Recently I’ve been responding to some friendly advice to practise my viola sight-reading. Sight-reading, like improvisation, is one of those skills that might seem inherently opposed to practice, but actually probably requires more of it than the mainstream technical concerns of classical study. In any case, it is evidently a central skill for jobbing and dep musicians whose performance: rehearsal ratios are extremely high (sometimes effectively infinite when reading the gig unrehearsed, as often in function quartet work).
Sustained sight-reading practice used to be rather difficult, for the obvious reason that you need lots of music you haven’t played before in order to genuinely be sight-reading. Buying vast reams of published music, most of which you will never polish up to performance standard, would be prohibitively expensive, especially on a music income. I was lucky to grow up in a house with lots of sheet music sitting around in various states of neglect which could be used for the purpose, or indeed on the fairly rare occasion my schoolboy self needed it to hunt for new repertoire to learn properly. Obviously this changed when I moved out.
My new, relatively technologically advanced and eco-friendly solution to the problem is IMSLP’s Petrucci site, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is essentially a repository of PDF scans (occasionally exported typesettings without the print & scan stages) of public-domain, almost always classical, music. This mostly consists of works and editions on which the copyright has expired, with the odd newish work, or new typesetting or out-of-copyright work, on which the copyright has been consciously waived. It currently contains just shy of 100,000 different compositions, from the essential to the extremely obscure. The search and filter systems are a little labyrinthine, but once you’ve discovered how to do it once it isn’t difficult to simply pull up, say, all the works for viola and piano, and start opening up viola parts to read, repeatedly flexing all those mental and literal muscles of translating dots beside (mostly) alto clef into notes coming out of the instrument.
It isn’t quite ideal, not least because my laptop screen is nowhere near deep enough to display the whole length of a page of music at a size which is legible and so I have to make rather frequent stops for additional page turns. But I suspect the real objections of most musicians would be on a rather different level.
‘Free music? All right it may be sheet music not recordings or live performance, but show a little solidarity! How can composers, arrangers, editors, publishers make a living if you just go and download tons of sheet music for free? And why should they support your desire as a performer (and occasional arranger) to be paid if you don’t support theirs? Buy the stuff, curse you!’
Well, maybe. But there is a difference. First and foremost, there’s no breach of the law here. I’m not stealing anything or infringing anyone’s rights upon this music, and in fact no one possesses the right to stop me downloading, scanning, photocopying, copying out etc. any of it since it is public domain. I’m not using it for public performance, recording, or any directly money-making activity either. Nor am I simply taking advantage of legal loopholes: copyright can be renewed, so it can be presumed that the holders did not renew their copyright upon these items, presumably not feeling a need for it. So I’m not stealing anything, because there isn’t actually anyone losing. It’s rather like making compilations of old recordings which have passed into the public domain – the artists’ estates would no longer be entitled to royalties anyway, so it’s hard to blame record labels for repackaging them and selling them cheap as best-ofs. (This happens after 50 years in the US, a process which is usually observable in what’s left of the compilation release industry. They’re currently up to the early 60s.)
And the fact of the matter is, a lot of the obscure late-Romantic sentimentality and postmodernist peculiarity I’m encountering in my sight-reading practice would be unlikely to draw me to actually buy it anyway. Borrow library copies maybe. But as far as I’m aware library loans don’t return royalties to copyright holders since the copies are bought outright. I’ll reserve my moral scruples for parts used in public and/or commercial performance or recording at the least, and so far my conscience is clear. And my sight-reading’s improving.