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How different is sight reading to just reading?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by BassyBill, May 11, 2011.

  1. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    I see these terms used interchangeably a lot here on TB and they're not really equivalent. In particular, I see many instances where the term sight reading is used when really it should just be reading. Of course, you can't sight read without reading (duh). But reading doesn't always mean sight reading.

    Suppose you get a new chart and when you play it you have to stop at some bars and think about the phrasing (note duration values) or fingering (how to physically play the correct pitch for each note). You need to send some time with the chart (5 minutes / a couple of hours / days or more) before you're ready to play it to a good standard of accuracy at a constant, appropriate tempo, very often with other musicians. In other words, you're able to read and play the chart even though you weren't up to doing it on sight. So, yes, this is reading but not sight reading.

    Now you get a simpler chart (or a better reader gets the first one), on a gig. Never seen the chart before. Band leader counts everyone in, and away you go. Bass part gets played at a good standard of accuracy. No stops, breaks, fluent, very very few fluffed notes, et cetera. That's sight reading.

    Okay, that's just to clarify how I'm using the terms. My question is, are there different skills involved here to any significant extent? My own experience has been that if you keep slogging away at enough material at a personally appropriate level of challenge, then sight reading improves as a natural consequence of this. But I've seen other people suggest that you can enhance this further by actually practising sight reading as a distinct activity, going straight at a new chart in tempo and not stopping to sort out tricky phrases or whatever. What do you folks think? Do those of us who teach have an interesting take on this?
  2. Billnc


    Aug 6, 2009
    Charlotte NC
    I tried this for years to no avail. The learning process involves correcting mistakes. I might grab a chart and see If I can read through it, but that is not practicing sight reading.
  3. When I was in school, "sight reading" was part of the Band/Orchestra Festival competition.

    They would put an envelope on the stands containing a piece of music. Everyone would open it and look at the same time. The director/conductor had 5 minutes to point out things in the piece, but no use of instruments was allowed.

    Then you played it as an ensemble and were graded on it.

    That is what I think of as "sight reading"

    ...and yes, we practiced it repeatedly.
  4. slybass3000

    slybass3000 Banned

    Nov 5, 2004
    I think an easy way to describe both would be something like this:

    Practicing reading would mean that a musician is getting familiar with new symbols and music notation like pitch, rhythms, chords symbol, styles, intervals,forms of structures etc... These things involve learning the meaning of new notation material by analysis and practice.

    Sight-reading involves that you know the meaning of all the symbols and notations you encounter and you have to perform the music in front of you in the best of your knowledge at first-sight. The more you know, the better your interpretation of the music notation will be, including correcting errors on the charts while reading it. This is the ultimate. ;-)

    I hope it clarifies both from my point of view.

  5. Jluvial


    Oct 30, 2010
    Hillsboro, Oregon
    If I'm reading you correctly, you seem to be suggesting that reading is almost like "failed" sight-reading. That is, if you can't sight-read a piece at the right tempo with few mistakes the first time and have to stop, etc. then you've gone to just reading it. I'm inclined to agree with this. In band, as aborgman pointed out, sight-reading involves recieving a piece of music and having the conductor play through it without stopping. Would you say that if the conductor has to stop the band and start again because of glaring mistakes it's stopped being sight-reading?

    One of my favorite ways to practice sight-reading is to pick up my trusty sight-singing book I still have from taking it in college. It has many examples in different keys, rhythms, time signatures, and clefs. The only problem is they're written for singers, so the range is very small. Also treble clef is much more prevelent than bass.
  6. scottbass

    scottbass Bass lines like a big, funky giant

    Jul 13, 2004
    Southern MN
    It only counts as sight reading if you have never looked at the particular page before - ever!!! :)
  7. Babaghanoush


    Jan 21, 2011
    Ohio, USA
    Sight-reading needs to be practiced like anything else to make real progress. One of the most difficult parts of this is finding appropriate material. It's really helpful if you have a book of progressively more difficult material. You then just play each piece/etude ONCE. No second chances. You can go back and study the book latter but plowing through without stopping will give you a great read on what level you're currently at. There's a certain "Pressure" to sight-reading and it can be fun to make it a "1 Take" game. Don't be discouraged if music you feel you should be able to play catches you at first.

    In my experience, the best sight readers are musicians who have developed their notation vocabulary beyond reading note by note. They easily and immediately recognize scales, keys, progressions, sequences, etc. They read music in BIG chunks.

    Sight-reading is just another musical skill that takes time as there's really no magic to it. It’s just disciplined practice. The payoff is big though as I've NEVER met an incredible sight-reader who wasn't also a thoroughly capable musician.
  8. dmrogers

    dmrogers Supporting Member

    Jan 26, 2005
    Eastman, GA
    Good topic. I think there is a difference between the two (duh).

    I got serious this year concerning reading. I have been seriously studying theory for the past several years. I just wanted to learn more and learn it right. I want to strive to be a better musician as opposed to a bass/guitar player.

    I started out with " Simplified Sight-Reading For Bass" by Josquin des Pres. This is a good book in my opinion, although at the time I didn't have anything to compare it to. I think it is great as far as timing and rhythm. But truthfully, after about a third of the book I wanted more. I still use it but I wanted something different.

    So.......I ordered the "Hal Leonard Bass Method Complete edition". I am really progressing at a satisfying clip. This book is not only educational, it is fun! This is an excellent resource.

    With that said, I am just a reader at this point. I can "sight read" small, simple pieces but by no means at any stretch am I even near to being a sight reader.

    BUT....... I am seeing things start to take place that leads me to believe I am getting closer.

    For instance..... To make it interesting, I installed Tuxguitar on my computer and download Guitar Pro charts of songs I want to learn. Most of the songs I have downloaded so far, I can play them just by listening to them a couple of times. But I will print out the bass chart and try to learn the song. It is great. It really offers a different perspective and many more musical options.

    One thing I am noticing at this point is, I will be playing the music and get to a series of notes and see the next note and instantly realize it is a whole step up before I realize what the note actually is (playing a "D" note and seeing the next note "E" and it just clicks). It's things like this that are kinda like the "light bulb" moments that keeps you going on.

    Just being able to read at this point is helping me a great deal. I am learning a lot at a much faster pace. I feel that as I practice reading, then sight reading will just come naturally.
  9. I think your descriptors make sense Bill.

    What you are calling "sight reading," I've always used the term "reading cold," or "cold reading," which pretty much means the same thing, you fairly nail the piece of music having never seen it before.

    It is the highest standard for reading music, the bench mark that seperates fluent readers from readers, and the way professional and competitive musicians are judged in certain settings.

    Imagine someone reading a page from a novel or play, and stumbling over words along the way. That's a reader, but not a proficient reader. Imagine someone reading those same texts and not making a single mistake, even getting aspects of dynamics correct along the way, and having never seen the page before. That's a "sight reader" or "cold reader."
  10. keytthom


    Jun 10, 2010
    I used to sing in my school Jazz band, but I couldn't read, i just learnt it from recordings.

    So 4 weeks ago, our Director says "How would you like to play bass", so I said Sure.

    So I learnt the notes, Sight read as much as i could, started with easy things, and the other night, he presented me with Gordon Goodwin's "Jazz Police" (incredible song). Needless to say, I sight read it fine.

    So what I'm saying is that with a bit of determination and time, sight reading becomes easy.
  11. I think the basic distinction proposed here, which most seem to agree on, is valid. Sight-reading isn't quite the same thing as reading.

    However, with all respect to Jluvial, I wouldn't by any means say that "regular" reading is any kind of "failed" sight-reading, not even metaphorically. That implies that sight-reading is the fundamental skill, from which plain reading represents a (downward) departure. I would say it's actually the other way around: plain reading is the fundamental skill, and sight-reading is an extended, or perhaps refined, development of (or upward departure from) that skill.

    It's similar to reading words. Being able to read words more or less fluently is not a "failed" version of the ability to deliver a cold dramatic performance off a script. Reading is the skill itself; the ability to deliver a reading cold is a specialized development of that fundamental skill.

    In many settings, sight-reading is a useful, and even vital skill to have. It's well worth practicing, and IME the best practice is just to have somebody make you do it. My old guitar teacher used to do that; he'd just drop a piece in front of me and say, "Play it." I rarely if ever truly aced it, but I did get better. Years later, I played in a rehearsal big band with a lot of written-out bass parts, and it was all about, open the chart, count the tempo, and go. That was hard work but helped a lot too. I'm not the best sight-reader in the world, but I'm surely better at it than I would have been had I never been pushed to try it.

    BTW, not every cold reading situation is 100% cold. As I've heard from various studio musicians and seen myself, players will often grab snippets of time to at least look over the chart before they play it for the first time, checking for trouble spots and so forth. This could be while one of the other players is still setting up, or while the engineer is trying to sort out the source of an annoying buzz, or while the producer is yelling at the drummer, or whatever. If you have a chance to get even a little jump on the material, you tend to take it. Whatever helps you get the job done. So in reality, sight-reading doesn't always mean reading without ever seeing any part of it before.;)
  12. Gaius46


    Dec 15, 2010
    I kind of think of sight reading as being able to read words without interpreting what's going on, while reading, because you have more time, adds interpretation and understanding.

    I'm currently reading The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness by Gerald Klickstein and he makes a good case that to really perform a piece of music it must be understood. And from understanding things like articulations, dynamics, rhythmic variation etc can be worked out.

    Granted it's probably overkill for a relatively simple bass line but even then having the big picture of a tune before you start playing can only help.
  13. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    I should point out that I didn't mean to imply there was some sort of sharp "cut off" between reading and sight reading. Rather, there's a continuum in reading fluency between getting it right given time and being able to do it on first sight of the piece (hence the term "sight reading"). The extent to which one can move towards the latter will depend on the player's reading capability and the difficulty of the piece being attempted.

    My own reading is okay, but not stellar. I can play a lot of relatively easy stuff cold on sight, no problem at all. Intermediate stuff I can usually take a decent stab at first go, but more difficult stuff needs some work before I'm giggable with it. I've found that just working at reading the difficult stuff also helped the extent to which I could cope with the easier material first go. I've never really worked at "sight reading" by attempting stuff in one take in the way some have described, but my ability to do this has got better just by working on reading in general. But it seems like some think working at "one take" can help, too.
  14. I see your point, but it might be a tad unfair to good sight-readers. A really good sight-reader can not only run down the notes but also imbue the performance with some musicality, which in the terms you describe must mean that he/she is understanding it, at least to a significant degree, while reading it. So it really isn't just a simple matter of reading without understanding.

    As an analogy, I have seen actors who could take a monologue they've never seen before and deliver an actual dramatic performance with it. As with the written music, this would have to mean that they're understanding the material to a degree while they're sight-reading it, because if they weren't, they wouldn't be able to deliver anything that was at all dramatically cogent.

    I think most of us would agree that being able to sit with a written piece or part and work on it is likely to yield better understanding and performance. (Actors would generally tell you the same thing.) The thing is, some playing situations just don't allow you the time to do that. Those situations demand that you read both quickly and convincingly.

    The argument for sight-reading has always been more a practical one than a strictly musical one. I don't think I've ever heard anyone maintain that you play a piece better when sight-reading it than when you've learned it well. The main value of sight-reading is that it allows you to deliver a musical performance when time is highly limited. This is a very valuable skill for those who need it. Not everyone has an urgent need for it, however.

    Keep in mind also that a good sight-reader can also do "regular" reading, by definition, but a "regular" reader won't necessarily be a good sight-reader. Working on your sight-reading, if you choose to do that, is not going to get in the way of any other work you want to do on the music.
  15. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    Great point. I believe the distinction is very important, because too many non-readers get scared off or frustrated into quitting,
    mistakenly believing that the value of learning to read is only realized once you can fluently sight read.
    But from experience I can say that nothing could be further from the truth: there is valuable musical information to be gained every step of the way.
    -and I'm still learning.

    I think of it like learning to read text.
    At first you have to sound it out phonetically, stumbling over peculiarities of spelling.
    Eventually you begin to grasp larger chunks -syllables, parts of words, whole words, eventually entire phrases scan almost effortlessly.
    Along the way you internalize all sorts of useful info about the language that improves your ability to create your own text.
  16. PDGood

    PDGood Supporting Member

    Sep 19, 2010
    Nashville, TN
    I had the exact same experience. The act of reading a piece of music for the first time without practicing it in advance is sight reading. You may do it well or you may not, but it's still called sight reading.

    You can practice this skill by sight reading a lot of different pieces of music that you haven't seen before - going through each piece one time. So it is possible with rehearsal to become a better sight reader.

    If you practice a piece of music, then each time after the first time you are just reading it.

    At least that's the way our conductor explained it to us.
  17. seanm

    seanm I'd kill for a Nobel Peace Prize!

    Feb 19, 2004
    Ottawa, Canada
    Interesting topic. So where do you put somebody who is an extremely competent reader, but not technically expert? For example, lets take a bass player who can sight read anything and play it perfectly the first time. I think everybody would call them an expert sight reader.

    Now lets say they start to learn tuba. They can read the music perfectly... they haven't lost that skill, but they can no longer play it perfectly because they do not have competence yet on the instrument. Do you now say they cannot sight read?

    I guess you probably would if you only knew them through the tuba and didn't know they played bass.
  18. I would probably say that this player is a good reader who can sight-read on the bass but not on the tuba.

    It's probably not such an uncommon thing. I can sight-read some things on bass, and some things on guitar, but I can't sight read at all on piano (because I can't really play it, although I know perfectly well where all the notes are).
  19. seanm

    seanm I'd kill for a Nobel Peace Prize!

    Feb 19, 2004
    Ottawa, Canada
    I agree. In other words we are saying that sight reading is a superset of reading. You not only need to be able to read music proficiently, you need technical expertise on the instrument.
  20. BassChuck

    BassChuck Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    IME it is difficult to practice sight-reading alone. There is something about being with other musicians that really makes it work. I got my act together with this by playing duets with friends and teachers. And its worth whatever you have to do to get with good reading musicians to practice this skill.

    In time you do develop 'tricks'. Looking over the pages quickly and finding D.S., Coda, repeats, first and second endings and difficult rhythms. Also a good understanding of theory and ear training will help get you through the tough sections and making good use of what mistakes you might make.

    Each application of reading has its own special skills and pitfalls. Reading walking lines in a big band is very different that reading for a musical, or reading lead sheets for small combo work.

    Read as part of your daily practice and never, never turn down a chance to read with other musicians.

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