A Lesson in Sight-Reading from Julia Child

This weeks’ guest blog post introduces the newly published second part of our advanced sight-reading curriculum by Ken Johansen, associate professor at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and Online Academy contributor.

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The first requirement of sight-reading is that we keep going and not stop to correct mistakes. This is fundamentally different from practising, where we stop to root out mistakes as soon as they occur. This requirement obliges us, first of all, to choose our sight-reading repertoire carefully, so that we are able to keep going without making too much of a hash of things. Secondly, it means that when mistakes do occur, as they inevitably will, we must be able to sail through them without fear or regret. What Julia Child said about cooking applies equally to sight-reading: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

A “what-the-hell attitude” in sight-reading doesn’t imply that we don’t care about what we’re doing, but that we give priority to our musical experience – our first encounter with an unknown piece of music – rather than to monitoring our success or failure in reading the score accurately. After all, in cooking it is our enjoyment of the food we’ve created, and what we’ve learned from making it, that matters most, not whether or not we’ve followed the recipe in all its details.

Such an attitude requires flexibility, not only in the spirit with which we confront challenges, but in the musicianship with which we adapt to them. Just as experienced cooks know how to adapt when the soufflé has collapsed or the roast is undercooked, so experienced sight-readers find ways to keep the music going, even when the going is tough. They hold on to the pulse like a conductor, look for the essential lines, read harmonies, patterns, and shapes rather than notes, and simplify wherever necessary in order to keep going. Happily, these are all skills that can be acquired through deliberate practice.

Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum Part Two

Part II of my Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum, entitled Flexibility, provides extensive practice in the skills that allow pianists to negotiate challenging scores without coming to a standstill. The modules on Reading by Intervals, Harmonic Reading, Figuration, and Simplification Techniques give practical solutions to difficult situations, so that you can be prepared for them when they arise in real life. After all, as Julia Child says in this hilarious scene, “the only way you learn how to flip things is just to flip them.”

So next time you find yourself in a sticky situation, you’ll be able to make the most of it. After all, there’s nothing that a bit of cheese and cream can’t fix!

– Ken Johansen


All four parts of the Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum are available with an Online Academy subscription or for once-off purchase from our store via the following links:

  • Part 1 (Eye Training) – Click here to purchase for £7.99
  • Part 2 (Flexibility) – Click here to purchase for £7.99
  • Part 3 (Playing by Ear) – Click here to purchase for £7.99
  • Part 4 (Rhythm) – Click here to purchase for £7.99
  • Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum (Complete) – Click here to purchase all four parts for £24.99.

Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to find out more about subscription options.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Introduction to the Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum – Click here to view a general introduction to the curriculum
  • Eye Training – Click here to view the introduction to the first part of the Advanced Sight-Reading curriculum
  • The Joy of Sight-Reading – Click here to read a collection of free articles by Read Ahead developers Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen on the Online Academy
  • Read Ahead – Sight-reading exercises for elementary to intermediate levels on the Online Academy – Click here for level 1, click here for level 2, click here for Level 3 or click here for Level 4 (recently added)