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Sight Reading Story Number 4

The Day I Learned to Let Go and Have Fun Sight Reading

I moved to the UK in 2003, and I quickly found my favourite pub. It was The Maltster’s Arms in Tuckenhay. It’s down one of those long Devon lanes with the high hedgerows, and it sits right next to the River Dart. In the first two years of living in Devon, I was at The Maltster’s Arms so often that I became good friends with the couple who owned the pub.

One of them – let’s call him Q – had gone through a cathedral school in his youth. And as is typical of a cathedral school education, he had learned to sing and loved to sing German Lieder! The Maltster’s Arms had a fairly typical pub piano – somewhat in tune and somewhat playable. And Q had a copy of Schubert’s Winterreise that he kept there in the pub.

This is Schubert. He looks like he's holding a dart rather than a pen. Do you think he fancied a bit of port and a game of darts down the pub?

I don’t remember exactly how this all started, but if Q bought me a glass of port, I knew that meant he wanted to sing all of Schubert’s Winterreise, usually after another glass or two of port. And so, without having ever learned it, I would read through the entire song cycle on an occasional basis with Q at The Maltster’s.

Having already worked as an accompanist in Philadelphia during postgraduate studies, I knew that Q was going to sing it no matter what. So I had to keep up or just drop out. And dropping out was no fun, so I kept up! Sometimes I kept up by leaving out the nonessentials or by playing chords in blocks instead of the fiddly broken chord filigrees in the score. They felt particularly fiddly after a few glasses...

The port seemed to help my sight reading (if not my technique), or so I felt it to be so. That sounds like a joke, but I mean it. Playing Winterreise in the pub with my friend gave me permission to drop any perfectionistic tendencies. It also allowed me to really have fun and get into the spirit of the music.

What is my point? To have a drink or a few before you sight read? Well maybe...

The serious point is that so often, sight reading is something we work on as part of exams – or we work on sight reading for an audition – or we work on sight reading so we can teach advanced students with confidence – or we work on sight reading to be better musicians. But in all of this work, we forget to let go and have fun. We forget to just be in the music. We forget to let go of perfection – we forget that music is not about perfection!

So do be sure that you are having fun when you make music, however you are making it. And if you want to improve your sight reading, I can think of no better way than to get together with a friend who loves to play music, too.

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