I'm a piano major looking to get into accompanying, but I'm worried that my sight reading skills aren't good enough. I learn music fast, but I find it hard to get through a piece I haven't seen before without stopping to correct. Is there anything I can do in my practice to improve this? Thank you
That’s a great question. Sight reading is a really useful skill and certainly helps when you’re an accompanist. That said, you can still do a lot of work as an accompanist even without amazing sight reading skills. I’d encourage you to keep doing as much accompanying as you can with prepared music until you’re confident enough to sight read in rehearsals and performances. Many great accompanists will always request the music before rehearsals or coachings – it’s a completely acceptable thing to do.
There are a few pieces of advice I can give you to help practice sight reading, but the best way to improve is by playing music with other people. The temptation to stop and correct yourself is strongest when you’re practicing by yourself at home. As tough as it is, try to put yourself in as many situations as possible where you have no choice but to keep going.
Accompany as many choirs (amateur or professional) as you can, play rehearsals for amateur musicals, play cabaret shows, play in a jazz band, play for singing lessons, get some friends together and read through a trio – that is the best way to improve.
Here are a few exercises you can do at home to practice sight reading:
1. Learn to simplify and make peace with imperfection. Get a piece of music that has a clear melody and accompaniment. Play just the melody and the bass line, and leave out all the middle voices. Resist playing everything on the page. This is a hugely important skill, particularly when you start accompanying operas and concertos, where the orchestral reductions are not written for piano and you simply can’t play it all.
2. Play new music every single day. Grab a book of music you like and every day at the start of your practice play through one piece from start to finish without worrying about fingering, detail or making mistakes. I used to love doing this with Chopin nocturnes and waltzes. Bach inventions or preludes and fugues are great too, but it can be anything.
3. Play simple music with a metronome. Most of the accompanying you’ll do is a lot easier technically than your solo pieces so don’t feel like this is a cop out. If you make a mistake or stumble, skip a beat but find where you would be up to if it were conducted.
4. Play jazz and pop music! Jazz and pop are all about staying within a set groove. The drum kit is not going stop if you get lost, and there’s no rubato. I played hundreds of cabaret shows at the Butterfly Club and karaoke bars and that was the best training I did, and also the most fun. You learn to play what it should sound like rather than what’s on the page, and playing from chord charts teaches you to have a really good practical knowledge of music theory. Every classical musician should be able to read a chord chart – find a jazz teacher and you’ll be amazed how quickly your sight reading improves.
I hope some of this is useful. Don’t give up, it gets easier every day! The best thing about improving your sight reading is that you get to play so much new music all the time – I guarantee you’ll learn to love sight reading!