The Joy of Sight Reading
Date: March 15, 2014
One of my former students, a soprano, asked me if she could sing alto on Haydn Creation. I asked her why, and she said that she wanted a challenge because she loved sight reading! I've heard a few singers say this before (I am not one), and I thought it was a subject matter worth unpacking. How is it that the vast majority of us don't like, or at least are neutral, about sight reading, while a small minority actually love it.
First of all, the level needed to truly enjoy sight reading is very high. My guess is that one cannot achieve a high enough skill level in sight reading with a history of singing only, especially in choir. My best educated guess is that to be as good of a sight reader as we are talking about, you need to have studied at least one other instrument. The sheer number of notes that you are required to play on other instruments, the independence necessary (compared to early choral singing) seem to me to be major factors. Please feel free to refute.
Second, I think the singer needs a high level of grit. And I think that grit needs to be present at a very young age, so that the years and years of only moderately successful sight reading don't create a psychological block or negative association with sight reading. Most of us don't "love" sight reading. It takes a special combination of skill and attitude to love it.
Third, there is a certain confidence, fearlessness or lack of shame that allows the sight reader to continue to take risks and "sing out" regardless of the number of mistakes or difficulties they might have with the music. I also think this has to be there from an early age. If not, the progress of freely learning to sing without any mental interference is impeded. I happen to think that the lack of any psychological blocks to reading is as much an issue as fundamental musicianship skills. When someone has an instinctively negative relationship to reading...like a feeling in the back of their mind that they probably going to be wrong before they are going to be right, I think it lingers for life, and I think it is really hard to shake.
Last, there is a particular form of singular focus and quick-wittedness (word? probably not), that some have more than others. This focus allows the singer to block out all distractions, including those in their own head, and be precise, adaptive, flexible, and aware of both the whole picture and the minute details. It's a nebulous concept that I think is trainable, but more instinctive in some that others.
I have a few friends who would sit around the choral library in college and sight read "just for fun." I always envied them, because they were really good, and they genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. How do you instill a love of sight reading in your singers? Is it possible, or is it more a psychological than a musical trait? Discuss.