The Day I Ditched My Story and Took a Big Risk (with the help of a backup plan)
Following on from Sight Reading Story Number 2, I graduated with dual degrees in piano performance and music theory. In order to do this, I’d passed four more piano juries, all of them with a sight reading component. Thanks to my music theory classes, ear training classes and piano pedagogy classes, I had slain the sight reading dragon!
A few years later, I was a graduate student studying music composition at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I continued to take piano lessons and voice lessons, and I started teaching music theory as part of my teaching fellowship.
One day, a fellow student passed along a job opportunity to work as an accompanist in an opera studio in the city. And I really reeeeeally wanted to take this job! I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn opera from the inside and to experience the teaching studio of a top professional. And get paid! Who would say no?
Well – even though I’d graduated with my piano degree and could indeed sight read, my confidence didn’t match my skill set. After all, I grew up with the story that you could either sight read or you couldn’t – and I couldn’t. So I lacked the confidence that I could really do this job.
And yet, I could. And I wanted to. So I accepted the job and went on the first day with a back-up plan. Armed with the business card of another pianist I knew, I explained that I could sight read – not as a well as a typical repetiteur, but I could learn fast and would learn literature in time for lessons. If this was not acceptable, then I was prepared to hand over the business card of my pianist friend.
Well, Robert was lovely. He accepted my idea, and I got to work in his Philadelphia studio for 7 months. And I did as I said I would – I got the scores and learned whatever students were working on ahead of time. So I was relying more on quick study skills than sight reading.
But there were times when someone would come in for a one-off lesson with Robert, and then I was, indeed, relying entirely on my sight reading skills. And I found that I could! Maybe I developed the confidence from my other experiences with the regular students. Maybe it was the supportive atmosphere. But my sight reading improved exponentially over those 7 months, and I was eventually comfortable enough to sight read entire opera scenes during studio rehearsals.
The main point is that I’m so glad I ditched my earlier story – that I took a bit of a risk and dived in to the opera world. Playing with other musicians taught me a LOT about what is important to play and what I could ignore if necessary. And the first rule of sight reading (rhythm first – see Sight Reading Story Number 1) proved to, indeed, be number one!