Sight reading requires a certain shift in our mindset. At the very beginning of our musical education we spend a lot of time learning how to read the notes. Then we do the same when we are learning a new piece which we eventually want to perform. At these early stages correcting the mistakes is essential. Therefore we often go back, double-checking the notes we play. However, when we sight read it is vital that we:
- look ahead
- keep going
The first one means shifting our focus from looking at a very tiny section of music to a more general view over a larger part of a piece. The second requires you to make a decision that you are not going to stop (no matter what!). Being aware of the rhythm of the piece is also helpful (which is why the majority of these exercises require a use of a metronome), but the determination to stick to the tempo is what will (literally) take you forward.
6 exercises that will help you sight read better
- Put the metronome on at the tempo you which is slow enough to play the smallest time values in the piece and tap the rhythm only. Your right hand will tap the rhythm played by the right hand, and left hand will take care of the left hand part. Once you have started don’t go back – continue until the end! If you feel that the initial tempo was too challenging in some sections, try to identify what they were. If you are not quite sure what they were, perhaps the initial tempo was too fast? You may want to write in the beats to make the rhythm more clear. Adjust the metronome if necessary and give it another go.
- With a metronome on, read the names of the notes on the upper line out loud, keeping in time with the beat. Add any left-hand notes in the sections where the right hand is not playing. If you can’t read some of the notes, carry on to the next note to make sure you keep the right rhythm. At the end identify the problematic notes and make sure you know what they are if you decide to repeat this exercise. Did you have enough time to read all notes at this tempo? If the answer is ‘no’, take the tempo down and have another go.
- Various combinations of the above:
– naming the notes in one line, tapping the rhythm of the part belonging to that hand
– naming the notes of a chosen part while tapping the rhythm of the other hand
– tapping both hands and naming the notes of a chosen line
- With the metronome still tapping your chosen tempo, play only the notes of the first beat of the bar. As soon as you have played them, place your fingers on the notes of the first beat of the next bar. Circling the notes you are going to play will direct your eyes where to look next. At the end, take time to think about any necessary corrections on the notes you have just played. Lower the tempo if there were too many mistakes the first time you played. If you are satisfied with the first run, add the notes from 2nd beat when you play the exercises again. Pieces in 4/4, 3/8, 6/8 (where there are a few beats in a bar) will work best for this type of exercise.
- Ask a friend or your teacher to help you with this. Their task will be to cover sections of the piece that you play. Once you have placed your fingers on the very first notes of the piece, your friend will use their hand or a small piece of paper cover these very notes (so you need to remember what they were!). Look at the section ahead and start playing. Your friend will need to move with you, always covering the notes you should have already read. At first these will be very small sections: one beat at a time or perhaps even less. As you progress, you will be able to read more and more notes ahead and you will not mind whole bars being covered.
- Play the piece together with another musician or your teacher. You may try different combinations:
– both of you playing exactly the same piece, as it is written
– you share one piece: one of you plays the upper line, while your friend takes the other one
– choosing an ensemble piece: a harp duo, or any other instruments you and your friends play!
Now, I’d love to hear your take on this topic. Which aspect of sight reading you feel is the most vital for you to focus on? Which of these exercises will you use to improve it? Let me know in the comments below.