10 Ways to Improve Your Sight Reading

Who hasn’t been impressed by someone who can sit down, open up a book of music at any spot, and start playing as if they’d been practising it for weeks?

Sight reading is the ability to read music at first sight. That’s right, music you’ve never seen or heard before.

Just think, no longer must you toil months on end to learn a piece so you have something to play should someone ask. If it’s written down you can learn it and that means you can play in a variety of styles too. With an endless amount of repertoire at your fingertips (pun intended!) you will never be bored. You will also be more marketable.

Becoming the ultimate sight reader may not be an achievable goal for everybody in this lifetime, but the more you improve your ability to read music the faster you will learn pieces that you are working on. Soon you will be the one who is voluntold to play at Christmas time, when everyone gathers around the piano to sing 🙂

As someone who has done a fair amount of accompanying over the years, both for solo musicians and choirs, I’ve been reflecting on what tools helped me become a better reader. Here are 10 tips to help work those music-reading muscles. They are useful both for the beginner and the seasoned pianist.

1. Do it lots.  How did you get better at reading in your native tongue? You practiced, everyday. Sight reading is no different. It doesn’t have to be a sonata a day, it can be just a few excerpts. The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Four Star Sight Reading series published by Fredrick Harris is a great place to start. This 12 book series starts from beginner all the way up to the grade ten level. It’s handy because pieces are laid out in small eight-bar selections so you can do a little each day. Otherwise grab a music book off the shelf, open it up and start reading! If it’s too difficult, then just read one hand. What matters is that you do it daily, rather than once in a while. It’s no different from exercise.

2. Know your keys.  While it’s good to remember where you left your car keys, I’m not talking about those kinds of keys. Each key has a key signature, which is the number of black keys (flats or sharps) you need to remember to add to your white keys. At first the very concept is daunting, but the more you read the more automatic it becomes. If you were wondering why your teacher asked you to learn all those scales when you were younger, this is why. Learning things like scales in all 12 major and minor keys is very handy when applying it to sight reading because you develop a natural physical awareness of how each key feels on the keyboard.

3. Practice grouping.  Grouping means reducing all the busy notes you see on the page into smaller, more simplified patterns. For example, if you are able to recognize groups of notes as chords instead of reading each note individually, reading will become much smoother. It’s just like reading a whole word versus the individual letters of a word. Most left hand patterns are usually just broken chords and can be reduced to simple harmonies. Melodies are the same, and are often just scales in a different context. Fingering too – if you can see that the melody easily fits within a five finger pattern, meaning that you don’t have to do any leaps or crossovers, that will make life a lot easier for you as well.

4. Leave stuff out!  When it comes to sight reading, the most important part is the preservation of the tempo; in English, don’t slow down! Every other element is less important. So if you are inundated by all the notes, just read the outer voices. Play the baseline, and play the tops of the chords in the right-hand. Those are the bare essentials of the music. Coming towards a big arpeggio (broken chord)? Cut it out! I was once desperately asked to sight read the last movement of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata for a student’s jury (final playing exam in music school). I literally had no time to prepare it and last movements are always very fast. So what did I do? I only played on beats one and three! This wasn’t my jury after all and it served its purpose.

5. Get over your perfectionism.  Unlike regular study of classical music, in which the objective is to aim for as-close-to-perfect-as-possible, sight reading is the complete opposite. This is something that I’ve always struggled with personally, being someone who is a recovering perfectionist. So if you’re one too, this is a really excellent exercise. When you practice your sight reading, you’re going to have lots of crunches and cacks, and you’ll have to live with them. There’s no going back, as repeating a passage would no longer make it sight reading. So if you get into a train wreck, pull yourself out and keep moving forward!

6. Use a metronome.  A metronome is a device that ticks like a clock, except you can control the rate of the ticking. They used to be very expensive and made out of metal and wood, but now you can get free apps for them on your phone. They are useful because sometimes we can be a little subjective with our speed. We often tend to slow down in difficult passages and speed up in easy ones. The metronome is our sober second thought. It’s an excellent tool for sight reading because it keeps the beat regardless of how hard the music is. This is the closest thing to real-world accompanying there is, in which the musician or ensemble you’re accompanying sets the tempo. So use your metronome while sight reading. I suggest taking a slower tempo. The main thing is you are always on the beat and never behind.

7. Look ahead.  Another component to good reading, is to read the score like a conductor. A conductor is there to show the ensemble what’s about to happen. If she shows the music that is happening, she might as well be dancing to it. We, as readers, need to also be looking ahead so that we’re aware of what’s about to happen and not caught off guard. In music school, I remember doing a reading exercise with a partner. One person would sit down and sight read the music, while the other person would take a sheet of paper and cover the measure that was being played. The person playing could only look ahead and had to have a few beats memorized lest they fall behind. It was a very useful, albeit stressful, technique. So, always be aware of what’s around the corner!

8. Move your eyes.   To the previous point, it’s important to move your eyes frequently in general. A student recently asked me where do I look when I’m reading a score. Do I look in the middle, and try to read both parts? I really had to think about it, and actually sat down and played through a piece to see what I did. The simple answer is that I move my eyes everywhere. In a way it’s like when you are driving. When you’re going down a busy street you’re moving your eyes constantly. You’re looking at driveways, at vehicles that might turn, at pedestrians – your gaze is never stationary. My eyes are always reading in a zigzag pattern. I find myself constantly looking for where the motion is. If I hit a chord or a simple passage, then I immediately look ahead to the part that starts moving again. Though the music may seem busy, it’s filled with repetition and places of low motion are easy to gloss over. Over time you will find that your brain prioritizes where to focus.

9. Choose easier music.   Don’t sight read Rachmaninoff. For Royal Conservatory of Music exams, students are regularly required to sight read something. However the material will not be at the same level they are studying at. If you are at grade six, then you may sight read at the grade three level. Even elementary level music can be difficult if you are reading it for the first time and aiming to play it accurately. If you really want to make it challenging, then play it at the speed the composer asks. It might be quite fast if it’s up to tempo.

10. Feel the Rhythm.   The backbone of all music is rhythm. Before you play, sit down, look at the score, and feel the basic rhythm. Literally bob your head to the rhythm and the pulse. It might have lots of triplets in it – how do they feel? Maybe there are lots of dotted rhythms. Maybe your piece starts out with quarter notes and half notes, but near the end has a faster 16th note passage. Find the place with the hardest rhythm and calibrate your metronome speed to this spot. You will be thankful when you get to it 🙂 In general you should always gauge your tempo by the hardest measure of your music. So feel that rhythm. If you can get the rhythm in your body before you start to play, you will already be in a good position for success!

I had a choral conducting professor who often said, “Singing is 90% brains and 10% talent.” The same can be said for a skill like sight reading. If you put the time into it you will get better. Above all else, be confident. Don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith and jump into reading some music!

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