How to Practice Sight-Reading

A very important part of playing any instrument is to master sight-reading. Musicians without sight-reading skills are hampered in all they do. Approaching every new work is a hassle. Picking up a piece of pop music is a chore and learning it is equivalent to learning a piece of the standard repertoire. Many entertaining options, such as playing improvised duets with other players or playing “requests” for family members and friends, are not easily accessible.

That's why all students need to learn to sight-read. As soon as a student discovers it's easier to begin a new piece, he gains appreciation for the importance of good sight-reading. Now, it is true that there are many fine musicians out there who are not good sight-readers. However, these people need to do a lot more “woodshedding” to get ready for rehearsals, whereas good sight-reading abilities can save you a great deal of time.

But there's more to that. It is a common myth that, apart from convenience, sight-reading offers no real artistic value to a performer. However, a great advantage to a good sight-reader is that the rhythms, the phrases, etc. are all quickly apparent, and this ability to see the “big picture” can actually be very beneficial to musical interpretation.

Last but not least, let us point out that in a lot of auditions you're actually given a piece to sight-read, and your final grade is based on how well you can do that.

What Sight-reading is (and what it is not)

Sight-reading can very simply be defined as the ability to play unfamiliar music from scores. It is very important to understand that the ability to sight-read is not something a player enjoys from birth. There's really nothing magical about it. It is a skill like any other, and virtually anyone can learn how to do it.

What sight-reading practice does is speed up the message from the page through the brain to the fingers. In a way it is a mechanical skill, not unlike touch-typing which, although less complicated, equally involves getting the message from the written page to your brain to your fingers.

Although physical agility is required to some extent, sight-reading is primarily a mental activity. An advanced physical facility on an instrument does not guarantee the ability to sight-read. In fact, students who can learn to play difficult literature often cannot sight-read music beyond the most elementary level.

Of course, a little theory is also a necessary background for effective sight-reading. It is therefore very important that you get familiar with musical notation and that you memorize how the most common rhythmic units should sound. This is simply accomplished by paying careful attention to how they sound in pieces you have already studied.

How to Prepare for Sight-reading

A correct practice routine can help you be more successful at sight-reading. Unfortunately, many students adopt a routine that is actually detrimental to the development of this important skill.

The first thing that can seriously ruin your work is bad tempo. You should practice your etudes and solos patiently, choosing tempos within your reading capability. If you practice at too fast a tempo, you will reinforce bad reading habits and learn pitches and rhythms incorrectly.

Studies have shown that the overall sight-reading ability is closely linked to the capacity to read rhythms, and that the greatest number of errors occurs in the category of rhythm. Therefore, you should make an exercise out of every rhythmically difficult passage you encounter. Before playing the passage, clap or sing the rhythm while tapping the beat with your foot until you can easily execute the passage. Try to memorize every new rhythmic unit, so that when it will come up again you will know how to handle it.

Learning to play your scales by memory is another very important element that can greatly improve your sight-reading. Little by little, you should start out with some major scales, then include minor scales (natural, harmonic and melodic forms) as well, without forgetting chromatic scales. You don't need to study the more complex scales at first; instead, focus on scales that have just a few sharps or flats in their key signatures, and strive to learn these perfectly. The next step consists in playing the same scales in thirds and arpeggios; probably the best source for this kind of exercise is Taffanel and Gaubert's book (the title is in French, but English instructions are included!). As you may already have noticed, scales and arpeggios make up much of music, so if you know them in advance everything will just sound better.

It is also important to know the definitions to the most common musical terms that you may find on a score. Therefore, every time you encounter a direction that you don't know you should look it up on a music glossary.

Finally, and this applies to everything you do, never lose concentration. Good sight-readers are always sight-reading, even music which is well rehearsed and often performed, because sight-reading every time helps even old warhorses remain fresh.

Of course, the tips outlined above are not enough by themselves: to become a good sight-reader you need to do some actual sight-reading. For this reason, you should devote a small part of your daily practice routine to sight-reading pieces you have never seen before. This is best done at the end of each practice session, and should not take more than a few minutes a day.

In fact, when sight-reading it is best to keep going on to new, unfamiliar material, rather than replaying a score to perfect it. In any case, replaying the same piece more than two times can no longer be considered sight-reading.

Fortunately enough, on you can find something new every day.

What to Do Before Sight-reading

Unless you are obliged to, you should not just plunge into reading an unfamiliar score. On the contrary, don't be afraid to take some time to look at the music. If you are sight-reading for an audition, take as much time as the judges allow. Spy out the lie of the land, and make sure that everything is within your capabilities to perform. There are many things that you should check before you perform. You won't always have the time to check them all out, but you should really try to get the most information you can about the piece before you start playing it.

Here are the most important elements you should look for, listed in order of priority.

  1. Key signature. How many sharps or flats are there?
  2. Time signature. This lets you know how many beats there are per measure, and what note value takes the beat. The most common time signature is 4/4, which means there are four beats in a measure, and the quarter note takes the beat. You can find more information about time signatures on our metronome page. Even before you start playing, you should already be “hearing” the meter in your head.
  3. Tempo. How fast should you play? This is usually expressed by one or two words in standard Italian, or in terms of beats per minute (BPM). Feel free to play the piece more slowly if you think that the marked tempo indication wouldn't allow good sight-reading. On the other hand, never play faster than the given tempo, even if you feel that you can do it. Speed is not the important thing!
  4. Overall Structure. Examine the piece and make a mental map of where its different sections start, so that when you get to a repeat bar you know exactly where you have to go. The same applies for other indications like Da Capo (D.C.) and Dal Segno (D.S.). Also look out for changes in key signature, time signature, and tempo.
  5. Repeating patterns. Look out for repeated rhythmic patterns, repeated measures and even repeated lines. Most music has some. Often you may also be able to relate difficult passages to the overall musical context, by finding out for example that a given complex passage is actually an embellishment of an earlier theme that has already appeared in a simpler form.
  6. Complex-looking rhythms. Look ahead in search of rhythmical units that you are not sure how to play. Try to decompose them by expressing them in terms of simpler rhythms. This is usually accomplished by splitting some notes into shorter tied notes, or by temporarily tying some notes to get a more global idea of what's going on, so that you can keep a steady pulse. Ideally, you should be able to hear each rhythm in your head before playing it.
  7. Melodic patterns. Look out for scales, arpeggios and melodic sequences you are already familiar with.
  8. Accidentals. Many students are put off when they run into uncommon notes such as E# or Cb. Don't let them catch you unprepared. Also watch out for those accidentals whose effect applies to multiple notes within the same measure.
  9. Phrasing. Try to spot phrase endings, and make a basic plan of where to breathe. When you see a difficult run coming up, make sure that you have enough breath to make it through that run.
  10. Style. If you know who composed the piece, or what time period the music was written, you can get many important clues to interpretation. For instance, the time period can affect how trills and other ornamentations are to be performed, as well as how articulation is to be interpreted. Also, a piece written by Mozart should generally be played more vivaciously than a piece written by, say, Dvořák. Always try to sense the mood of the piece you are about to perform.

You may want to feel at home in the key before beginning. Therefore, if you still have time, play the scale of the key, and perhaps improvise a short melody as a preparation.

Sight-reading Tips

When you feel ready, reading may commence. You should choose a tempo that is comfortable for reading the music; a tempo at which even the most difficult passage can be played with some accuracy. We really cannot stress this enough. Remember, you are not performing, you are sight-reading. Play as slowly as you need to incorporate every detail printed on the page. Your main goal should be accuracy, not speed.

  1. Keep a steady tempo. Make sure that you are always counting, even when you have a rest. You must know where you are in the piece at any given time. While you can't expect to play with 100% pitch accuracy, tempo and rhythm should be maintained at any cost. Notes can be sacrificed, time cannot. While practicing, students often “woodshed” the notes first and then strive for correct rhythm. This can prove very harmful in the long run, because rhythmic accuracy should always take precedence over pitch. At first you may want to use a metronome to help you keep pace, but be aware that you shouldn't become dependent on it. Finally, keep in mind that while it is important to play on beat, you shouldn't be afraid to put a little heart into what you are playing.
  2. Making errors. Right before you start playing, you should promise yourself that you are going to get to the end of the piece without ever stopping. People like sight-reading to be done without interruptions, even if it goes a little bit wrong in the middle. So if you make a mistake just keep going, as if you were playing in an orchestra. Never stop to correct mistakes, and never go backwards. The music must proceed forward in time. Always read as if you were playing in an ensemble and had to keep up with other players. Serious students tend to strive for perfection and feel dissatisfied if they cannot play a passage free from errors. For effective sight-reading, however, we must temporarily set aside our goal of perfection and accept the likelihood that errors will occur.
  3. Read ahead. There is no reason to stare at the notes you are already playing. Instead, you should be constantly looking ahead of what is being played. Try to memorize the music in small blocks, playing each block while looking at the next. Please observe that you can't read ahead if you are trying to play too fast.
  4. Breathing. Many students make errors while sight-reading just because they run out of air in the middle of a phrase. Since you cannot plan breathing in advance, you must learn to spot phrase endings while playing them for the first time, and to breathe without breaking the musical continuity.
  5. Stay concentrated. Keep your eyes on notation at all times. Never look away from the page. Keep your head and body still.
  6. Play musically. Phrasing, dynamics, intonation, tone quality, and musical expression must never be forgotten. In fact, your sight-reading ability will most often be judged by how well you capture the musical aspects of a piece despite pitch or rhythm errors you might make.
  7. Relax! Tense muscles make the music harder to play, so try to keep your fingers, hands, arms and body as relaxed as possible.

We know, all these tips may seem too hard to deal with at first. But don't get discouraged. As the celebrated flutist Marcel Moyse said, “It is a question of time, patience and intelligent work!”