By Stephie Stewart
How many times have you seen someone sit down and play music you know they’ve never seen before and play it beautifully? Doesn’t it make you wish you could do that too? Well, the good news is that you can, but it might take a little bit of work. The truth is, most people aren’t naturally great sight-readers. They work at it and they practice it. Sight-reading is more often a learned skill than a natural talent.
“All right,” you say, “so how do I learn to sight read?” A good place to start, would be to start working out of sight-reading method books such as the Four Star Sight Reading and Ear Tests series, Improve Your Sight-Reading! Series, and Creative Jazz Sight Reading.
That being said, method books aren’t always for everyone, especially if you aren’t starting at the very beginning of the process. Here are a few tips for anyone who wants to improve their sight-reading, regardless of playing level or experience.
1. Just do it!
As cliché as it might sound, the best thing you can do to improve your sight-reading is to practice sight-reading. Make it part of your regular practice schedule. Find some music that is a few levels below your current level, and just play through it. (Big anthologies are great for sight-reading – there’s a ton of music of varying levels in a single book.) Don’t worry about making it perfect – just concentrate on getting through it. Don’t allow yourself the luxury of working out the hard parts. Do start out a little under tempo if playing up to tempo seems too daunting. As you get more comfortable, slowly increase the level of difficulty of the music and the tempo.
2. Look before you leap
Before you actually begin to play, take a minute to look at what’s coming at you. Look at the time signature and key signature. Check to see if those change at any point during the piece. Look for any tempo or stylistic markings – even the title of the piece can give you a clue as to how it might sound. Check the road map – are there any repeats or codas? Knowing what’s ahead will give you a chance to mentally prepare ahead of time and you won’t be surprised by that D.S. right after the page turn.
3. Just keep swimming
Whatever happens – don’t stop playing! Keeping your place in the music is essential. If you stop to go back and fix a mistake while playing with others, you’re going to get completely lost – fast. Going back and fixing a mistake when you’re playing by yourself might not seem so bad, but you’ll lose the overall sense of the music and it’s a bad habit to get into for when you do play with someone else. Learn to let go of the mistakes. Play in the moment by always focusing on what you are currently playing and not worrying about what you just played.
4. Practice rhythms
A great way to sound like an amazing sight-reader is to be super on top of the rhythm. It can be really easy to get so caught up trying to play the right notes that you completely lose your place in the music (see #3 above). A wrong note is over in a flash, but a wrong rhythm can mess you up for the rest of the piece. So focus on the rhythm. Practice reading difficult rhythms. There are a lot of books out there designed specifically to help you with that. Here are a couple of popular options:
5. Make music
“Well, duh” you’re saying. But I mean really make music. You know those little p’s and f’s all over the music? And the long sideways carrots? And all those lines and dots next to the notes? If you actually play attention to the dynamics, articulations and phrasing then the music will begin to sound, well, musical. And best of all, you won’t sound like you’re sight-reading.
6. Know your theory, train your ear
It might not seem super important to sight reading, but knowing your music theory can be a big help in sounding like you know what you’re doing. Learn a few basic chord progressions and then learn to hear them in the music. Train your ear to hear different kinds of chords and intervals. Having some theoretical knowledge and ear training will help with phrasing, intonation and musicality.
7. Play like you mean it
Sight-reading can be nerve-racking, especially if you’re doing with or in front of other people. Another trick of the trade is to play with all the confidence of a well-rehearsed performance. If you play with good technique and sound, you’ll draw attention to how good you sound rather than letting the mistakes get the better of you. You might even trick yourself into forgetting how nervous you are – who knows?
8. Be the master of your self
Sight-reading in stressful situations can be very different than sight-reading on your own. When your body is stressed, it can be difficult to play your best. Pay attention to your body – before you play take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and neck, and maintain a comfortable and balanced playing position. Maintaining control over your body will help you maintain control over your mind, putting you in the best frame of mind for dealing with the unknown. Practicing in the dark can be an excellent way of connecting your body and mind with your instrument. By removing your ability to see, your senses of touch and hearing become more acute. This is especially important for instruments where you might be tempted to look at your hands while playing (keyboard instruments, guitar, etc.)
9. Read ahead
As you improve your sight-reading and increase your knowledge of music theory, you will be better equipped to look ahead while reading. This is tricky, but can be very helpful. One way to do this is to teach yourself to read music as shapes. If you learn to see a 2nd inversion chord as a shape, you only have to look at the shape of the chord and the top note rather than reading each note in the chord individually. Single line instrumentalists and vocalists can also use this trick. Learning to read intervals rather than individual notes will help you shape phrases and in fast passages. Reading by interval can be particularly helpful for transposing instruments. It can be just as important to practice transposing on the spot, as it is to practice sight-reading.
10. Make it fun
This tip might be listed last, but don’t let that fool you – making sight-reading fun is vital. If you’re not having fun, how likely is it that you’ll keep sight-reading? Picking music you like to hear and to play, inviting your friends over for a jam session and rewarding yourself for milestones are all good ways to keep things exciting.
What this all boils down to is that to be a better sight reader, you better get sight-reading! Don’t try to do too much at once. Allow yourself to make mistakes and celebrate the victories. But most of all – have fun!
Stephie Stewart works in the Catalog Department at Sheet Music Plus. She earned a degree in bassoon performance from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an MLIS from San Jose State University.