Ah, the thrill of sight reading–of venturing into unknown territory and navigating the rocky terrain of subdivision and modulation, while hacking through the thorny brambles of accidentals and non-chord tones. Some people are naturally better at this than others–but, just like with all things in music, sight reading is an important skill that can be improved through regular practice. Here are some tips I’ve found helpful in my own efforts to combat my own musical dyslexia. (These are written from a pianist’s perspective, but most of them should be applicable to all musicians!)
- Practice every day. Just 15 minutes a day–even if it’s sheer torture sometimes–is enough to ensure that you continue making progress. (That’s less time than it would take to go buy a cup of coffee, or get past that one insidious level of Candy Crush.)
- Know the geography of the instrument. As you practice, avoid looking at your hands. Keep your fingers and hands close to the keyboard, even as you play and leap: information about your location on the keyboard should not come from visual cues, but from the physical cues and memories of your fingertips and arm muscles. One of my friends, a fantastic sight-reader, says that looking at your hands wastes precious time that your brain needs “to absorb the information on the page and translate it into physical sensations.”
- Mix up the repertoire.
- Start easy. Being able to play pieces you’ve never heard before is the goal of sight reading, and it’s certainly a great way to expose yourself to all the amazing music out there. Much of the vocal literature from the Classical and Romantic periods have simple, harmonically clear keyboard accompaniments, so it’s a good idea to read through the accompaniments for things like Mozart and Handel arias or simple Beethoven and Schubert songs. From there, add repertoire like Mozart and Beethoven piano sonatas, Schumann songs, and Bach two-part inventions.
- But incorporate the familiar, too. Sight reading can be an immensely frustrating task, especially when you first start practicing it. Make sure to also sight read repertoire that you’ve heard before, but haven’t necessarily played, so that your ear can constantly affirm what your fingers are doing. This removes the distraction of questioning what you’re hearing and allows you to focus more on the task of translating sheet music to physical movement, resulting in a practice session that leaves you feeling encouraged and rewarded.
- Read from the bottom up. If you’re like me, you have a habit of focusing on the melody in the right hand. But the harmonies in the left hand are often more important, particularly if you’re accompanying a singer. Try to prioritize the left hand, and make it a habit to catch yourself when your focus begins to zoom in on the upper staff. Sometimes it helps to expand your field of vision by directing your gaze loosely at the space between the staves, so that you are processing everything surrounding that point rather than micro-managing a single line. My friend says that for easy passages, he lets his gaze rest between the clefs, reading both hands almost simultaneously. For harder passages, he glances up and down in a zig-zag pattern as he moves forward (always looking ahead of what he’s actually playing), “memorizing” the music–imprinting the chords, figurations, textures, rhythms, patterns, etc., onto short-term memory–just before playing.
- Just keep going. When sight reading, Rhythm is King. If a string quartet is sight reading together, the rhythm is the glue: wrong notes sound funny, but wrong rhythms will derail the whole ensemble. Allow yourself to make mistakes when sight reading (you can go back and correct them later once you’ve finished), and make it a habit to keep your eyes moving ahead of where you’re playing–whether that’s a beat ahead or a whole measure. It’s immensely useful to practice with the metronome, to keep yourself moving in a steady beat despite the mistakes.
- Practice patterns. Multiple composers across multiple eras employ common figurations, particularly in the left hand (for piano music). These include Alberti bass patterns, harmonic arpeggiations, or the common “stride piano”/waltz accompaniment: Practice the ability to read these patterns quickly as a single harmonic chord that just happens to be spread out over several beats (rather than processing the bass note separately from the upper chords, in the example above) and take a little time to practice more difficult navigational exercises, such as leaping to that bass note and back in the waltz pattern, without looking at your hands. This will train you to deal with these common patterns with ease.
- Anticipate the physical sensations. As you play, be aware not only of the technical issues of calculating rhythms and harmonies, but how playing those next notes will feel. In the back of your mind, sense what kind of movements in space your muscles will make to get to that next chord, or to make that leap. More often than not, that frees your muscles to move confidently, rather than being bound by over-thinking things in the brain.
- Sight read with other people. Besides the fact that playing with your friends is a lot of fun, sight reading through four hands music, or instrumental duo music, or quartet literature, forces you to:
- deal with any nervousness you might have about sight reading in front of others
- keep your rhythms steady and accurate and to keep going despite mistakes (and it can also teach you how to count 12 measures of rests!)
- focus on reading your own part despite external auditory distractions
- remain sensitive to the music–the trading off of melodies, the interlocking of rhythms, the swells of phrases–instead of just reading the notes
Teaching yourself how to sight read can be very frustrating at first, and progress may be slow, but keep at it (and keep those eyes moving)! Despite the challenges it can present, it’s such a rewarding experience because of how it exposes you to other repertoire and allows you to make music, for the fun of it, with other people.
What are your best sight reading tips?
- WAMTA – notes from sight reading presentations on developing accompanying skills
- Sound Feelings – Sight-Read Any Music!