Random Sight-Reading Exercises to Boost Music Literacy

The reading surface area for musicians.  Distance approximately 21 inches from my eyes to the book. Photo by R-M Arca. Growing up, I was extremely jealous of my classmate Trish Evans. She probably has no idea.

Trish could improvise at the drop of a hat and make up songs that had our classmates gushing over her skills. On the other hand, I felt compelled to play everything as written and suffered stage fright up until university.

Then, I heard that Trish formed a rock band. A really cool one, called Zoey's Closet. Meanwhile, I talked myself out of joining jazz band because lead sheets and improvising scared the bejeebers out of me.

I have since taken a bit of jazz piano and rely on lead sheet reading to get me through choir more often than not. Progress.

Trish and I caught up over tea and talked shop last month. She told me about her piano teacher's efforts to improve Trish's music literacy (great ear, weaker reading skills at the time).

For the first 15 minutes of each lesson, Trish's teacher made her sight-read random music. Sometimes, the pieces were several levels above her playing level. Other times, just below.

While she was sight-reading, Trish's teacher would give comments to guide her. The teacher would play each excerpt before assigning a new one. It gave Trish a way to measure what she sight-read well (and what she didn't).

Last month, I tried this out with my "weaker" readers. My strategy has been to make the first piece several levels above their current one. The second one is closer to their current level, while the third (if there is time) is below their reading level. I drag my finger across my bookcase and stop at a random spot.

This is not the first time that I've heard about starting each lesson with sight-reading. One of my university classmates, Gregory Knight, had lessons like this too. Now, he works as an accompanist at the University of Lethbridge. His sight-reading skills are top notch, which is a useful skill as an accompanist.

I have already noticed an improvement in their musical literacy. A fringe benefit has been that these students are starting to work on music independently. Two of them walked in last week with a new piece to show off to me.

This week, we will begin the second stage of my sight-reading challenge. It will be interesting to see how my so-called "weak" readers will perform this time round.