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5 Steps to More Fluent Music Reading

5 Steps to More Fluent Music Reading


How cool would it be to play bagpipe tunes on sight as easy as it is to read this post? Very cool, I would say. And there is a way. In previous articles, “Better Music Through Better Sight Reading” Part I and II, we discussed the sight-reading process and ways to identify and build your needed areas of development along with exercises to leverage your strengths and overcome weaknesses.

In those articles, we described the process of sight-reading printed music as following a continuum in our understanding:

We all have some response and understanding when looking at a new bagpipe score. We’ll have existing strengths in one or more of these categories. They work in conjunction and strengthening one means using others. Building the weak areas will make the continuum whole and lead to better fluency.

So, how’s it going?

Once you’ve developed the requisite skills, you should be diving into just about any score with gusto and having it going on the pipes almost immediately, right?

Well, developing fluency, which is what we’re striving for here, takes time. With a proper framework for your practice though, that fluency will come quicker than you think. Think about your language reading fluency. Reading this post is probably a snap if you attended school in an English-speaking country. You had 12 years of practice, day-after-day, 6+ hours per day, for 180 or so days each year within a specified framework. That’s a lot of rehearsal! Your bagpipe music reading fluency has a lot of catching up to do to reach that level. But the good news is that it is indeed possible.

But we’re not just reading music, are we? We want to take that reading and make pleasing sounds that evoke some emotional impact or interest. In this, we’re not unlike an actor seeing a script for the first time. Because the actor is fluent in the language, he or she will start instinctively inserting some emotional emphasis and characterization. They are not, for the most part, stumbling over words or punctuation or, in our case, notes groups and embellishments, and are able to think more about the flow of the language. Like that actor, you want to be fluent enough to insert some emotional and musical ideas, as much as you can, from the get-go.

Everyone will find their own rhythm and process for digesting a pipe music score. But to help that along, here are some steps to form a framework for tackling just about any piece of music.

The 5 Steps to Sight-Reading a Score

1. Study the music. Identify the time signature and rhythm; identify the notes, the note-types/groupings and corresponding rhythms (e.g., eighth-note groupings in twos and threes; sixteenth note groups; quarter notes; dots and cuts); identify the embellishments and gracenotes. Identify patterns, redundant phrases, and common endings. Note any unfamiliar notations and look them up! There is no shame for taking as long a time as needed with this step.

2. Listen and read. Find good recordings of the tune played by high-quality players. Find a good, vetted setting of the score (either from its published source or a credible outlet). Read along with the score as you listen. Focused reading is not exclusive. Just listen to the tune while doing other things. Finger along as much as you can.

3. Get the rhythm. Tap out the rhythms on foot or finger based on the timings and pulses in the note groupings (dot-cuts; bar-by-bar). Again, do this while listening and/or while reading through the score.

4. Sound it out. While reading the score, sing/hum out the main melody notes then add in gracenotes and embellishments in time in whatever canntaireachd you are comfortable with (in duggatas, dakatas, chuggadas, etc.). Certainly, not everyone has an angelic singing voice, but try your best to match the proper pitch of the melody.

5. Start small! Take the tune in small bits. Play through one or two bars at a time, building the tune slowly, incorporating all your Dojo U fundamentals.

Take the Time

Applying the steps in this framework will build all of the needed areas of our sight-reading continuum above. Each step may take different amounts of time, long or short. Again, there is nothing wrong with taking a *very* long time in any one of these. You do what you must to build the skill. And still, even if the time for each step becomes very short, you don’t stop applying each one for every piece of music. My wife, in a recent return flight home from San Francisco, sat next to John Keenan, conductor with the New York Metropolitan Opera. He was deep into study of the score for Parsifal, huge book of music in his lap, pencil in hand, scribbling notes here and there all the way. He explained that he deeply studies the score and memorizes each part before even approaching musicians with it. I'm sure Mr. Keenan's music reading fluency is top notch. But even he, a music professional, is still taking the time within his personal framework to study the details of the printed score before tackling the the sounds. The greater your fluency, the deeper your study and understanding. Apply the framework. Take the time. The skills will build.

Take Action

Sight-Reading Tricks with Callum Beaumont

Sight Reading Exercise


Vin Janoski Vin is a long-time piper based on the east coast of the USA. He has been on the Executive Committee of the EUSPBA and been the editor of the acclaimed Voice magazine. Recently, he has played in the Grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band, and the Grade 1 Stuart Highlanders pipe band. He currently produces the websites Pipehacker.com and WhiskyTunes.com.... And, needless to say, he spends way too much time than is allowed for any one person playing, writing about, and thinking about bagpiping.