How to Sightread Bach

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by Junko Oki

I shift on my seat at the piano, taking my feet off the pedals for the first time this class. You don’t sightread Bach and you definitely don’t pedal your way through. Technically, you don’t sightread Bach very much at all, not two or, goodness save you, three part inventions, but I prefer not to think about that. I get comfortable in the seat, adjust my hands on the keys, and rest my eyes on the sheet music.

I don’t see notes. Well, I do, but I see them in the way you see words—hear them in your head, as you read this. I see music, I hear the sounds colliding, bouncing off each other in harmony or dissonance, creating a conversation that sounds like two or three people are talking at once in a balanced measure of organized noise. I read the words, not the letters.

Sightreading music like that shouldn’t exactly be possible using your human brain. Sightreading Bach’s two and three part inventions is the musical equivalent of looking at two different lines of prose you’ve never read before and reading them both at the same time, fully understanding what they mean. If you had two mouths, you’d be supplying both sides of the conversation, at the same time, yet never quite talking over the other side. You’d keep the right tone, the right pronunciation, and the right speed. All while understanding the lines you’re reading.

Sound impossible yet? That’s music.

I know I don’t have to get it perfect. But I do have to get something, and make it sound mildly coherent. Bonus points for sticking to the uniform rhythm if I can get it within the first couple bars. That’ s Bach.

And so here comes the playing part. I’m looking at the sheet music, my hands are in place, my feet are on the ground, and I have the beats, the accents, the tone, or vibe of the piece running through my head. What now? How do you focus on two things at once, maybe three, and bring it through your heart all the way onto the page?

I turn my brain off. 

I see the notes as sounds and commands for my fingers, and read them. There’s no need to notice the coldness of the floor under my feet, or my music teacher watching me to my right, or the brush of the fan against my hair. There’s no need to be in the room at all. 

There’s no reason not to get completely lost in the notes. I position my eyes in a way that sees both sets of bars, and go right ahead, testing the first bar, then the next, and then the next. 

It’s not about what the note is, or what key the piece is in. Just what’s coming next, what’s coming in my left hand, my right. I’m trusting my brain to connect the dots without analyzing or labeling any of them. Instead of focusing on the brushstrokes, my focus can drink in the whole painting. It feels right. I’m not in the music room, and for a moment, I don’t feel human. I’m just the music, and the rhythm, and the nod of my head to the beat. I’m trusting, not thinking.

That’s music. That’s magic.