving yourself permission to change the music as written will help you a lot. If you have a choir director that does not like that, have a conversation and explain your perspective.

3) Focus on what is important. In accompanying a choir, there are things that are important and things that aren’t as important.

  • The most important thing is the pulse (tempo). It is critical that you play at a consistent tempo and it can’t be draggy.
  • The second most important thing is the harmony. You have to play the right chords at the right times.
  • The third most important thing is musicality including feeling, dynamics and all of those other things that make music music.
  • The fourth most important thing is texture, meaning playing the actual notes as written in all their intricate patterns.

When sight-reading, your goal should be to get the first two things right. The other two are not nearly as important. I am not saying they are not important at all. I am merely saying that they are expendable in a sight-reading situation where you are struggling.

4) Simplify. Ruthlessly cut out any texture that you can’t comfortably play on the spot. That means eliminate the fanciness, approximate the rhythmic elements, and in general, just play less.

It is almost always unimportant if you play the rhythmic elements exactly as written. The key is to try to create the same feel. If the style is syncopated, don’t try to count it on the spot; just play a similar syncopation.

If you have to, just play block chords on each beat. That is perfectly fine. Hopefully, the chords will be written in for you above the arrangement (like a lead sheet) but if not, you should work towards getting comfortable in analyzing chords on the spot.

That is it for today. Give me your thoughts on this too.