by Kyle Hayes
Being able to sight-read is one of the most important skills in your toolbox as a musician. A lot of music instructors will say it is the most important skill. The reason is because if you can sight-read well, you are demonstrating that you have fluency in all of your key signatures, you understand all of your rhythms and are subdividing, all of those technical exercises that you’ve been drilling in your private lessons and your band classes have been mastered, and your musicality is at a level where you can read expression markings and make a phrase really come to life.
When I was in school, I never really paid that much attention to how well I was able to sight-read because we always had weeks of rehearsal before we gave a concert. I was at the top of my sections in high school and college band and orchestra, taking gigs, and was always asked to be in chamber groups. I thought I had it all figured out. “Rehearsal is where you come to learn your part, right?” was my way of thinking. Man, I have never been more wrong. In graduate school my teacher would always impress upon us the idea that we had to sight-read with 80% accuracy if we even wanted to consider having a career as a professional musician. I can’t tell you how many times I would go home after playing duets with him and questioning whether or not I had it in me- my sight-reading was absolutely terrible. Sure, I had some church gigs where you show up an hour before the church service to have a quick rehearsal of the big choir pieces, but the hymns where played on the fly. I survived, so I didn’t really pay attention to really developing sight-reading as an actual tool.
My last year of graduate school it dawned on me that I was about to get out of the comfort and safety of a conservatory where it’s okay to make mistakes, because we’re all there to learn, and be thrown into the real world of professional musicians. In this world, and especially where I was going to be calling home, sight-reading was your paycheck. I’m based in Nashville and a good number of the freelance musicians in the city make a regular paycheck in the recording studios. For some of them, it’s their only job. With everything from movie and video game soundtracks, radio jingles, and even music for theme parks and resorts being recorded here, if I couldn’t sight-read well it basically meant that I wasn’t going to be working. I had to develop a game plan to really make sure that I would be at that 80% accuracy level before I left school so that I’d get a callback by the contractors; and at $75-$120 an hour, I wanted that callback!
The key to developing strong sight-reading skills is simple, and it’s all of those things that you really don’t want to do. Practice with a metronome and master your fundamentals; your scales, arpeggios, thirds, all your intervals… basically everything you do in band class through middle school (if you grow up in America, anyway). Since I came to the horn late in life, I didn’t get a chance to do this which is why I didn’t have them under my fingers like everyone else. So, I sat down and wrote out all of those little exercises into a music notation program in all the major and minor keys, I got batteries and a power adapter for my metronome, and I got to work. (If you want a copy of my “technique bootcamp” shoot me an email.)
After a few months, and I do mean months, of working all of those exercises to where I could play them at fast tempi, and not have to think about what my fingers are doing, everything was starting to feel very comfortable. Even when playing without the metronome, I felt the subdivisions inside my body and it would pain me to drag even in the slightest. I remember playing Gallay’s Etudes Brillantes, Op 43 one afternoon and feeling totally liberated that I could be rubato in my phrasing, not having to worry about my rhythms lining up like they should, and getting all of those crazy 16th note passages with accuracy that I hadn’t been able to do before because mentally and physically the technique was solid.
It wasn’t just in the timing. There was a time when I got called to play a weekend of the musical Beauty and the Beast because the horn player for the show had to go out of town. If you know anything about musical theatre or pop music, you know that the books are written and orchestrated by keyboard players so they love their sharp keys. Imagine sitting down and having to sight-read solos for one of the dance numbers, at 140+ beats per minute, in the key of F-Sharp major. Sounds stressful, right? This is just one of the many times in the last few years I said “Thank you, sight-reading.”
So here is the trick. Sit down and actually put in the time with the boring things. Use a metronome and subdivide everything. Play the subdivisions during the long notes so that you know for sure that your counting is solid. Mozart, Strauss, Kopprasch- play the subdivisions for all of it. Have it down in one key? Transpose it to E-flat (or any other key) and do it all over again. Become fluent in all of your keys, major and minor. Here’s an example of one of the technical exercises that I put together to help me and as you can see, it’s pretty straight forward and nothing brilliant or mind blowing:
(I promise, each key has a page of its own today.) It’s all a matter of sitting down and woodshedding until you don’t have to think about it anymore.
So, you might not aspire to be a recording studio musician as I did. You might instead want to be a brass quintet player, and orchestral musician, a church music or a band director. In all aspects of music performance and pedagogy, sight-reading is one of the essential skills that will make you a complete musician. I tell my students every time they are prepping for an honor band or college audition- if I’m the one judging you, the bulk of the score will rest on your ability to sight-read. I don’t care if you can play all of your scales up and down with amazing speed, or play the prepared music flawlessly. Everyone can do that. Not everyone will be able to sight-read the paint off of the wall. If you can do that, you will surely be able to play your scales and prepared music forward and backwards. Besides, the better you sight-read the less you have to practice your ensemble music, and who really wants to do that?
Kyle Hayes is a horn player and instructor. He has played with the Zürich Symphony Orchestra and the Lugano Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland, the Evansville Philharmonic, and the Eroica Ensemble. An active chamber musician, he has given chamber music recitals in Memphis, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and around Switzerland and Italy. Currently, he is a freelancing in the Nashville area working as a recording studio musician, playing in a number of pit orchestras for musical theatre productions, and performing with the Murfreesboro Symphony and Jackson Symphony Orchestras.