Sight Reading isn't Scary

Sight-reading isn’t Scary!

It’s just misunderstood


My students already know that I’m a bit weird – and my colleagues probably with attest to that too. But one thing they do find very strange is my love of sight-reading!

I find there’s something quite satisfying about opening a new book (and yes I have a buying new sheet music problem too) and just seeing what it sounds like. No two pieces sound the same; so it’s exciting to see what the composer has done to make it different, what the piece makes you feel and what the new challenges are.

Unfortunately for most students sight-reading comes as part of exams. And exams can be scary. And in exam situation sight-reading can be scary too – the pressure of only having 30 seconds to practise and the knowledge that it won’t be perfect. And forgetting THAT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT!

No piece is truly ‘perfect’. There’s always more we could have done to embrace the dynamics more, articulation clearer, faster, slower, not rushed – even before you enter the whole minefield of actually interpreting the piece…. So technically not even playing what’s on the page any more.

So why do we strive for perfection in sight-reading. Yes it would be nice, but in the exam situation examiners don’t expect perfect (unless like me you’re grade 8 on another instrument and do grade 1 on a new instrument – in which case reading four bars of minims and crotchets you’d hope they’d be perfect). In exams focus on the general shape and performing it. I did a clarinet exam and panicked about whether to do a right hand C# or a left hand one – in the end I panicked and did neither. But it was confident and in the end it didn’t detract from the piece so they gave me almost full marks!

Be confident!

So the question really is – how do you sight-read….

Well – you do this every time you see a new piece. And in comparable terms you do this every time you open a new book to read, every time you visit somewhere new or every time you drive somewhere.

Sight-reading just boils down to recognition. When reading a book – you don’t know the story but you brain recognises the words so it tells you what they should sounds like. It’s exactly the same for music.

It’s all about recognition.

Do you recognise the notes, have you seen those rhythms before. Have you played in that key, have you played a scale up with a crescendo on it, does your brain remember that the last time it saw a rit at the end of a piece you slowed down?

So, just like learning to read – sight-reading just all about learning to recognise patterns it’s seen before. And just like learning to read – it just takes a bit of practise.

The best advice I can give you is play. Lots. Find lots of new books – don’t worry if they’re ‘easy’. If they’re ‘easy’ then that’s better. It means you can focus on reaffirming in your brain that when you see this symbol then this action happens. Give it chance to really get to grips with the basic notes, in all sorts of weird and wonderful combinations. Let it really know what quavers like – so clap the rhythms in time with a metronome, stomp your feet and feel the beats and ratios.

Raid the charity shops for new books, borrow some from a friend, get some from the library, take your existing book and turn it upside down, play them backwards. Anything. Anything at all to get your brain to see notes in different combinations and patterns is perfect.

Rhythms are most peoples downfall when it comes to sight-reading. Usually with an extra go on a piece, most can iron out any rhythm issues then. But in the exam you don’t get a second chance and more importantly – if the rhythm isn’t right ….. then it doesn’t matter if the notes are right, it just won’t feel right at all.

So how do you know if it’s right? Well in the simplest terms you feel it (not helpful for those still on the start of a musical learning journey). I wrote another blog post recently about Five Ways to Learn to Love Your Metronome which might be a good starting place. Metronomes are great as they keep the beat going regardless, but unless you feel the beats – it might just be annoying. So practise tapping or clapping (and other such annoying habits). Try tapping crotchets with one hand and tapping quavers at the same time with the other. It might be frustrating to start with but if you can internalise the beats then it will make it easier. If you tap etc. it can help your brain associate rhythms without it stressing about notes, what fingers to move, how loud to play, how your nose itches etc. etc. etc.

Another way to help break down the rhythms is to actually use words. Find a one syllable word for your crotchets, a two syllable word for quavers…. Cat / kitten. Tea / coffee.

Then for the more interesting rhythms – just find a word of phrase that fits. For triplets I use pineapple. For dotted quavers and semi-quavers I use ‘bouncy’. And for just semiquavers it’s caterpillars.

So why not try clapping and saying the words for the rhythms out loud. Breaking it down into things that you can relate to (which is why I try to get students to internalise the beat and ‘feel’ how the rhythms are played) then it does make it so much easier. It might seem weird – but the end result is that you won’t need to worry about the rhythms – so that gives you more time to concentrate on the notes and other elements of the piece.

And finally (you’ve got this far so why not have a bit more information!) here’s my seven point check list for sight-reading. (I know only seven!)

1. Time signature (don’t four if it’s in three – might seem silly but you wouldn’t be the first person to forget this.

2. Key signature – Any sharps or flats at the start? Could you figure out what key it is? If so then probably can hear the sounds of the piece if you know the scale already

3. Any other sharps / flats / naturals written on the score

4. Tempo - How fast to play? If it’s slow- enjoy the thinking time!

5. Any changes to the speed? Rall? Rit? Accel. (eep!)

6. Articulation – tongued, slurred, bowed, pizz.

7. Dynamics (definitely worth remembering as they make the pieces sound so much more interesting)


And finally – if sight-reading is a bit of a bugbear, don’t let it be.


Tackle your sight-reading demons and sight up to our Horrible Sight-reading for Lovely People Course.




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