Sightreading, Faking & Other Truths by Jill Valentine

My final contribution to our year of blogging will discuss a peculiar set of skills; skills we don’t want to have to use. We practice so that we can avoid using them, but they still end up being the most useful tools we have. When we go to conservatories we get used to having a recital program every year that we have months and months to perfect. We can forget that most of our careers will be spent flying by the seats of our pants, showing up unable to perfect, let alone even look at, everything before (or after) the first (or last, or only) rehearsal. We must learn to fly gracefully by the seats of our pants just as much as we need to learn how to play a concerto perfectly.

Viola parts are “hard” to sight read in a unique way, I have found, because it’s often a lot of stuff like this,

0422a Handel

with just a passage or of two’s worth of this:

0422b Strauss

It’s so easy while reading a viola part to switch off, except for that out-of-nowhere two bars of torture (Above third position? Or just second position? Forget it!) that you totally missed because you were thinking of what to eat for dinner during your offbeats. It’s a different kind of “hard” than a first-violin part, which would probably require more evenly distributed focus. It’s easier to stay a medium-level of involved the whole time than to check out and try to switch it on where it matters, especially if the challenging passages sneak up on you.

So here are the most helpful things I’ve been told or have noticed myself in my very unglamorous attempts at sight reading when I shouldn’t be:

1.         There’s a hierarchy to what matters in sight reading, according to my fantastic high-school orchestra director, and it has stayed very true for me ever since.

A.        Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, if all else fails, because at least you’ll look right. If you get the right pitch at the wrong time, no glory for you. It’s still wrong.

B.        Then, and only then, pitches.

C.        Bowings are flexible given the situation. Are you in orchestra, shamelessly faking at the concert? He who does the bowings, does the notes, for all the audience knows. I hate bowings. Often it’s these, not the notes, that mess with my mind most when reading. I often ignore them if it’s an orchestra reading or in chamber music with only me on my part. It’ll fall into place eventually. Our job as violists is to eventually change all our bowings to match other people anyway.

D.        Dynamics. Always a plus.

E.         Articulation, blend, mutes?? Subtleties = bonus points.


2.         Watch like a hawk. Save yourself a grand pause solo and catch onto some key unison bowings you’re missing.

3.         Listen around. Notice if you tend to double other parts, or when phrases end, to figure out an entrance you forgot to count. Nail down a rhythm you are confused about by hearing that someone else has it too.

4.         Look ahead, especially at the ends of lines. Look even further ahead! See as much big picture as possible! Put on a recording on the way to rehearsal and get an idea of big tempo changes.

5.         See notes in groups, not as individuals. Count repeated accompaniment figures in measures, or in as big of a value as possible, to avoid getting bogged down. Sacrifice a clean run for the contour (Strauss), and move on.

6.         Pinpoint every clef change beforehand, maybe even with a highlighter. The peskiest are at the ends of lines.

7.         Acclimating just to the visual layout of the part is comforting. How many pages is it? Any clutch page turns? What do the pages look like—are any of them completely offbeats, or completely black?

8.         Look good. An aura of being in control goes a long, long way. Are you totally lost at the wedding gig because the music they asked you 10 minutes ago to “add on at the end, is that okay?” is a piano reduction of a Bruno Mars song that makes no sense, is 15 single-sided pages long, and is blowing off the stand outside? Learn the chord progression by ear as quickly as possible and work from the bass notes in a clutch.

Again, this is hopefully a situation we won’t be in often. We aim for 90 percent, 90 percent of the time. The fact that many orchestras put sight reading on their lists shows how aware they are of this reality. So it’s worth brushing up on your theory knowledge, which helps immensely with sight reading, picking up some mystery excerpts every once in a while, and testing your winging-it skills in the practice room.

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