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Sight-Reading Road Map

As both teacher and performer, I’ve noticed that there are a few topics that can bring fear to musicians' eyes. Although it depends entirely on the particular instrumentalist/vocalist, one such topic is the dreaded sight-reading. (If you are musician, you probably just tensed up there for a moment…right?)

Whether a young player applying for All-County or All-State opportunities or a professional auditioning for an orchestra or being called in last minute for a gig, the need for sight-reading skills never goes away. *dramatic sigh*

However, there is good news! You can improve your sight-reading abilities by practicing them! Wait, what, seriously? You can practice looking at something and playing it for the first time? (This is when my students give me a raised eyebrow look...) But seriously, the answer is YES! 

We are actually quite fortunate when reading a piece for the first time because the music does not simply materialize onto the page as we begin playing. Instead, we are given the selection to view and review before starting. Granted, it may not be a long period of time, but it’s something, so don’t jump right in! 

By knowing what to look for in a piece and why, your chance of success increases dramatically. You can quickly build yourself a road-map that can help you anticipate what is around the bend. This quick study will help you to avoid pot-holes and pit falls. So what, exactly, is in this map?

I have a strategy with my students, it’s called “The 7 Helpers.” Before they begin playing a piece during lessons, they have to say, out-loud, the list of helpers and answer the following questions, although in lessons they never see this list written out. We go over it aurally only, and then gradually they can memorize it.

The 7 Helpers:

1.) Time Signature: What is your meter? How do the big beats break-down, into groups of 2 or 3 eighth notes? Do you start on the downbeat? Ensure that you give the piece a sound division of the beats, it makes it easier for you, and the listener, to follow.

2.) Key Signature: How many sharps or flats are in your key signature? Does it stay the same throughout the piece or does it change? Remind yourself which notes will be affected! 

3.) Accidentals: What accidentals appear and are they consistent? Sometimes accidentals are there to remind you that you are returning to original key - identify these!

4.) Range: What is the highest note you will play? What about the lowest note? Do you approach these by scale or by leap? Anticipate these, but don’t fear them. 

5.) Active Rhythms: What rhythms make you pause and think? Give yourself a moment to find the big beats (feel free to tap your toes!) and count out these rhythms in your head. Trying it once or twice now will help to ensure you don’t trip up later.

6.) Articulations: What variety of articulations are there? Knowing that there may be a section you have to tongue quickly or slur while leaping around the instrument will help you determine the speed you can take and still sound solid. Also, playing a note with a staccato or an accent adds a lot to your sight-reading sound. 

7.) Musical Terms: What dynamics are written? What about tempos and tempo changes? Any additional markings that can help you understand the piece? This is the final layer that goes beyond just playing the notes and rhythms correctly. You may need to build your sight-reading skills before you can add this layer, but it will make a huge difference when you can!

By using these Helpers to develop an understanding of the piece, you should feel a bit less intimidated by the unknown…because it’s not entirely unknown anymore! 

Now, it’s time to apply this concept to building your sight-reading skills.

  • Pick up a music book you haven’t looked at or find something on The International Music Score Library Project, (IMSLP)

  • Build your road-map

  • Play the piece for the first time 

  • Assess yourself (what went right? what didn’t?)

  • Play the piece a second time and try to tackle things that didn’t go so well the firs time

  • Assess yourself

  • STOP (if you keep playing the piece past this point, you are no longer practicing sight-reading, you are practicing the piece!)

Go back to the top and do it again! 

By including sight-reading skills into your regular practice sessions, you can build these essential skills and abilities (and your confidence in doing it as well).

Best of luck and keep at it! 


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