How to improve your sight-reading
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You can sight-read anything
It is completely reasonable to want to improve your sight-reading quickly. Luckily, it is also completely doable. If you have an enjoyable, effective process, you will get results.
Your goal should be what I call “sight-read anything.” If you’d like to improve your sight-reading, ensuring that you can do this should be your first priority! What this means is:
- You understand what all the symbols mean.
- You can sight-read a piece at any tempo.
- Sight-reading is physically comfortable.
- The way you read the music is consistent with the structure of the music itself.
What is sight-reading?
I’m not sure there is a single agreed-upon definition of “sight-reading.” Some musicians will consider “sight-reading” to mean “playing music at first glance.” Others will define it as “playing from sheet music, even if you have played the piece before.”
Personally, I take a more inclusive approach, and consider sight-reading to be any performance of a piece that involves reading the score while you are playing.
Sight-reading vs. Playing from memory
Surprisingly, sight-reading is closely related to memory. Pieces that are similar to pieces you already know are easier to read. This is because reading is basically pattern recognition. Therefore, the more pieces you read, the better you will get at reading new pieces (especially those in the style of the music you are already familiar with). Furthermore, if you are not good at sight-reading, your priority must be reading lots and lots of music, so that your brain can collect a large number of patterns.
Whether you are sight-reading at first glance, reading a piece you already know, playing by ear, improvising, or playing from memory, your task at the piano is the same.
Why are some people bad at sight-reading?
Many students have trouble sight-reading with ease. They find that:
- Looking at a score produces confusion and stress, rather than clarity and familiarity.
- Sight-reading at an uncomfortable tempo (either too fast or too slow) leads to anxiety.
- Physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue creep up while reading.
- They are unable to really feel the music as they sight-read, and giving a convincing personal interpretation seems impossible.
What makes sight-reading so hard, anyway?
Our education system teaches us to view things in black and white terms. In order to get a passing grade, we learn to do what is right, and avoid what is wrong. When we take music lessons, we carry this attitude into our practicing. Through no fault of our own, we can end up viewing music reading in the same light as math or physics. This can have the effect of causing us to detach emotionally from the task, making things feel difficult and tiresome. Thus, for completely understandable reasons, many students totally ignore their musicality when reading.
Furthermore, sight-reading is hard! Sight-reading asks us to bring our complete selves to the table. Our minds and our bodies must work in harmony to allow us to function as a unified whole. Specifically, you must coordinate:
- Your eyes
- The parts of your body that are directly involved in playing the instrument
- The rest of your body
- The instrument itself
- The page turns
What’s more, all of these must be coordinated with the beat, the musical intention, the conductor, the singer, etc.
Your sight-reading will not improve until you can come to terms with all of this.
How to read a score
What’s in a score
- A visual representation of how the composer wants the music to sound. It’s more of a picture, or an outline, than a step-by-step recipe.
- A description of the beats of music. (What pitches occur on each beat? How are the beats grouped into meter? What happens between the beats?)
- An outline which marks the basic events occurring in the piece (repeats, phrases, accents, crescendos, fermatas, etc.)
The score is not the music. Rather, it is a two-dimensional picture. Additionally, It is not, strictly speaking, a set of instructions for how to play. But, it does contain some instructional information.
If you wish to improve your sight-reading, your task is to understand how to read a score, so that you can extract all of the relevant details. That is, you are learning how to connect to the composer’s intention by absorbing this picture. You want to be able to extract as many of them as you possibly can, in real-time. In the end, you want to be able to do this quickly, allowing the music to simply flow off of the page and through your body.
You decide what is important in the score
There must be a hierarchy to what appears in the score. What this means is that the elements higher up the hierarchy are more important than the ones further down. For this reason, a big part of your artistry is determining what you wish this hierarchy to be. However, it may vary from piece to piece. In general, I find something like the following works well:
- Beats and measures
- Phrase/section/cadence (I put harmony and dynamics in this category as well)
- Rhythm of the beats themselves (do notes or rests fall on the beats?)
- Articulation of the beats
- Rhythm of the notes that fall off the beats
- Pitch of the notes on the beats
- Pitch of the notes off the beats
- Articulation of the off-beats
- Other elements
- Inner voices
- Texture, color, etc.
I do not follow this religiously. It is just an example of how I often think about music. There is space for individual variation and creativity. By focusing on these aspects of the music, you will be able to read a piece in a way that is meaningful to you.
This frees you to express music how you feel it. Like a painter bringing objects to the foreground or relegating them to the background, you create the sound world you envision. Your body is coordinated with the important elements of the music, so they come out your playing. You are absorbed in the task, enjoying the process, and the audience will be moved by your performance.
Why you must decide what’s important in the score
Your reading, and hence your playing, must conform to this hierarchy, for several reasons:
- You often do not have time to absorb all of the details on the page. What you do absorb should be more important than what you don’t absorb.
- Your entire physical state must give preference to the important elements. For example, if your body is not generally “moving to the beat”, you will find it difficult to articulate the fingers properly.
- Thinking hierarchically makes it easier to understand what you are reading. When you read text, it is useful to understand how the text is broken into paragraphs, words, sentences, chapters, etc., as this improves comprehension.
- With improved comprehension comes greater room for creativity. When you understand the basic building blocks in front of you, you can then assemble them in the order than makes the most sense to you.
- With creativity comes a more engaged performance. As a result, you will enjoy yourself more, and the audience will enjoy the performance more as well.
How to learn to sight-read anything
You may have tried working on sight-reading and found that trying to get every detail perfect was overwhelming. I would like to offer an approach that does not ask you for perfection.
Sight-reading strategies you may have tried
There are many strategies that are commonly used while sight-reading:
- When there is a trouble spot, stop and figure it out before moving on. When things are easier, increase the tempo.
- Choose a tempo that is slow enough that you can absorb and render every detail accurately, in tempo.
- Deliberately decide what you will play and what you will leave out. For example, you may decide to play one hand at a time, or only the outer voices.
- Read 1 or 2 measures ahead while playing.
You can decide for yourself whether or not these strategies are effective. When I learned to sight-read, I did not follow any formal strategies or use any “tricks”. Nonetheless, it took me less than a year after I began studying piano before I was what I would call “reasonably fluent” at reading both hands together. I am not saying this to brag, but to make the point that it is possible improve your sight-reading skills quickly, if you are interesting in doing it. I attribute my progress to the fact that I simply read a ton of music, without fear of making mistakes. Therefore, this approach is what I try to teach.
A basic approach to sight-reading
Let me offer this basic method:
- Decide what note gets the beat, and what basic physical action you will use to perform these beats.
- Choose a tempo and stick to it. Use a metronome.
- Decide on what is important, and what isn’t. When you play, prioritize what is important.
- Keeping your eyes on the music, play from the beginning to the end, without stopping. Try not to look at your hands (but it’s no big deal if you do).
This is the basic formula, and you can vary it as needed. For example:
- Change what you are prioritizing. For example, you may prioritize the bass line, or one of the inner voices.
- Change which durations you are playing. You may decide only to play the notes that fall on the quarter note beat, for example. Alternatively, you might play just the downbeat of each measure.
- Play easier music, or harder music.
- Play faster, or slower.
- Let yourself feel the beat as you read.
- Try to make music.
- Play the piece as you feel it should sound, even if it doesn’t come out exactly right.
- Even if you don’t know the piece very well, you have the right to your interpretation. Trust your inner self to know what to do.
- Try playing both hands, or at a tempo that feels a little too fast for you. Try to ease into this difficulty, noticing how your body wants to react.
- Do not write in the pitches.
- Understanding music theory can be somewhat helpful, but it is not the most important thing. You will recognize chords mostly by their shapes, not as much by their harmonic functions. However, you should be comfortable playing scales in the key signature that the piece is in. If you are trying to read accidentals while sight-reading, this will generally throw a wrench in the works.
Some frequently asked questions about this approach to sight-reading
How exactly is this different from what I’m already doing?
Here are a few ways in which you may find this method of sight-reading different from what you have already tried doing. In this method:
- You do not stop, ever.
- You do not vary the tempo based on difficulty.
- You do not read ahead.
- You do not plan fingering.
- You do not concern yourself with mistakes.
What if I just simply cannot play in tempo?
Then, don’t play in tempo. For now, start by playing confidently and securely. Every beat that you play must be decisive and sure. Then, you go to the next beat, and play that one as confidently as the previous one. Over time, you can then work on lining up your beats in tempo. Whatever you do, do not “stutter“.
I can read notes just fine, but I have a problem sight-reading rhythm
Keep a steady beat. This is the most important thing, always.
The rhythms will come eventually, once you learn to recognize the patterns. However, you will never be perfect at recognizing rhythms at sight. Music notation can, at times, be too confusing for this to work.
Focus on getting the correct notes that fall on the beats. Do not worry about the notes that fall in between beats.
What can I do next?
To improve your sight-reading further, you can try:
- Using the waterfall technique on a difficult piece of music.
- Transposing. Learn to read in all seven clefs.
- Playing music that is very difficult to sight-read, such as Bach fugues, or open choral scores.
- Singing and playing. You can work on sight-singing, which will be very effective no matter what instrument you play. Sing on the words, and also on solfège syllables.
How much do I need to practice sight-reading to improve?
As far as practice goes, the more you practice, the easier sight-reading will become. However, if your experience practicing sight-reading is less than exciting and engaging, you will not be motivated to do it. Pay attention to what encourages you to practice, and also to what discourages you.
How to motivate yourself to practice sight-reading
What might get you to read a lot:
- Reading music you enjoy listening to.
- Setting a goal such as “read through all the Mozart sonatas this weekend”, and just plowing through it.Ignoring all of your mistakes (if you hate fixing mistakes).
- Spending time diligently correcting all your mistakes (if you love fixing mistakes).
- Focusing on physical sensation rather than correctness. Paying more attention to the feeling of the music, and the feeling of your body playing the instrument, rather than whether or not you are playing correctly.
- Playing duets, chamber music, vocal music, etc.
- Reading the easier parts and ignoring the harder parts.
- Play with freedom like you did as a child. Ignore the hard parts!
Why you might find sight-reading practice frustrating
What might be stopping you from reading a lot:
- Perfectionistic attitudes about correctness.
- An approach to reading that causes physical discomfort.
- A sense that you are “bad at this”, and have a huge deficiency to overcome.
- Judgment from others about how good your reading is.
- Reading music you dislike.
- A busy schedule that limits practice time.
- Tension and fatigue in your body.
- A history of having difficulties in sight-reading, and either being hard on yourself, or being judged by others.
Generally, anything that gets you to read a lot is a good technique, and anything that prevents you from reading a lot is a hindrance.
Increase the conditions that lead to more sight-reading. Work on eradicating the hindrances. With practice, your sight-reading will improve. Practice everyday. Set a timer, if you need to. If you skip a day or two, do not beat yourself up about it.
If you find yourself getting discouraged, pay attention to what is causing the discouragement. Focus more on what you find motivating. Remember that practicing is about you.
What music should I use to improve my sight-reading?
You should play music that is of interest to you.
Play music that is too easy, and also music that is too hard. At the end of the day, the difficulty is not what is important here.
Play music that is contrapuntal. Bach is always great for sight-reading. You should always play music that has 4-part harmony, such as in a hymnal. Train yourself to focus on the parts individually while you play. Start with just one part at a time.
Play music that is in the style in which you want to improve your sight-reading.
You can try sight-reading exercises, but I don’t think they are necessary.
Anyone can learn to improve their sight-reading. There is no magic bullet here. Basically, you just need to read a lot. The machinery I have presented is designed to make it more fun and engaging for you to read, so that you will be more likely to do it, and pay attention while you are doing it.