The way we test sight-reading is missing the point
“Remember to keep going!” was the advice I was given to survive the sight-reading segment of my grade 2 piano exam. As a lazy and distracted child, my lessons at the time consisted largely of me copying and memorising what to practise, I barely read notes at all never mind sight-read. Advice to ‘keep going’ was anathema to me when I had no idea how to start. I might just as well have been asked to speak Japanese to the examiner. It wasn’t going to happen.
I often see a similar bemused look on the faces of young children when they first join an ensemble. Dragged there by hopeful parents, sat at the back of a large group of unfamiliar children, all of whom appear at least to know what is going on. The cacophony that ensues adds to the confusion. Their survival instincts kick in. Keep your eyes on the music and pretend to play, in less than an hour it will all be over.
Time goes by, and gradually tunes emerge from the chaos. The written notes begin to take on a meaning, a shape, a logic. By the time of the concert, weeks have passed, and they have worked out their role in this curious ritual. They have learned how to meld with the masses and yes, there are moments of genuine happiness in amongst it all.
The experience of playing in an ensemble, whether in a duet or a symphony orchestra, is where sight-reading skills develop. This is because music exists outside of ourselves. Music doesn’t result from us putting one note after another, it is the result of a spontaneous rhythmic energy upon which we ride a pattern of notes. How we ride those notes without upsetting this rhythmic energy, or ‘groove’, determines our level of skill. Whilst it is possible to practise this skill solo, it is much more difficult and requires tremendous self-discipline. It is also not nearly as enjoyable.
Sight-reading is a collaboration of skills, most notably, and most underappreciated is the skill of improvisation. ‘Classical’ musicians often bemoan their lack of improvisational skills, but what on earth is sight-reading if not an improvisational skill? A good musician’s objective is never to robotically execute notation like some computer software. They interpret the music from the skeletal score by tapping into an accrued knowledge based on years of experience. This enables them to sight-read extremely challenging works. Sure, there may be some wrong notes, they might even lose their place, but skills of improvisation will ensure they stay with the music. Fixing mistakes comes later.
So how do we test this multi-faceted skill? Given that sight-reading is only required of musicians who play alongside other musicians, why is it most commonly tested solo and out of context?
When I am helping prepare students for a sight-reading test I give them initial pointers. I tell them to take note of the key/time signatures, tempo marking, dynamics etc. The next thing I suggest they do is to clarify in their minds how the first phrase sounds. This is the crucial bit. If they begin the test with basic mistakes, the likelihood is they will continue to make mistakes because their instincts are telling them to continue in a similar tonal and rhythmic mode to the one they started with. Their natural improvisation skills will want to carry forward from their opening bars. If for example the candidate starts in a major key instead of a minor key, it would be more musically logical for them to continue in the major. Their initial mistake might not reveal itself until later, by which time they may have made more ‘mistakes’ albeit ones that sounded correct in context. Of course examiners are skilled at finding a compromise in such cases, but there may be a more insightful way of administering this test.
Here is a suggestion. For a more comprehensive assessment, a context must be established before any sight-reading takes place. The candidate should be shown the music and taught by ear, the first phrase. They should be allowed to practise this first phrase for a minute or so. The examiner should be allowed to correct and advise on tempo, character, style as well as rhythm and pitch. When ready, the candidate would then play this opening phrase and continue sight-reading the rest of the piece. The candidate would have the choice of whether to play alone or with piano accompaniment provided by the examiner. In this instance, it would be entirely appropriate for the examiner to accompany sympathetically, even to lead the candidate with dynamic or tempo changes as appropriate, thereby testing the candidate’s flexibility and reaction skills.
This enables the examiner to determine accuracy on the grounds of musicianship as well as technical accuracy. (A beautifully executed answering phrase that loosely resembles the notation is just as useful as an accurate account. Anyone who has been accompanied by a pianist whose priority is note accuracy over musical fluency will understand the distinction. The former is more likely to be inflexible and less sympathetic.)
No more ‘deer in the headlights’ sight-reading tests. Instead, a test of the combined skills and talents of the candidate. As I often tell my pupils: ‘If you’re not sure what to do, make it up, but keep going!’