Sometime and somewhere in the last six months, I read that musicians who are not very good at sight-reading tend to memorize their music. They do not follow the music with their eyes as they practice or play. That’s true for me. Once I learn the notes and fingerings, I rarely distract myself by looking at the black dots. As a result, I often have hiccups in playing caused by my memory glitches rather than by my fingers getting caught in technical foul-ups.
I’m working on a piece that’s not too difficult – lots of repeating ascending triads in root position, with a final section of descending arpeggios. But my right hand has to quickly land in one of four positions after playing the last high note. In the last section of the piece, my left hand has to land on three different spots while the right hand descends. Memorizing and then remembering where to land kept tripping me up, so I when I practiced yesterday, I experimented with actually using the music while I played the piece.
I found that I had to slow way down to play while looking at the music. But when I played slowly enough to really see and comprehend the notes on my music stand, I was much more relaxed and at ease. I didn’t know how much stress I experienced with trying to play a not-quite-yet-memorized piece until there wasn’t any tension associated with remembering what came next. I could just look at the music and see what the next notes were supposed to be.
My hands already know how to do these repeated arpeggios, so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time looking at either my fingers or the strings. My eyes were free to look ahead in the music, were free to recognize where my hands needed to land.
Although I was playing the piece much more slowly than usual, for the first time I felt an easy coordination between eyes, ears, fingers and brain. I could use what I was seeing, what I was hearing, and what I was remembering about the structure of the piece in order to play it. For the first time, I was able to glance back and forth between the music and the strings without my eyes getting lost and then seeing neither. I ended up playing significantly fewer unintended notes.
Trying to sight-read usually makes me panic: everything is happening too fast, everything feels out of control, I can’t find my place in the music or on the strings, my eyes quit seeing or understanding anything and everything in front of them, my hands become immobilized. I’ve not felt everything working together like this, not felt eyes, ears, and fingers coordinated like this, ever before. This ease of playing while reading my music was exciting and gratifying – doubly so as I’ve doubted that sight-reading and sight-playing would ever click for me. But now there is this moment of the process actually working, and with that, a small glimmer of hope.