Sightreading without the blur

Accurate sightreading is one of the most valuable skills for any musician, and yet for many it causes difficulty and fear. Carol Healey offers practical tips to give your students confidence right from the start

Why do so many pupils dread being asked to sightread music? The biggest elephant in the room is multitasking. Trying to be fully conscious of several things at once makes everything worse. You can only shine the torch of full attention in one direction at a time.
When the necessary sub-processes have been repeated correctly and frequently, automated, linked and pruned for efficiency, multitasking skills can emerge. Our brains use far less energy when tasks are familiar. 
But in the earliest stages of learning, when every new task requires full and effortful attention, it is important to deal with just one aspect of music at a time, particularly keeping rhythm separate from pitch. Knowing ‘what’ and knowing ‘when’ are totally different kinds of information, and both are easier to process one at a time. Of course we should frequently alternate paying attention to one or the other, since both are essential to music. But this article will only have space to deal with pitch.
Many students find five stave lines visually confusing, muddling the central notes. So, to make them easier I like to call the top, bottom and middle lines ‘landmarks’. No one has trouble identifying the top or bottom lines, and the middle line is the only one with two lines on each side of it. On the violin these places all happen to be first-finger notes in first position; which only leaves two lines to work out, and they are both third fingers. So lines are either 1 or 3 and the ‘landmarks’ make the choice easy.
Then, all the spaces are either a single step up or down from a ‘landmark’: we just need to add or take away a finger to locate them. The same principle applies to reading in other positions once the appropriate finger is playing on the ‘landmarks’.
Leger lines below the stave are definite evidence of the need to play on the G string – no D-string note needs extra lines. On the violin we just need to notice whether there are one or two low lines, and that having more lines means lower sounds and fewer fingers. After that the same rules apply: lines are either first or third finger, and spaces are below the lowest given line and so one finger less than that line. If we have simple rules there is less confusion!
Music for beginners tends to start with open-string ‘tunes’, but if this stage lasts too long, a habit is formed of always moving to a different string when the pitch changes. Then once fingers are used, crossing strings becomes less predictable and doubt creeps in. It helps to ask the pupil to draw a light pencil line between notes that need to cross strings. Learning is accelerated if they work it out for themselves and use this visual prompt until it all becomes familiar. Where humanly possible we try to avoid doubt and blunders while learning, so the memory traces are clean.
Right vs left
It is also worth telling the pupil that different halves of the brain are in charge of sending orders to the right and left arms: so sometimes we need to tell the right arm not to change level when the note changes, and at other times we need to tell it to set off early towards a new string even though the interval looks no bigger. But if we mainly think about fingering we can forget to send the bow arm a message at all, leaving it to guess! This again is a multitasking problem rather than lack of knowledge, so practising each task on its own before combining them is the way to go. It helps to point out that open strings are all just below a ‘landmark’ and that you can never play a note lower than an open string without crossing to one below.
Name the note
It is important for early players to know the names of the notes, both on the stave and on their instrument, rather than translate directly from stave location to action, even though they won’t need to be aware of names when playing fluently. There are times, such as understanding and applying a key signature, when knowing and using a letter name is absolutely essential.
But letter names alone can be confusing: sharp, natural or flat version? They all look identical on the stave when the sign is in the key signature! And how do you find them on an unfretted string? I remember my own confusion the first time I was told about F sharp and C sharp in the key signature. Letters F and C look clearly different from each other but different sharps look identical. I didn’t twig that they took their identity from where they were sitting on the stave. I also wondered what they would have been like without a sharp sign. It also seemed unfair that the music only told you about two notes – what about all the others? So even though I could please my teacher by playing the correct notes, I had no real understanding of what was going on, and no idea how one could ever work out finger spacing without a teacher’s guidance. This has been a warning to me as I teach, not to assume full understanding without checking carefully.
So what fundamental information helps to make note-finding secure? Any pianist can easily see that white notes are naturals and relate them to the plain stave. However, music on the stave does not make notes look closer together when they are semitones. This can leave a string player unsure whether fingers should be touching or apart, unless they know the names of the notes and where the semitones need to be because of the written key signature.
Violinists need to learn where to locate all the naturals, becoming very aware that B–C and E–F are the only semitone steps, and that semitone fingers play close together (except when crossing strings, which makes us stretch further than usual!)
Some violin pedagogues introduce the natural scale first, and this has distinct advantages for the learner. I think it is a shame that violinists often meet naturals for the first time as lower versions of the ‘normal’ C sharp, leaving the impression that one must always move back when a natural is written; whereas, like piano keys, they are actually fixed locations and pitches.
Doubts about pitch lead to extra unhelpful mental processing and a lot of guesswork. Guessing as a default option leads to mistakes and imprecise intonation. Imprecise intonation leads to further doubt and guessing, with little idea of what needs to be adjusted, and no improvement next time. With guidance, a well-rehearsed tune becomes more accurate – but as for sightreading, ‘fright’ reading would be a better description. No one likes sounding bad!
After some time I noticed that whatever the key, there are only four finger groupings possible without adding accidentals. We all use them, but I have found it useful to give them labels.
Group 1      1   23   4
Group 2      12   3   4
Group 3      1   2   34
Group 4      1   2   3   4 
This makes it possible to refer to a bunch of notes predictably related to each other by pitch and geography, rather than to one pitch at a time, and to have the fingers hovering over a set of right notes, ready for action. Less doubt means greater speed and accuracy when reading.
It then became clear that there is a permanent sequence of groups across the strings, encompassing every key. Any key in any position would always use four next-door groups moving sequentially from the G string to the E string! It’s like the DNA of keys:
1  1  2  2  4  3  3  1  1  2  2  4  3  3  1  1  etc.
For example, G major in first position uses Groups 1 1 2  2
        D major in first position uses Groups  3  1  1  2
        C major in third position uses Groups 3  3  1  1
But  C major in second position uses Groups 2  4  3  3
Knowing the first two groups makes the next two inevitable. Since minor keys use the same key signatures, the groups needed will be as for the relative major, unless scale degrees 6 or 7 are sharpened, which is always visible on the score. There is no need to fear keys with lots of sharps or flats; no need to fear identifying the shape to use in high positions: just work out the groups needed for two adjacent strings and you can’t go wrong!
Then it became even simpler. All you need to identify is which finger plays the major keynote. We only have four fingers, so now instead of learning twelve different major keys, this emerges:
First finger on keynote requires  Groups 3  3  1  1
Second finger on keynote requires Groups 2  4  3  3
Third finger on keynote requires Groups 1  2  2  4
Fourth finger (or open string)  Groups   3  1  1  2
If the keynote isn’t located on the G string, you can work back in the group sequence by step, from whichever finger plays the keynote.
Being aware of this structure makes playing the right pitches while sightreading so much easier. When we shift, we need to know not just how far to travel, but what shapes to make when we arrive. With ‘Groups’ everything feels and sounds more secure.
Relationships between notes
Reading and playing pitch accurately depends therefore on the relationships between notes, not just on the identity of single notes. To encourage this kind of thinking in beginners I have created a set of cards each of which has four matching note heads weaving around one or at most two stave lines. Here, the starting pitch and component step sizing is chosen at will (e.g.‘doh re mi’ starting on open D). Each card presents a different permutation of these pitches, to sing and then play at sight (or to memorise before playing, which promotes reading ahead). Singing the written pitches is an invaluable skill for sightreading. It means you always have a sound you are aiming to produce, and since every time you make the right sound you are by definition in the right place to make it, the sound itself is the best memory guide for finding it again. By the time the pupil has progressed to the two-line stave, intervals up to a 5th are recognised, and the value of reading by contour is established. There is no fixed line or letter name to rely on, only relative step size and direction; but this is enough to define the ‘right’ notes and moves.
More advanced students can be asked to apply different key signatures to the cards from a named starting note or from a given starting finger; or to play everything in a variety of positions to explore what works best. I have made a five-line stave transparency to place at different levels over a card, which then, depending on the clef, defines which pitches are required. I have invented many games using these cards, with a range of challenges to benefit most pupils. Reading by contour helps pupils to move around logically and comfortably when playing in less familiar positions.
Note sequences
I also have a five-line magnetic whiteboard and small black magnets, for writing out longer sequences of notes. All kinds of patterns and intervals can be written and practised, and pupils love creating their own, or recording the notes played by the teacher (excellent aural training). Actively writing rather than just passively reading makes them more aware of how music is written, which helps sightreading, too.
When reading printed scores I sometimes suggest that the player imagines that the ‘tune’ is a ‘tube’: you travel through every inch to get to the other end, which ensures you play everything in sequence! Another game is to mentally join each note to its neighbour on the right, like a dot-to-dot puzzle.
If a pupil is making habitual pitch mistakes or hesitations when learning a piece, they usually read all the same pitches accurately when asked to play them steadily backwards! It makes them read freshly rather than relying on imperfect memories, and they don’t expect to recognise the tune. Here sightreading is the cure!
Two ways to read pitch
Thus there are two distinct ways of reading for pitch: the first is to identify a note by where is sits on the stave; the second is to judge by contour whether to rise or fall from the current note, or stay the same. They are both useful, but the second is less mental effort when notes are close to each other; and a smaller effort aids fluency.
The first method is always necessary to establish a starting note, key signature implications, and to deal with unfamiliar large intervals (treat the second note here as if it were the only note, and identify it against the stave – you have made the right interval for free!)
To help with recognising intervals, you can divide them into two families:
odd numbered intervals =2 of the same’, meaning both ends sit on lines or both on spaces
even numbered intervals =‘1 of each’, meaning if one end is a space the other is a line.
So the intervals closest in size are differentiated by type and less likely to be muddled. Then less common intervals (larger than a 3rd) need to be practised and turned into familiar patterns of finger pairs and string-crossing. No more going wrong when the 4th in an arpeggio comes along!
By gradually combining all these ways of thinking and playing, pitch recognition becomes more predictable and assured, the mind and left hand are ready for action, and accurate pitch reading with good intonation is easier. And since pitch is now not a problem, we are free to focus on the rhythm. Ideally we should all enjoy reading a new piece of music in the same way we enjoy reading a new story!
This article was first published in the Winter 2016 edition of Arco. ESTA members receive four issues of Arco and two of Jesta every year as part of their membership benefits. Find out more here

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