How cool would it be to play bagpipe tunes on sight as easy as it is to read this post?
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.
In Part I, we covered some of the fundamentals needed if you are to bolster your bagpipe music reading skills along with some DIY drills to identify your weak, and strong, areas in music sight reading. In Part II, we’ll look at creating drills and exercises for rehearsal and repetition to “beef up” weak areas on the sight-reading continuum that hold you back from fluent music reading.
Create Your Own Sight-Reading Exercises
As mentioned in Part I, the process of sight-reading music, like language, falls on a continuum of cognitive processing:
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. Identify where your ability to make sense of the printed score is fluent or strongest—that is your entry point.
Identifying your strengths and weakness on this continuum helps focus your efforts when developing exercises to enhance your sight-reading. Generating some DIY rehearsal exercises will set you on the path to more fluent music reading.
Read along with the music (visual) while listening (aural) to a new tune played by others. Finger along (kinetic) while reading and listening. Flip through tune books as you would a magazine. Sing through random tunes and imagine the sounds of note groupings. (I have found this to be the single best practice for my sight reading skills. And besides, it’s fun!)
Write (kinetic and electrochemical)! Use pen and paper or digital scoring software. Use it regularly to score tunes you know. Write/transcribe tunes from memory to the best of your ability (kinetic and electrochemical). This will develop the necessary cognitive connections to your stronger visual skills. Copy unfamiliar tunes from books to paper. You memorization of tunes will improve dramatically. Sometimes, the mere act of hand-copying a new tune will set the blocks of memory needed before you’ve played a single note of it.
Electrochemical (Brain/Memory) Exercises
Organize your music. Make the act of copying and transcribing your repertoire a part of building a personal music collection. This can be organized digitally or otherwise. Create a personal digital collection out of your tune files. Find common musical elements between tunes and match them up into groups and categories (electrochemical and visual). Use scoring programs to transcribe all of your paper music into digital files.
Aural exercises are anything that trains the ear or, basically, listening. Listen to tunes played by others and follow along with the music as much as you can. Use tunes you already know well and tunes you have never heard before. This “reloads” memory and skill much like following the printed words while someone reads aloud. Sing the notes and phrases as they are played while decoding the score.
Stay With It
Many of the above drills will naturally overlap. Experiment with them until you find exercises that bring a positive result in your overall skills. You should notice that the drill gets easier as you rehearse it and that printed scores start making a bit more sense. This is a positive sign. The great news about all of this is that once you develop the skills around your sight reading, they, like the ability to read, don’t go away. The act of playing bagpipes by itself will incorporate decoding new music and continuously rehearse your sight-reading skill, until it is second nature.
Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Don’t worry if all of this seems difficult. Mistakes happen and all things take time. Play through the messiness, make mistakes, correct them. No one is going call you a lousy reader if you encounter a difficult word and need to look up its spelling or definition. Likewise, don’t worry if you get stuck on unfamiliar note groups or embellishments. Look them up, remind yourself repeatedly, and develop the workarounds you need to leverage your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses. You’ll be on your way to music reading fluency in no time.