What is Sight Reading? The Top 8 Tips to be a Great Sight Reader

Rose Park - Lesson With You

Rose Park   02/25/21 updated 09/20/21 • 8 min read

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Sight reading is a skill that every musician wants to be good at. Sight reading is a skill that also troubles and scares musicians away. So what is a sight reading anyway?

Sight reading is the skill that lets you look at a piece of music and play right away.

How does it work?

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Sight Reading is a skill

If you are a beginner and want to learn and explore music, you should definitely try practicing sight reading. It’ll make learning and playing pieces so much easier.

If your goal is to become a professional musician and ‘work’ in the performance field, it is a required skill in the music industry and you should certainly consider improving it.

Some musicians are naturally better and faster at it. Sometimes, you will be astonished by how your friends, colleagues and teachers can read new music so quickly.

But don’t be discouraged. Remember, sight reading is a skill – a skill that any musician can learn and improve over time. You can develop this skill and improve in a short amount of time.

There are two things I’d like to highlight before we move on to the practical stages:

 

1. “Well begun is half done.”

If you decide to work on sight reading, do it and stick to it. The first thing I’d suggest is to pick a very easy piece of music. Don’t start with a difficult one even if you want to challenge yourself, otherwise you will feel defeated from the beginning.

Then, decide how much time you want to spend on sight reading. I would recommend starting from 5 minutes per practice session, then gradually increase the amount based on the level of music. For advanced pieces, break them into sections and read one section at a time.

 

2. Make a sight reading routine

Sight reading is not a magical skill that you can get in one day. It takes time and you need to invest time on it. This skill requires concentration and attention to musical details so remove anything that might disturb your focus.

I know it’s tempting to place the cell phone right next to the score, but that will distract even the most professional musicians. If you want to build the best sight reading exercise routine, you can survive without a phone for 5 minutes a day.

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Why Is Sight Reading Important?

Save Time In Learning Music

Learning a skill takes time and effort in any form. The more you get familiar with it, the better you will get at using it which will reduce the overall time you spend. This applies to practicing sight reading as you will gradually figure out a way to read music faster and more effectively.

Widen Your Repertoire.

In the professional music industry, repertoire generally refers to a comprehensive list of music you’ve learned. The more you save time in learning by being able to sight read quickly, you will have more opportunities to explore a wide range of music. Performers study music to broaden their repertoire because it’s a symbol of achievement. You’ll feel confident with filling up your repertoire with new music.

In this article, I’ll guide you through three stages of reading music. By the end of the journey, you will have a clear image of how to practice sight reading in the most effective way.

The following section includes tips for good sight reading practice. Every stage in this section is all related to another, so don’t skip reading!

Before Sight Reading

1.‘Sight’ and then ‘Read’ the music
Imagine you have a book you’re reading the first time. Let’s say that it’s a thick book and you are given a short time to explain the context. What would you do? What’s the fastest method to read it?

Reading a new piece of music is like reading a new book. Sight reading is just like skimming a book through a table of contents and chapter headings.

Sit down and read what music tells you. Resist the urge to make sound on the instrument and take a moment to overview the details of the music. Here is the list of elements you should examine in the score:

  • Structure
    Take a look at the form of the score. Find the main melody and see if it comes back later. How many times does it show up? Is there a second melody that also shows up often? Pay attention to the big structure but not the details.

  • Harmony
    Check the key signature. Is it major or minor? How many flats and sharps do you see? Do you see any places where the harmony changes?

  • Rhythmic Pattern
    Observe the types of rhythms. Then, observe how many times these specific patterns show up in the score.

  • Challenge
    Locate which measure seems difficult and tricky to play. Take note or circle these specific measures and get emotionally ready for them.

  • Dynamics (volume)
    Notice the dynamic range. Where are the dynamic markings in the score? How loud or soft does the composer of the piece want the music to be? Circle those dynamic notations before you sight read.is

2.Visualize the music
Visualizing the music, or the sound, means giving a simple but full performance in your head. In short, It’s an experiment. Each musical element is important but anticipating the performance is as important as the actual playing. Many professional musicians are trained to visualize the performance to reduce anxiousness before the actual performance.

Tip: Visualize the sound for tricky measures where there is a sudden change in rhythms, meters and dynamics.

3.Choose the right tempo

Tempo marking is notated between the title of the music and the entry, like the “Andante” listed here:

The tempo marking is a principal element which suggests the overall tempo of the piece. Don’t ignore the tempo marking and just play fast. Remember, playing fast isn’t the goal of sight reading.
Sight reading

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During Sight Reading

4. Read chunks of notes
Try to avoid reading individual notes but rather as chunks. You will likely stop a bunch of times during the sight reading if you read the notes one by one. Instead, read them in a group of notes, a measure and even in a phrase (combined unit of measures). This lets you stop less and continue playing. 

Tip: For pianists, read from the left hand (bottom/bass) to the right hand (top/treble).
Tip: For singers, observe where the melody peaks. Notice where you can breath in and out.


5.
Keep going even if you make mistakes
Here’s the truth: Mistakes naturally happen in the process of sight reading. It’s just something you have to accept no matter how perfect you want to be. Don’t try to fix the mistake in the middle of playing. You’ll have a chance to review the mistakes after the sight reading. 

Typical mistakes in sight reading are: 

  • Inaccurate counting
  • Inaccurate rhythms
  • Missing sharps or flats
  • Wrong register (in keyboards, strings, and voice)
  • Hesitation or stumbling.
  • Messy use of pedals (in keyboards)

Whatever the mistake is, make sure to get back on track quickly. Forget about the past and move on to the next measure. 

Tip: Always keep the tempo in mind and count.

6. Get ready for the next measure
This step is an extension of the steps 4 and 5. While you’re playing, keep an eye on the next measure so that you can prepare for it. This also means that you shouldn’t worry about the mistakes you made.

The truth is that our brain is fully occupied with managing various information coming from eyes, fingers, arms and legs etc. Practicing sight reading is usually awkward and uncomfortable which prevents you from going forward.

Get ready for the notes and rhythms coming up by looking ahead a few beats or a measure. Try to avoid looking at the note you’re playing right now and keep your eyes towards the next ones. Once you try reading this way for a week or two, you will find the sight reading easier and it’ll become part of your reading method

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After Sight Reading

7. Review your performance
Ask yourself the following questions after you finish reading the music.

  • Did I keep the tempo steady?
  • Did I misread any notes or rhythms?
  • Was I panicking? Where and why?
  • Did I stop anywhere and replayed the same note? Why did I stumble?
  • What can I do better next time? How can I improve the problems and minimize the same mistakes in the future?

8. Be optimistic
I cannot stress this enough: be proud of what you tried and achieved in the sight reading.

The whole process of sight reading can be stressful and frustrating, especially when you’re pushing yourself to improve quickly! You might think that you’re not good enough or compare with the others who read music faster and better.

That’s not the point of sight reading. 

When reading music, every small improvement is what matters in the long-term. Read and learn the concepts I’ve outlined above and apply them in your practice session. Even if one sight reading session wasn’t successful, don’t feel frustrated and quit practicing it the next day.

Instead, give yourself a reward after practicing. Whatever the reward is (eating a dessert or a cup of coffee, watching a tv show and napping etc), if it gives you energy to continue the long journey of sight reading, you deserve it.

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