Auditions for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band are coming up in just a couple of weeks, so in addition to our regular work on fundamentals, scales, and etudes, sight-reading is presently a major component of my high school students’ lessons. While some students seem to have a very natural aptitude for sight-reading, for most it is a skill acquired only after the overcoming of many obstacles. Foremost among these obstacles is the unhappy habit of prioritizing pitch over rhythm. The vast majority of students that come through my door will stop repeatedly during sight-reading exercises in order to make sure that they are playing the correct pitches, apparently unaware that this practice eliminates any chance of playing the exercise with accurate rhythm. Ironically, in seeking more accurate performances these students deliver renderings that are hardly recognizable.
One of my professors in graduate school was in the habit of saying that “the wrong pitch in the right place is half-right, but the right pitch in the wrong place is completely wrong.” My students have heard me repeat this saying ad nauseam, and a few have begun to take it to heart. Think of it this way: if you play something with accurate rhythm but miss every single pitch, you are still placing sounds where sounds should occur, and silences where silences should occur, and the piece remains somehow recognizable. Conversely, if you play every pitch accurately but pause and fumble and “test the waters” frequently so that the rhythm is obliterated, your “correct” sounds are happening in all of the wrong places, and the piece is nearly unrecognizable.
My suggestion, then, is to prioritize rhythm over pitch. Theoretically a sight-reading performance in an audition with entirely correct rhythm and no correct pitches would still receive half-credit, which is more than you are likely to get if you completely mangle the rhythm by “chasing after notes.” What is more likely, though, is that as your rhythm and timing become more secure your coordination of breath, articulation, and embouchure will improve, and greater pitch accuracy will follow as a result. Strangely enough, by making correct rhythm your first priority you might just achieve greater pitch accuracy than you experienced when prioritizing pitch. The end result? Higher sight-reading scores in auditions, and the development of a skill that will serve you well in the “real world” should you continue in music professionally.
After all, in “real life” sometimes we have to sight-read the gig!