8 Tips for Improving Your Sightreading
by Christian Morris
Oh no! It's the dreaded sight-reading test.
Sight-reading is a vital part of being a complete musician. Whilst, in an ideal world, we would have all the time we need to practise a piece before performing it, in reality musicians often have to
play things accurately and with little practice. So that sight-reading test is not just there to trip you up-it's an assessment of an important musical skill.
Given, however, that sight-reading is, by its very nature, something that you don't prepare, is it possible to practise this skill? Of course! Here's how…
Firstly there are general things that you can do to improve your sight-reading. These include:
Make sure you know your musical vocabulary, including: dynamics, expression and articulation markings. What is the difference between adagio and allegro, or between semplice and strepitoso? What does a dot or a dash mean underneath a note? What if there is a dot and a dash? Make sure that whenever you play you are inquisitive about what all the written instructions mean and follow them. Look them up
when in doubt and perhaps keep a notebook containing terms that are more unusual.
Know your key signatures. An experienced musician knows instantly from the number of sharps and flats and from the starting and finishing notes what key a piece is in. This not only gives important information about what your fingers need to do (e.g. D major: unless otherwise stated, all Fs and Cs need to be sharp) but even the way the melody might need to be phrased or shaped. The best way to get to grips with keys signatures is to practise your scales.
Know you ornaments. Do you know the difference between an appoggiatura
and an acciaccatura
? Or a trill
and a turn
? More to the point, do you know how to play them?
It goes without saying that you need to know your rhythms and time-signatures too. Knowing the theory is, of course, important but there is no substitute for playing pieces with a wide variety of time signatures and rhythmic patterns-if you spend all of your time playing pieces in 4/4 you will be pretty confused if presented with something in 7/8.
With this and previous points in mind, make sure you play music in as many styles as possible. This will increase the likelihood that you will encounter a large variety of musical markings, time-signatures etc. It will also help you to understand some established practices that might be expected in a performance, even when not indicated.
Then there is the act of sight-reading itself, which can also be practised. In fact, it's a good idea to incorporate sight-reading into your regular practice schedule. This is especially important if you are a musician that prefers to play by ear and wants to be better at reading notation. With this in mind here are some further tips:
When choosing pieces as exercises, make sure you choose the correct level. You won't be able to sight-read pieces that you find difficult even after weeks of practice. Neither will you make quick progress if you don't sufficiently challenge yourself. It may help if you've taken musical grade exams to think about practising some pieces a couple of grades below what you are doing now. Another great place to start is on 8notes pieces, which are ordered by ‘beginner, easy, intermediate and hard.' You might be able to play intermediate pieces with plenty of practise. Try using the level below as sight-reading practice.
Approach your sight-reading practice as if you were in an exam or reading a new piece in band, orchestra or choir for the first time. The tactics in all situations are similar:
Answer the basic questions first. What key? How many sharps and flats? Is it a simple or compound time signature? What is the tempo?
Look in more detail. Is there an expression indication at the opening? What about the dynamics? Phrasing? The range? Is there, for example, a climactic point in the piece?
Now look for any tricky sections. Mark them with a pencil before you play.
Set a tempo and imagine playing the piece in your head, if possible from start to finish. If not concentrate on the opening and any sections that appear to be difficult.
If you are in an exam be realistic when setting a tempo at the beginning. In fact, a rule of thumb is always go a little more slowly than the tempo mark suggests
. This is because tempo markings, even when accompanied by metronome indications, allow for some flexibility in their interpretation. Going more slowly will give you extra time to think.
. Now comes the moment to play. Count yourself in and then go for it! Most importantly, don't lose your cool if something goes wrong and, under no circumstances, stop. A critical aspect of sight-reading is coping with mistakes. You will be surprised how often people will not notice you had a problem as long as you retain your composure and look as if everything is intentional.
Finally, after you've sight-read the piece...
If it was part of your practice routine, don't just play the piece once. Reflect on what went wrong and practise until you can play it perfectly. Next time you encounter something similar you will be that much better prepared.