When I was growing up, I used to love riding the bumper cars at the amusement park. You remember those tiny little cars where you actually try to crash into everyone else and there are no rules? My brother and I would zoom around the rink, aiming for each other, but usually one of us would have a faster car than the other. It was so frustrating to have the slower car and know that no matter how hard you pushed that pedal to the floor, you would never go as fast as you wanted to.
Sightreading can hold that same frustration. The music can slip by too fast for you to keep up and everything falls apart. The difference with sightreading (as opposed to the bumper cars) is that you are in charge of how fast your car goes.
I’m not referring to the actual tempo that you are playing or trying to play. Rather, there are three main skills that are required to sightread well, and by developing your proficiency at those skills, you can sightread better, faster and more fluidly. But like the bumper cars, you can “practice sightreading” as much as you want, but you will only go as fast as your skill level in these three areas will allow.
These three skills are so basic that you probably don’t even associate them with sightreading. But they are fundamental aspects of your musical craft, and if you lack some confidence in these areas, it will show up in your sightreading.
First is your technique. We harpists have hundreds of fingering patterns that are part of our playing every day. Practicing scales, arpeggios, chords, exercises and etudes help our fingers develop more or less automatic responses to what we see on the page. The more you play these things evenly and quickly, the more nimble and sure your fingers will be in every playing situation. That’s why all those etude books, particularly my favorite by LaRiviere, are so exhaustingly thorough. You will only sightread as fast as your fingers will go.
The second skill is note reading. This one seems almost too basic. After all, we know you can play, right? But if you depend on learning those notes to know what they are, you are seriously limiting your sightreading speed. You can practice note reading in different ways: there are various books designed for that, or you could just say the notes of any piece you are playing in rhythm and at tempo. Just saying the notes while you play is another easy way to get extra practice. Note reading may not be a problem for you; if it is, you probably already know it.
Third, and no less important, is rhythmic confidence. Can you see a rhythm and play it, or does a dotted note make you stop and think? Study and practice rhythms the same as you would practice scales. Do you count aloud while you practice? It’s a great way to check your accuracy and practice this skill. By the way, you should be counting internally all the time. Musicians count. Always.
There are other skills that come into play in sightreading, among them musical experience and ear training. If you really want to accelerate your sightreading, those are some additional areas to consider.
But improving your performance in the big three – technique, note reading and rhythmic skills – will really help you put your sightreading pedal to the metal.