One Of The Most Overlooked Elements Of Effective Sight-Reading

Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 3.54.16 PMOne of the absolute best sight readers I’ve ever had a chance to play with (a saxophonist by the name of David Hughes) had a saying about reading even the most difficult music at sight:

Sight-reading is as much an attitude as it is a skill.

And it is.

There is a good deal of agreement amongst highly skilled sight-readers that the most important thing to address as you read music for the first time is time and rhythm.

And I agree with this wholeheartedly.

If you play a few wrong notes, but “keep it going” (maintain that forward motion of the time as expressed through rhythm) you’re not only going to help the music along, but also, you’re going to increase your chances of playing the correct pitches.

Learning from a master

I can remember playing with David Hughes, as he would single-handedly hold an entire saxophone section (of good players!) together by his sheer will and his powerful sense of time.

But there was something else that he held in his attitude that made him such an effective and highly musical sight-reader.

It wasn’t so much what he did, as it was what he didn’t  do when the rest of the saxophone section was struggling with a beastly new composition:

He didn’t interfere with the flow of his sound energy.

No matter how far he was stepping into unknown territory, no matter how daunting, no matter how complex (and even unfamiliar) the rhythms, no matter how dense the ink on the paper, he simply never lost the intention nor the intensity of his sound.

The rest of us, on the other hand, would sometimes just sort of fumble with our sound, lose the strength of our intentions, lose our presence. We would do this by interfering with the production and flow of our sound as we read the music.

We four saxophonists would shrink  (so to speak) while we played, as David Hughes would continue to expand. 

Now, don’t misunderstand. It’s not as if the bottom would drop out of our collective dynamic volume. Truth be told, there wouldn’t be that much of a noticeable change in volume.

No, it was more subtle than that. It would be as if the life force of our individual and collective sounds just became slightly imprisoned. As if all of a sudden it had lost its suppleness and color. Our collective sound became somewhat brittle.

It was the sonic manifestation of doubt, this doubt itself being manifested through our bodies.

Of course the sad irony here is that this doubt made the wrong notes and rhythms sound even more…well, “wrong”. Our mistakes became strangely amplified, whereas any mistake David would make became virtually insignificant. A beautiful illusion, of sorts.

How about you?

And that’s how your thinking can impact your functioning in any given moment, during any activity.

Whatever you do in your body as you play music (or do anything else, for that matter), is a result of your thinking. In the case of sight-reading, it’s your response/reaction to the thought  of playing the music in front of you.

Learning how to change  your response to better serve your wishes is at the heart of the Alexander Technique. A large part of my work when giving Alexander lessons to musicians is to help them notice their habitual reactions from moment to moment as they play.

As they learn to respond with clearer, more constructive choices, they simply play better (and feel better, too!), as they interfere less and less with their own sound energy.

To be clear, when I’m talking about “sound energy” I’m not talking only about “airflow”, as in the case of a wind instrumentalist or singer.

I see instrumentalists of all instruments reacting in ways that interfere with their sound energy as they fall into doubt: violinists who lose their luster; pianists who lose the warmth in their touch; guitarists who lose the color and resonance of their plucked strings.

And so on.

No matter what instrument you play, there is always something that happens, when you lose your sound energy: You begin to stiffen and tense yourself unnecessarily.

Sometimes this stiffening is strong and easily noticeable, but just as often, it is subtle and almost imperceptible.

But all your habits of stiffening, whether mild or violent,  have one thing in common: They are some form of you holding on to yourself. Holding onto yourself instead of letting yourself be pliant, balanced, free and constructively responsive.

In holding on to yourself like this, you are also holding on to your sound, not letting it release into the air.

This “holding on” is the essence of what interferes with your sound energy, with your intention, and with your expression as you are reading something at sight.

So what can you do to address this?

Here are a few ideas/tips for you to consider:

  • Observe yourself-Notice how you respond when you are sight-reading something difficult. In particular, notice what you do with your neck, shoulders and jaw. No matter what instrument you play, if you tense and compress your head into your neck, narrow your shoulders and/or clench your jaw, you’ll interfere with not only your sound, but also, your technical facility. See if you can notice this pattern of tension as it manifests itself through your whole body.
  • Practice saying “no”-Once you’ve noticed your habits of tension, work on gradually attenuating them. Think to yourself, “As I play, I’m not stiffening my shoulders and neck. I’m allowing myself to be free and present.”
  • Find your weak spots-What kinds of things make you tense up most when you sight-read? Complex rhythms? Extreme ends of your range? Awkward and/or unfamiliar keys? What are the kinds of reading challenges that invite you to “go wrong” in your reactions? Find out what they are and work systematically to improve. By doing so, you’ll weaken the temptation to react unconstructively.
  • Work on your sound energy everyday-No matter which instrument you play, conscious work on tone production is essential daily practice. Long tones, slow, melodic phrases, overtones, etc. Your ability to get your most resonant and expressive sound needs to become second nature, without any thought to how it is done mechanically.
  • Practice sight-reading everyday-As obvious as this sounds, I’m still amazed at the amount of musicians who seek my help with this who do the vast majority of their sight-reading while playing in ensembles. While this experience is excellent, spending time every day reading something new is absolutely essential, not only for your ability to read the notes, but also, so you can direct yourself in such a way as to keep your habitual tension in check. Here are some specific things you can do to improve your sight-reading.
  • Practice keeping your sound energy front and center as you sight-read-Besides working on long tones, etc., also practice reading simple to moderately difficult music every day as you shift your focus to your sound energy.

By noticing your response, by being intimate with your sound, and by developing strong time and rhythm, you’ll help transform you attitude and your ability as a sight reader. Instead of shrinking when you step into the unknown, you can learn to expand. I’ll leave you with another quote by sight-reader extraordinaire, David Hughes:

When in doubt, shout it out!

Let me know what you think.


  1. Paul says

    Tension is actually widely accepted in music education, either as a good tool for focus, or as a failing of the student (bad attitude).

    The master tradition is to keep a tight rein on the student, and upbraid us for every slip. Let’s at least understand where all this comes from, and not just say, “let go and be free” and stuff. Yes, that’s the goal, but we have deep teaching that tells us otherwise, and we need to get it out of the way.

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