Recently, my younger sister came back from a music adjudication festival in our homestate of New York, where several of her students were participating with prepared solos. The festival requires students to prepare solo literature, which at a certain level allows them to audition for the all-state ensembles. Students prepare this music tirelessly for weeks on end, but there are two additional sections for this event – scales and sight reading. Ah, yes, the two words that no teenaged musician wants to hear. We are all too familiar, as both students and educators, of the tale of young musicians going into the adjudication with perfectly-prepared solos – only to lose points on scales and sight reading.
When I think back to my teenaged years, I can certainly understand why young musicians would shrug off scales and sight reading as unimportant. Who wants to spend their time practicing boring scales when you can be playing songs? And, sight reading? Well, sight reading is just too scary, so it’s best to avoid it altogether. Okay, I admit that I am being facetious. I’m simply voicing the thoughts of a young musician – or at least what I am pretty sure teenaged musicians may be thinking based on my own experience. However, when I was a teenager, I remember my high school clarinet teacher saying to me, “If you can play scales, you can play anything.” Hmm…
I never really thought much about my teacher’s statement until years later, when I became a teacher myself. As I sat listening to my student and following along with the music, I realized that the harmony mapped out like a giant neon road sign. It was so clear, and I could both see and hear the progressions quite clearly. It was at that point that I finally understood my own teacher’s mantra about scales. Then, I thought about sight reading. Too often, we become frightened of the unknown. We don’t want someone to place a piece of music in front of us that is unfamiliar, where we are reading one note at a time and stumbling to not only make music, but simply to make it through. How many times have you heard, “Look ahead. Look ahead when you are sight reading.” I heard that time and again from teachers, especially when I was in college. I had to keep telling myself, “Look ahead, look ahead—anticipate the next measure.” Really, if I had just listened to my high school clarinet teacher and practiced my scales, it would have made sense. If you know your scales, you really CAN play anything, because you can anticipate the patterns of notes based on tonality and progressions, and that is really all there is to it when it comes to sight reading.
Okay, I admit that not everything you sight read will be perfectly tonal classical period melodies, but it’s definitely a good starting point. Even today, if you listen to pop music, you can hear the same chord progression in just about every song. Oddly enough, this is the same progression that is in modern Western classical music. So, if you know your scales, you can play everything from Brahms to Journey—and then some. I always felt envious of rock musicians who could get together for impromptu jams and song writing sessions. Well, if you are a “one note at a time” wind player, you can do the same with friends. Just get out some music and sight read. Better yet, improvise—or improvise while you sight read. The possibilities are endless. The key is to just do it—and have fun. Making music should be about fun and not fear. That will now be my mantra. Throw caution to the wind and put your fears aside. Making music (and enjoying it) is much simpler than it may seem. Just practice your scales!