Sight Reading May Have Ruined My Life

I love music. I love it with all of my heart and soul. Listening to music fills me with inspiration and puts sound to emotions I didn’t know I had or needed to feel. It can be both deep and meaningful, and simply be beautiful for the sake of beauty. Music is everything to me. It is my muse and my passion and I cannot imagine a day without it.

But playing music in my youth has given me insecurities that I cannot shake to this day… namely the scourge upon this world known as “sight reading.”

If you’re not familiar with the concept of sight reading, it’s simple in its cruelty. It is a test to see how well you can comprehend and perform a piece of music that you have never seen before. Sheet music is placed before you and you are given a few moments to look it over before playing it, unpracticed, for the first time. The more you get right on your first try, the better a musician you are considered.

As a kid, this fucked me up. As an adult, the need to “get things right on the first try” still haunts me.

There was one music competition/audition where I practiced my ass off. It was a difficult piece and I was determined to nail it. It was late in high school and it was my last chance to get into the All-State band, to be considered among the best young musicians in the state. All the kids of great musical acclaim in my high school made it to All-State, and their pictures were even framed in a special display case. I was determined to be counted among them. Can you guess where this is going? Because if you think this story ends as “I practiced my heart out and played my very best but didn’t make it into All-State because I bombed the sight reading” you would be correct. My dedication and heart counted only for half of my ability to get something right on the first try, the latter of which was lacking.

Sight reading also kicked me in the ass in the opposite direction. At yet another music competition/audition I was hoping to get into the All-County jazz band. I did well on my prepared piece but was nervous about the sight reading aspect of the audition. Imagine my delight when the sight reading piece was a song I already knew! To the judge, who didn’t know I was familiar with the piece, I must have seemed like a prodigy! I got into All-County! As first trumpet. Because they perceived me as that skilled. And man oh man did I bomb that. The demands of the seat were way above my capabilities and I was too embarrassed to admit that I was constantly lost. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had a line full of angry trumpet players staring daggers at you, but I don’t recommend it.

In my opinion, no one should have this kind of pressure put upon them, especially students. No one should be taught the lesson that if you can’t get something unfamiliar correct on your first try, your skills will be considered inferior.

To this day I have to fight a battle with myself whenever I fail at something that I’ve never attempted before. I have to tell myself that it’s okay to make mistakes and learning from errors is how one improves, not just in art but in every aspect of life. It took me years to accept that I am not the type of person who’s going to nail it on the first try.

Sight reading gave me scars, most that have healed, but some still ache years later. And whenever I get the urge to take up playing music again, in any form, some of those old wounds flare up.