Sight-reading tips and tricks
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
This one is for my fellow musicians, pupils and anyone who's interested in learning how to read music better and faster. These are some tips and tricks I've learnt through the years of how you can sight-read better.
PRACTICE COME RAIN OR SHINE
First there's no beating round the bush if you don't practice it, you will never get better at it. So take sometime each day and practice, be it five minutes or an hour. Try to pick an amount that's realistic for you and stay consistent with it for at least 5 days out of the week. Easier said than done, I know. So let's first talk about how we can enjoy sight-reading more so that you want to practice it more.
BUY MUSIC YOU LOVE
The best way to get better at sight-reading I learnt kind of by accident. My family and friends used to get me (and still do) piano sheet music from films, bands and composers that I really liked. I was obsessed with this music, I wanted to play it all and hear what it would sound like on the piano, which made me try it out. Slowly working my way through it, I'd work out the letters and then try to play it based on how I remembered the songs. Now albeit the rhythm was 'funky' (in the bad sense) but my sight-reading of the notes improved drastically, without even realising it, all because I really wanted to figure it out.
The point here is to find music that you really want to learn. It doesn't matter what genre it is, in fact the more varied the genres the better because it will mean that you're practicing more diverse techniques. Once you know what music you want either save up and buy the compendium, or ask a family member if perhaps for an upcoming birthday they can can get it for you.
Purchasing the music you want to play and trying it out is the best way to get your sight-reading abilities up quickly because there will be more desire to practice. It doesn't matter if you can play them well at the beginning, just that you try them and enjoy them. If they are way beyond your current level (which you will only know through trial and error) you can always go back to it in the future, try it again and then realise how much better you've got at music and at sight-reading.
ALWAYS TRY FIRST, ASK LATER
This leads me to my next point, figure it out yourself first. I personally think that you should always try and figure out the music by yourself first. For example, let's say you've got some set works by your teacher, before your lesson, take your time at home first and work out the music. Then come to class and play what you've worked out. Yes you might get some of the notes, rhythm, technique wrong but you'll essentially have a better lesson because you can start going beyond what notes you have to play. Second you will have spent time improving your sight-reading. It is better to have a base for the piece you are learning and get in the habit of not always relying on your teacher to tell you everything. Stop just waiting to be told what to do and learn. Extend your practices and go beyond what your teacher tells you to do. No teacher that I know of would ever be upset if you did more than what's asked. And whatever mistakes there are they can be fixed by the help of your teacher in the lesson. In this way you'll progress much faster.
Ok now you understand the importance of finding music that you want to learn, doing it for pleasure, figuring it out for yourself first and practicing it consistently.
NITTY GRITTY HARDCORE TIPS
1. Buy the series of books, 'Joining the dots' by Allan Bullard' they are the best laid out in my opinion and guide you through how to sight-read in slow, progressive easy steps. They go from grade 1-8.
2. Know your theory. Make sure you know at least the basics of theory inside out. The more of a handle you have on what each rhythm is and how to read Treble and Bass etc.(depending on your instrument) the easier it will be for you to work out the piece. Theory alongside sight-reading is always helpful as this will also enforce note reading and rhythmic reading awareness. The series of Theory books by Lina Ng are excellent at it really helps you understand and learn theory in an effective, easy way.
Some Quick Easy mnemonics for note reading:
Treble clef: lines - every, good, boy, deserves, football. Spaces - Face
Bass clef: lines - good bikes don't fall apart. Spaces - All cows eat grass
3. Now these are steps I always make sure my pupils and I still use to this day. They covers most of the sight-reading problems you may encounter.
Before even touching the keys these are elements you should be observing:
1. Time signature
2. Key signature
3. Beginning, ending, highest and lowest notes in Right hand and Left hand (if you are a pianist) and what fingering do you use for those notes.
4. Are there any tucks or changes of fingering? Where will they be?
5. Depending on sight-reading rhythmic awareness, either clap out the rhythm of each hands or clap out the difficult sections before you start.
6. Observe the dynamics and the articulations - staccato, legato etc
7. Look at the top of the piece what are the performance markings (if any)?
8. Place the hands on the keys with the correct fingering and observing the key signature, add any accidentals necessary to the hand position
9. Count yourself in
10. Play and don't correct yourself - go forward and not back. Never stop. Imagine you are playing with other musicians if they are all playing at one speed and you are playing at another speed there will be a cacophony of sounds, which will not be pleasant. So really try your best to always stay in time.
11. Main focus is always to stay in time and in key and to get the general idea and mood of the piece not to play every note perfectly.
12. Play through the piece 3-5 times.
I recommend this amount of times because it will ensure that you are actually sight-reading the piece. Once you have played the piece long enough it no longer counts as sight-reading as your muscle and musical memory has started to just play it by rote. But we need to play it a couple of times so we can get the feeling of the piece.
Advanced step depending on level of sight-reading:
13. Use metronome, set on a tempo of about 60 then increase either by 5/10 each time so by the last play through you could play it on e.g. 110
Where you start the metronome really depends on the piece and how comfortable you are at sight-reading so adjust according to comfort level.
TIPS FOR THE ROAD
My final tip I can think of currently is to get used to more music by analysing it and practicing scales and patterns so when you're in the middle of sight-reading you can identify things faster. It's always more useful in sight-reading to be able to see the patterns and chords so you can read faster. Try to also look ahead at the next couple of bars while you're sight-reading so that you're aware of what's coming up.
Hope this helps you in your own sight-reading journey
Let me know if you have any questions, or tips that I haven't mentioned, that you'd like to share. I'm always interested in other people's techniques and tricks and looking for ways to up my own sight-reading:)
Lots of love and luck to you