How to Become a Master Sight Reader

Sight reading – the thought itself invokes terror among students and professionals alike.  This is a crucial skill for musicians to master, yet many are unsure how to approach it.  How do you prepare for the unknown?  It can be anything – altissimo, complicated rhythms, ornaments, complex fingerings, or all of these combined!  The secret to practicing sight-reading is three simple words:

Are you ready for the secret?

Just do it! (Thanks, Nike!)

I am always shocked at how many of my students do not even attempt to practice sight-reading.  Like everything else in life, the hardest part is facing your fear.  I like to remind my students that sight reading is harmless – just ink blots on paper (an artistic Rorschach test?).  So grab some music, take a deep breath, and let’s get started!

I classify sight reading into three elements:

  1. Note identification – Correctly recognizing the pitches
  2. Rhythm – Understanding how to play any rhythmic pattern
  3. Extra-musical elements – Everything outside of the staff (dynamics, articulation, expressive terms, symbols, etc.)

Before you begin practicing sight reading, you need to lower your expectations.  (Perfectionists, I hear your indignant cries.) Accept that sight reading will never be perfect.  This does not mean that you shouldn’t have high standards for yourself, but realize that it will not be as polished as your regular repertoire.  This can be especially distressing for students competing at the All District or All State level, who have practiced countless hours to polish their prepared pieces only for the possibility of sight reading to lower their audition score.  Stress not, here’s how to practice each element of sight reading:

  • Note identification – Write out a variety of note heads (no stems) on each staff, including notes above and below the staff. I like to have 12 notes per line, as it’s a common multiple of 2, 3, and 4 (or eighths, triplets, and sixteenths).  After completing an entire page of random notes, I play each line as straight eighths, triplets, or sixteenths. Don’t worry if the music doesn’t sound the best – the point of this exercise is to train your eyes to concentrate on the note heads to determine pitches.  To increase the difficulty, play through each line in several different key signatures.  After you are done with one page, you can turn the page upside down for entirely new notes.  If you write 12 lines and play through each in 12 key signatures, you have 144 different sight reading exercises on one page!
  • Rhythm – There are many different rhythm workbooks for all skill levels. Before using these to practice reading rhythmic patterns, make sure that you understand all basic rhythm patterns.  Review any patterns that have given you trouble in the past.  While the note head determines pitch, the note stem determines rhythm. You can also write out a series of rhythm patterns to play through on the same pitch. When practicing rhythmic elements, use a metronome to keep your time. After you have mastered basic rhythms, practice transitioning between duple and triple subdivisions and meters. And remember, the key to good rhythm is subdivision.
  • Extra-musical elements – Make sure that you understand common musical symbols, vocabulary, and other instructions outside of the staff. You can review these by perusing music dictionaries and musical scores to test your knowledge.  After you feel comfortable with note identification and rhythm, begin sight-reading short excerpts and including these musical instructions.  Just because you are reading a piece for the first time does not excuse a lack of musicality. Practice exaggerating these extra-musical elements so that they are abundantly clear to judges and audiences.

Here are some tips for sight-reading:

  • The point of sight reading is to get from the beginning to the end of the piece in the allotted amount of time. Do not create extra beats (or skip beats) or go back to fix mistakes.
  • Ask yourself the tough questions. What’s the scariest thing that could happen in sight reading? If you are afraid of high notes, practice your altissimo register.  If you are afraid of complicated rhythms, spend some extra time on rhythms.  Still nervous about the unknown?  Practice sight reading regularly to improve your confidence.
  • Hindsight is 20/20. If you are focusing too much on what’s behind you, you will miss what is ahead.
  • Know your scales! If you do not understand your scales or key signatures, sight reading will be much more difficult.
  • Don’t ignore the rests. It is very common for musicians to focus on the notes and rhythms and completely skip through rests.  Rests are rhythms, too.
  • Sight-read every day. Like learning another language, you will not improve unless you are constantly exposed to new examples.
  • Borrow your friend’s music books. When I was in high school, I borrowed my band director’s Arban Method for trumpet to practice sight reading on clarinet.
  • Get creative. Turn music upside down. Play bass clef music as if it was treble (or vice versa). Spend an afternoon on IMSLP browsing by instrument or composer (you might even find new repertoire).
  • Go high-tech. There are great resources online to practice sight-reading. One of my favorite websites for students auditioning for All State is Sight Reading Factory.
  • Play confidently! Not supporting your sound or backing off on air if you make a mistake is a dead giveaway of insecurity. Don’t let mistakes get the best of you – sight-reading is just as much mental grit as it is musical talent.

Don’t let sight reading get the best of you. Practice diligently and you will be rewarded for your efforts. Good luck!


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