Sight Reading Story Number 5
The Time My Sight Reading Skills Really Paid Off
After a few years in the UK, I returned to education to study improvisation and electronic music at Mills College in California. Mills is an all girls undergraduate college with co-educational graduate programmes, and the music programme was very exciting! There were interesting, high-caliber musicians teaching and working at Mills, and I was lucky enough to be given a generous teaching assistantship as an accompanist. So once again, my sight reading skill set was paying off!
I remember sitting outside of the music building one exceptionally beautiful Friday afternoon in the spring semester. I had completed all assignments for classes, and I realised I had the weekend to myself. I started thinking about a composition project I wanted to start, and I thought - I'll go into the city - I'll write music. It's going to be a great weekend!
And then my adviser came by and said - hey Lona, we need your help.
Mills College also had a staff accompanist, and she was brilliant. She could read anything and everything! She usually played for student auditions - 18 year old girls who wanted to go to Mills College auditioning as part of the entrance requirements, and these were scheduled for Monday morning. Unfortunately, she was very seriously ill and had been taken to hospital that day, so my adviser asked me to step in and get ready for auditions on Monday.
I was very sad to hear the news. And then I was handed half a dozen (or a few more!) concerti to learn (first movements only) for Monday morning!
Bang went the weekend.
I woke up early on Saturday morning and basically lived in a practice room that weekend.
I didn't waste any time. I was given many scores, and there were notes everywhere.
I didn't have time to panic, and because I'd already played in the opera studio, I knew exactly what to do (instead of panicking). I knew what to leave out and what to keep. Rhythm was number 1, of course! (See Sight Reading Story Number 1) The auditionees would need me to keep good solid time and to not stop! They also needed harmonic support and not much else. Maybe they needed a melodic cue here and there. So I basically learned the bass with two hands. Most of the time, I was just learning chords and rhythms, and that's it.
Monday morning rolled around. The staff were all sitting in the auditorium, and there were nervous young ladies waiting to take their audition. So I couldn't be the nervous one. I had to be the smiley, supportive one. The one who was really confident that everything was going to go great, and they were going to do well. There was no room for my nervousness, for doubt, nor for fear, so I got my head down and got into the business of it.
Actually it was loads of fun. And partly what saved me was I really knew my primary chords in multiple keys. I remember that coming to the rescue, because I remember looking at a few scores and noticing that the basic structure was moving through IV (or ii) - V - I. When you can see those patterns, you learn scores very quickly!
Can you believe that sight reading can actually be fun? I had a really nice time that morning. And afterwards, one of the staff (a really well known improviser - I won't name drop - but he was well known and I was always in awe of him) came up to me and thanked me - told me I'd done really well.
That meant a lot. But I was so happy that I could support these young women in their auditions. I remember thinking afterwards – wow! 14-year-old Lona would be mightily impressed and probably wouldn’t have ever thought that this was possible. The big pay off wasn't so much the TA-ship (though it helped). It was being able to step in and give good support to other musicians. It was being able to play, at a moment's notice, music with musicians I'd never met before.
This is why a pianist should know how to sight read - how to learn music quickly. It can take you to amazing, fun, cool places.
This is the last of my sight reading stories, and it really illustrates the transformation I went through. I love to see others transform in this way, which is why I teach sight reading as part of the School of Music Theory. If you want to know more, I will be running the Music at Sight Workshop in November. Stay tuned for more information on how to sign up for that.