Learning to Love Sight-Reading

by Abby @ Quaver on August 2, 2012

in Around the Web,Music Matters

We are thrilled to welcome to the Quaver Blog, Jeannine Everett – violinist, chamber musician, and all around student of music!

Principal second violin for the Reston Community Orchestra, Jeannine also helms the Reston Community Orchestra String Quartet whose focus on community outreach and youth education inspire her to keep learning and teaching other young musicians. 

Jeannine says of her musical background:

I’ve been playing the violin since I was eight and my third-grade public school music teacher put a bow in my hand. It was love at first sight. I’ve also sung in various vocal ensembles and studied classical guitar.

As a lifelong musician, Jeannine has an interesting take on the age-old practice of sight-reading!

Take it away, Jeannine:

Sight-Reading Can Be Fun –Words from a Reformed Read-a-Phobe

My orchestra sight reads repertoire between seasons. I used to dread it like the plague. Someone would plop a new piece of music on my stand, and I was supposed to play it. Without stopping. At only slightly below performance tempo.

I would do the pre-flight checklist:

  • Any double bars? Check.
  • Key signature and meter changes? Check.
  • Tempo markings? Check.
  • Repeats or codas? Check.
  • Recognizable scales or arpeggios, syncopated patterns? Check.

Then the conductor would raise the baton, and I would plunge in, holding my breath until I got to the end, hopefully at the same time as everyone else. After we’d finished, I’d take the music home and rehearse it obsessively for the next week so I wouldn’t be caught unprepared at the next rehearsal.

Playing chamber music, however, is changing my view on sight-reading. I’m even beginning to find it . . . fun.

I used to view sight-reading as a test of my musical ability. I would worry about what I was playing rather than what we were playing.

Sight-reading, however, isn’t something we do alone. It’s not about being right, it’s about being present.

In a chamber group, because only four musicians are playing, if one them isn’t paying attention to the others, it shows. Playing in an orchestra with thirty people buried in their own part is really no different, just louder and messier.

Once I stopped obsessing over the notes on the page, I could tap into deeper knowledge and experience.

Bach is different from Bruch. A chorale sounds different than a fugue. Motifs get passed from player to player, and musicians move and breathe along with the underlying meter. I may not know the piece, but I know enough about music to sense how my part works within the context of others. Unless, that is, we’re playing Hindemith or Schoenberg. Then all bets are off.

The key to sight-reading is to have the right mindset:

  • It’s okay to be wrong.
  • Mistakes are expected.
  • Play the note and keep moving, or don’t play the note, but keep moving.
    • If I can’t manage a passage, fluff it, fake it, or forget it, but don’t stop, because there’s another note waiting for me right after it and another after that.
  • Most of all, listen. Not just because it makes me a better musician, but because the music is beautiful, despite the errors.

I still prefer to be able to play what is on the page with preparation and confidence. I can’t read the notes quickly enough to get them all. (I could really use some faster glasses.) If I pay attention to what is going on around me, however, there are others to help me find my way.

It’s not about getting to the end, it’s about what’s in the middle, and what’s in the middle is awesome.

So what do you think? Sight-Reading: Friend or Foe? Sound in!

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Veggie Val August 3, 2012 at 1:04 am

Inspiring advice, Jeannine. I am just learning to sight-read as part of teaching myself piano. Good to know that even accomplished musicians dread it sometimes and that a change of attitude helps. Also, I didn’t know you were a musician in addition to being a great writer. Such talent!


2 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Thank you Val! It’s wonderful that you’re learning piano. Music at any age is a gift to the soul. It keeps the mind sharp and the heart open. Sight reading is the only way I can hope to touch even a fraction of the repertoire out there. Hearing it is lovely, but being inside of it moves me beyond words.


3 Lara Britt August 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm

In 3rd grade I was wielding a cellist bow. Love at 1st site, even as I had to lug the thing back and forth to school in suburban Chicago winters. Listening to your talk of chamber orchestras is making me yearn a bit to see if I could wrest back some of that youthful magic in my middling age. “It’s not about being right, it’s about being present.” And what better way to be present than playing live music? What a gift of permission!


4 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 10:53 am

Absolutely Lara! The magic of music is all in the present. It’s ephemeral, you can’t get the note back once you play it, so enjoy it while it’s there. And it is never too late to pick an instrument back up again, and carrying the cello is very good exercise. :)


5 Veronica Roth August 5, 2012 at 6:52 am

Gosh that must be hard Jeannine. I don’t have any musical anything…can’t carry a tune in a bucket…and I amire you so much for being able to read/play/understand music. One of the biggest parenting mistakes I ever made was putting my girls in Suzuki piano/guitar. They have developed such an amazing ear that if they hear a piece they can play it, but they are way too lazy to properly sight read now! It hurts they say! Parents…can’t do anything right. :)


6 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:00 am

Suzuki has its fans and its detractors, and I see valid points on both sides. I do think there is something visceral about linking both the visual and the auditory note with the mechanics of creating it. Suzuki players, however, have amazing technique. It’s much better to build good habits from the start. Personally, I would say that anything a parent does to bring music to their children is a success.


7 Amy August 5, 2012 at 6:59 am

I envy musicians. I took piano lessons as a kid, but they never stuck. But I refuse to get rid of the piano. Maybe I should try to learn again.
Great article. Looking forward to reading more by you, Jeannine.


8 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:04 am

I have a good friend who decided to take lessons after buying a piano for her son and watching it collect dust. Play on, Amy!


9 bolton carley August 5, 2012 at 8:12 am

jeannine – i like this line: Play the note and keep moving, or don’t play the note, but keep moving. – Pretty sure that line could be used for music, life, writing, etc. and props to you for teaching kids this kind of stuff!


10 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:06 am

Bolton, it does have deeper meaning, doesn’t it? Too often we get mired in our own mistakes or deficiencies, but time doesn’t wait for us. Glad to have so many friends along the journey.


11 De Jackson August 5, 2012 at 10:55 am

Jeannine, you always, always inspire…and leave a smile. I am not at all musically inclined, but this is just awesome advice, all-round:
“It’s not about being right, it’s about being present.”

And this:
“It’s not about getting to the end, it’s about what’s in the middle, and what’s in the middle is awesome.”

That’s as good of a bit of life advice as I’ve heard in a long time. Here’s to savoring the middle…and playing with all our hearts.

Brilliant words, from a brilliant writer. Wish I could also hear you play.



12 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:19 am

Aw shucks de – you make me blush :)


13 Joy Weese Moll August 5, 2012 at 10:56 am

Love this: “It’s not about being right, it’s about being present.” Pretty much applies to a lot of life, doesn’t it?


14 Dana August 5, 2012 at 11:31 am

Wonderful post! Looking at the broader picture… I think that advice could apply to many things in life.


15 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:51 am

Dana and Joy – Absolutely! If you aren’t here, where are you? :)


16 Jane Ann McLachlan August 5, 2012 at 11:32 am

Great words of encouragement, Jeannine. Thanks for sharing so honestly the difficult lessons you’ve learned. Your advice can be used as an excellent example of the difference between being self-focused and being part of any team. Very often the difficulty, as you point out so well, lies in submitting our individual ego for the good of the team, and trusting our team-mates to catch us when we stumble.


17 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:49 am

Thanks Jane Ann! The best chamber groups become one entity. They breathe and move and work together. It takes trust and and open heart.


18 Gerry Wilson August 5, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Jeannine, what a great piece! You brought back such scary and wonderful memories for me. I’m a pianist–or used to be; I don’t play much any longer–but I’ve always been a “good” sight reader, which was terrific for accompanying voice students or playing for choir rehearsals at my church. Yes, mistakes were inevitable, but the joy of the music surpassed my case of nerves whenever an unfamiliar piece of music was placed in front of me. Lovely post. I’m delighted to learn a bit more about you and your musician-life.


19 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:27 am

Thank you Gerry! Sight reading on piano is doubly difficult – two staves, two hands! A pianist who can play at the drop of a hat is never lonely at a gathering of music lovers.


20 j.lynn sheridan August 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Learning to enjoy the journey is something we all need to learn. Not just with music.


21 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:24 am

And the journey is even sweeter with company. Thank you j.lynn.


22 Sarah August 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Great piece, Jeannine. Oh, this takes me back to high school band! I was never very good, but I always enjoyed the band atmosphere. Sight reading gave me anxiety for sure, less when I was in the third row of clarinets, more when I was 1 of 2 bass clarinets. :)

I love your key to sight reading. In fact, I think it offers great insight to life in general –

The key to life is to have the right mindset:

It’s okay to be wrong.
Mistakes are expected.
Play the note and keep moving.
Most of all, listen.



23 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 6, 2012 at 11:23 am

Music really is universal :) Which is why it’s an important element of education! I, like you, have such wonderful happy memories of playing music in school, and hope that people come to realize that the arts is more than enrichment, it’s elemental.


24 RaeAnna August 6, 2012 at 11:48 am

I’ve always loved sight reading on my own – but not for grades in college! lol! I’m thankful to my childhood piano teacher who always worked with developing the skill!!!

In regards to sight-reading vocal music….. I am SO THANKFUL to all my collegiate sight-singing teachers! It is an invaluable skill to have as an educator. You get to browse through choral octavos with ease!!! Solfege has always been my friend! :)


25 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 8, 2012 at 8:35 am

It really is a great skill to have. I never realized how important all of those scale and arpeggio etudes were as a kid — I thought they were a form of torture. I view them now as tools, puzzle pieces that reoccur in compositions over and over again. I’ll admit to being Solfege challenged–I’m always say the wrong syllable :)


26 Lara Schiffbauer August 6, 2012 at 10:04 pm

I think the best thing about any of the arts is the greater implications they have for the rest of our lives. Expect mistakes, keep going no matter what, and listen to the beauty that surrounds our everyday life are such necessary lessons to a happy life – oh! and the need for teamwork, too! This was a lovely post!


27 Jeannine Bergers Everett August 8, 2012 at 8:39 am

And the joy of creation. Sometimes we get so fixated on solving things, breaking them down into their parts. Music has those elements too, but the purpose is to build and enjoy and share. It has no “answer,” it just is. It was the one time during school I could exhale. Thanks Lara, glad you enjoyed the post.


28 Linda G Hatton August 9, 2012 at 10:12 am

Your post makes me think of improvisation in acting, where you have to go with the flow with what your fellow actors through out there. Fun and exciting, but also a little scary at times.
(I admire musicians. I played clarinet briefly when I was in elementary school and wish I had never quit.)
Great post!


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