How cool would it be to play bagpipe tunes on sight as easy as it was to read this sentence?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, if you’re reading this, you can read English. If you never looked at English words for an entire year, would you still be able to read this post? This question is, of course, rhetorical. Fluent speakers of any language possess a certain skill set that makes speaking, reading, and understanding as automatic as breathing. Human beings are naturally programmed for language acquisition. Music is just another form of language.
Sight-reading music is one of those skills that acts like large, brick wall in a new bagpiper’s progress. It is something that may come naturally to one piper, but be seemingly insurmountable to another. The good news? As with anything else, and as you learned in grade school when learning to read, becoming a fluent sight reader requires identifying areas of weakness and strengthening those areas with practice and rehearsal.
Let’s start first with some common things people do that will not work to help you be a better sight reader.
• Writing the note letter above each note or embellishment
• Color coding notes or embellishments with highlighters for naming purposes (these kinds of tricks should be employed as memory and musical cues only).
• Retranscribing the score into any other form other than proper notation.
There are distinct reasons why the above techniques do not work that we won’t delve into here. Just know that the above tricks, and others like them, work against the brain’s natural functioning when decoding language. You might believe they help if you’re using them, but you’re doing yourself no favors and will hurt your efforts in the long run.
Know Your Fundamentals
Firstly, before you can practice better sight reading of bagpipe music, you will have to have a firm grasp of fundamental music concepts and symbols. Like learning brand new words and their definitions before using them in writing or speaking, understanding basic music theory is the key to unlocking your music reading skills: what different note values look like, what they mean rhythmically when played, time signatures, barlines, repeat symbols, etc. You should be able to identify the notes and embellishments on the staff. You should be able to recognize and vocalize (play), different bagpipe notes and rhythms when they appear on the staff. Without these basic skills, your fluency in learning tunes from the staff will forever suffer. If you are weak in any of these areas, that is where you should focus your efforts.
Here is a quick drill to test your fundamentals:
Grab a blank sheet of staff paper, the score for an unfamiliar tune, and a partner piper. Have your partner run through simple two, three, and four-note groupings in the tune. Can you correctly write the notes just played on the staff? Have your partner play a line of the tune. Can you identify the time signature? If you can run through these drills correctly, then you’ve already got the basics to be a better sight reader. If any part of this drill is a challenge, then that is where you start. These fundamentals are the building blocks of sight reading much like letter combinations and phonemes are the building blocks of reading and speaking English.
Identify Your Area of Weakness
Just as you would do in your playing, identifying the weak areas keeping you from better reading and playing bagpipe tunes on sight is the path to improvement. There is no one thing that is going to make you a great sight reader. The process of sight-reading printed music follows a continuum in our understanding:
We all have some response and understanding when looking at a new bagpipe score. Eventually, the tune makes its way into the electrochemical part of the continuum and the notes on the staff start to make some sort of sense. The other elements along the continuum also help this along. Identify where your ability to make sense of the printed score is fluent or strongest. Does your grasp of a tune improve after listening (aural==>visual)? Is it easier after you’ve played through the tune (kinetic==>aural==>visual)? Those are your areas of strength and that is your entry point on the the continuum. The others are your areas of weakness.
Each of these categories is not strictly independent. They work in conjunction and strengthening one means using others. Building the weak areas will make the continuum whole and lead to fluency.
As with anything else, rehearsal is going to make all of this better. So, smart rehearsal is the key. Devote time. Develop routines that leverage your strength while addressing your weakness. For example: If your visual memory is good and you can recognize note patterns quickly, you might beef up your aural processing by reading along with scores while listening to recordings of bands and/or soloists, then trying to play along in bits and pieces. You will “beef up” the areas that hold you back from fluent sight reading through creating small drills like this. In Part II of this piece, we’ll work through ways you can do just that: Develop rehearsal exercises to strengthen each element on the sight-reading continuum, all designed to get you playing through tunes on “first sight.”