Photo by Corey Seeman
Q: I’m a bassist starting my last year in high school now. I really feel that I need to become a sight reader as quickly as possible due to an upcoming audition for the music university I wish to attend. A friend of mine did the audition and they ended up handing him some crazy bebop tune – not close to what he had expected. Any advice on how to take those giant steps?
A: Typically, in any audition, you can expect that they’ll want to test your limits, so it is their intention to slowly increase the difficulty level to see what you know as well as how you deal with it.
For example, nobody would throw an up-tempo bebop head in front of you and expect you to sight read it without making any mistakes. Likely, they are more interested in seeing how much of it you can play and once you get tangled up, if you can keep your place with the music, recover and continue playing through.
In other words, do you have enough experience to make a mistake and not completely fall apart?
With this in mind, you’ll understand why I say that there is no fast way to learn how to sight read. It is a skill that takes incremental development and constant maintenance.
In short, it’s too late to cram over the summer. But every step you take now will help you in the audition and in the future.
The first step is to learn both the notes of the staff and the notes on your fretboard.
I usually start students with simple melodies, scale patterns and linear classical pieces. Linear lines can help since they don’t jump around the staff too much and you can learn by referencing what you already know.
For example, if you know that this note is C and you see the next note is one line above that space, then you can quickly begin to associate that middle line with D.
Learning to read notation really is kind of a “one note at a time” skill. Because of this referential style of internalization, it is important that you work at it daily so you don’t forget what you began to internalize the day before.
Don’t worry too much about the audition process. They don’t expect you to have everything together. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need them!
They just want to know where you are so they know where you will need to begin in their program. You can only prepare so much for what you don’t know is coming. All you can do is really work to nail the stuff you’ve prepared and to have started to consider some of the material you know you will need to learn in school.
All of music and performance is pretty much adherent to this rule: there are no shortcuts. It takes thousands of hours to become masterful and at least hundreds of hours to begin to get pretty good.
Don’t let that dissuade you though. I find it comforting to know that all I need to do to improve is, simply, to continue trying!
Readers, how about you? What have you done to improve your sight reading? Tell us about it in the comments.