How to Get Great at Sight Reading Music

Sight reading new music can feel like a daunting task. But let’s face it, all music is new to us at one point. This is why getting great at sight reading can make the experience of learning new music by reading a more enjoyable one and less of a “homework” style activity.

So in an effort to make your next sight reading experience more enjoyable, there are several great tips and strategies in this post that will get you started on the right path.

  1. Familiarize yourself with a variety of rhythms. Start simple and increasingly change the difficulty of the rhythms you are reading.
  2. Memorize key signatures at-a-glance. IMPORTANT!
  3. Know your scales forward and backward. Literally forwards and backward.
  4. Practice playing without looking at your hands.
  5. Practice sight singing by singing the notes you are wanting to read.
  6. Take a minute to examine the piece you’re sight reading. Tap out the rhythm, read through the notes and follow the structure. Look for trouble spots that may trip you up when you’re reading.
  7. Mentally commit changes in key or time signature within the piece.
  8. Make markings on the paper (or on your tablet/iPad), if allowed.
  9. Sound the whole piece out in your head, recognizing patterns.
  10. Breathe, relax and keep going, even if you make a mistake.
  11. Use a pencil to make the note names of each note above in order to be able to focus more on the rhythmic changes.

 

When I began teaching music theory and piano lessons it dawned on me how poorly some students understand music and how it really works from the inside out. Many could play their instrument but they blindly stumbled through learning new pieces and had trouble with counting even simple rhythms when faced with musical excerpts that were not in the most basic of meters. -Leon Harrell, author of “How to Read Music”

Focus on rhythm

Rhythm is the most essential part of sight reading. If you play rhythm correctly but not pitch, at least you can stay in the right place. The opposite is not true.

If you don’t have a firm grasp of rhythm, this is where you should start. You can practice rhythm sight reading with any sheet music. Just ignore the pitches and only read the rhythms. Later you can go back through and practice reading the rhythms and pitches together.

Don’t stop when you make a mistake

So obvious, and yet surprisingly counter-instinctual. When we make a mistake, especially during an important performance, the temptation is strong to go back and fix it. But everyone knows this is impossible – time in music only moves forward. It’s done, shrug it off and move on. (If there’s a repeat, you’ll get a second chance! :))

Not only is it futile, but it’s actually counter-productive to stop and try to fix performance mistakes. You draw attention to an error your audience otherwise may not have noticed, and you make a second error by stopping time!

Learn how to plow through your mistakes rather than stopping to lament. Your judges will review you more favorably, you’ll better keep up with the ensemble if you’re not playing solo, and your audience will enjoy the music better uninterrupted.

Let the most difficult passage set your tempo

This tip I picked up years ago from a wise band director. It’s a smart way to set the tempo when you’re sight reading. (You’ve never heard the piece before, so you can’t use your memory of what it sounds like for reference.)

Of course you’re going to observe the composer’s tempo guidelines, but you’ll have room for interpretation as the performer. The most important thing when you’re choosing a tempo for sight reading is that it not prohibit you from getting through the piece successfully. And the most common tempo mistake made by inexperienced sight readers is to choose one that’s too fast.

The way to ensure that you don’t choose a tempo that’s too fast is to base it around the most difficult passage. While you’re looking over the music just before playing, find the part that looks most challenging. Finger through it on your instrument at the tempo you have in mind and be confident you can get through without making a slew of mistakes. If you don’t think you can, slow down the tempo a bit at a time until you have one that works.

Learn to look ahead

People are often surprised to learn that advanced sight readers aren’t looking at the notes they’re playing. Rather they already looked at them, and are always looking at least a few beats ahead of where they’re playing.

Think about it. You’re sight reading, so you’ve never seen this music before, save the brief moment you had to look it over before you started playing. If you’re just taking in the notes one at a time as you’re playing them, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Imagine driving a car and only watching the spot of pavement that’s visible just over the hood.

You need to learn how to be reading one measure while playing the measure that came before it. The coordination is a bit tricky, but it’s well worth the time investment to learn this skill.

Don’t forget, at the end of the day it will be you that will need to put in the work with your sight reading practice. At first, it may seem challenging. But my promise to you is that if you stick with it and take these tips and strategies to heart while practicing that your skill will improve and sight reading will become simple and seamless for you.

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Ref: Music Notes, Sight Reading Master.
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