Stuck in Practice Quicksand? Get Free with the Sight Reading Mindset

practice sight treading Jun 08, 2020

Lately I have been noticing a strange phenomenon. I have had several conversations with harpists who have been practicing diligently, only to find that their music seems to be getting worse instead of better. The more they try to fix the problem spots, the more problem spots crop up and before long, they can’t play the piece at all. They feel like their practicing is in reverse gear. Talk about a motivation killer.


These harpists often note the irony of this happening now, when they have more time to practice and fewer other musical commitments. Just when they were expecting to be able to make progress and move forward, they find their music slipping away from them. Worse yet, everything they do to fix the problem seems to exacerbate it. It’s like practice quicksand; the more you struggle, the more hopeless your chances for survival. Surely, having more practice time couldn’t be the source of the trouble.


I’ve observed this same issue before. Sometimes a student will read through a new piece in a lesson. The reading goes well, and after a few minutes spent clarifying fingerings and any other details, the student goes home to practice, fairly confident of a quick win. Yet, by the next lesson, the piece has much less flow and the student seems more uncertain about it. My experience has shown that if we don’t make a radical change in their practice plan, the piece will continue to sink deeper into the quicksand, and rather than being finished in a week or two, it will be relegated to the pile of other unfinished dust collectors. 


What’s the radical change? I call it the “Sight Reading Mindset.”


As is so often the case, the problem is not the amount of practice you do; it’s how you use that practice time. When the majority of your practice is spent working on problem spots or short passages, you lose the sense of the context for those passages. They become magnified in proportion to their real role in the piece. Certainly you want to have everything in the piece correct, but you don’t want to make a musical mountain out of a technical molehill.


Also, when you don’t practice the entire piece, you lose the ability to create continuity. This is the critical success factor for any piece; you have to be able to play it all the way through. I know this sounds obvious, but I am continually surprised by how many harpists fail to practice playing their pieces, rather than merely correcting them. And that’s where I think the mindset I call the “Sight Reading Mindset” makes the difference between learning a piece quickly or becoming mired in practice quicksand.


Consider what happens in sight reading: you play the piece with your goal being to get the general idea and flow of it. You aren't focused on the details yet, but you are just playing through it all - the easy parts, the hard parts, the pretty parts, the parts you will have to figure out later. There are two essential rules in sight reading: just keep going, and mistakes don’t count.


Sight reading requires a completely different process coordination than detail practice. In detail practice, your focus is on what you are doing at that moment, the precise notes, fingering and dynamics you need to use. It’s a laser focus on the critical minutiae involved in playing the piece, combined with a healthy dose of self-evaluation. 


Sight reading on the other hand is about reading ahead, keeping your ears, eyes and mind focused on the unfolding of the music. There is no time for backward-looking critique of your playing; all your skills are dedicated to moving the music forward. This is the exact process that is required when you play a finished piece. You let go of the details and immerse your whole energy in the music. 


You will find yourself in the quicksand if you only practice the details. If the majority of your practice time is spent in making every detail correct, you are ignoring the essential point of practice. Practice must prepare you to play the piece of music. When your focus is mainly at the detail level, you are not developing the skills you will need to play the piece from beginning to end. You will find playing the piece more and more difficult, because your attention will be drawn only to the problem spots and you will have lost your vision of the entire piece.


I suggest experimenting with the Sight Reading Mindset to keep your detail work aligned with the big musical picture of the piece. Play through any piece you are learning every day at least once following these three guidelines:

  • As you play, be mindful of the essence of the piece. What is the music about?
  • Keep your ears, eyes and mind focused on what is ahead, not what you need to fix.
  • Don’t stop! Keep playing, moving ahead without stopping to fix mistakes.


While you might find it hard to break the habit of stopping to correct as you play, you will soon find that playing is your favorite part of your practice. And that is exactly how it should be.


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