5 Steps to Mastering Sight-Reading

A reader recently asked: At my college, to get into the lab bands you have to be a really great sight-reader. What are some ways to become a great reader besides just saying “read whatever you can.” I am decent at sight-reading, but I want to take it to that next level. How do I go about doing this?

It goes without saying that sight-reading is an important skill to have as a musician. You sight-read new pieces in your rehearsals, you need it when you sub for a big band, and it’s a dreaded part of the audition process. It is by no means the most important skill to have as a musician, but if you want to be a “working” musician, it is something that you definitely need.

This is a great question, but it’s also one that often gets answered with the vague, apathetic answers that you mentioned. Telling someone to “just sight-read more,” no matter how well-intentioned, is not going to help them improve.

Sight-reading, like many other techniques that we develop as musicians, is a skill – a skill that can be learned and continually improved upon. Rather than putting yourself in a room and trying to blindly improve your sight-reading chops by doing it over and over again, look at the specific elements involved in this skill and work on developing them.

It’s Sight-Reading

Somehow, we’ve all had this idea put into our heads that sight-reading is this completely new skill that we must learn, separated from the other aspects of our musicianship. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The ability to sight-read stems from all of the aspects of your musicianship and thus, can be improved on a daily basis with a little attention to detail.

When you take an honest look at it, sight-reading is simply your ability to read music. You may be looking at this music for the first time or it may be something that you haven’t practiced, but the bottom line is that you’re reading music. If you want to improve at sight-reading, you first need to examine the way that you read music.

There are specific elements that go into successfully reading music, and these elements directly affect your ability to sight-read. Sight-reading is not some magical skill that will just come to you one day because you attempt it every so often, it’s a skill that has finite elements that can be learned in a short amount of time and applied with success.

Below I’ve outlined five components of reading music that will greatly improve your ability to sight-read. Each skill is dependent on the next and they all add up, so don’t skip over any of them. If you implement each of these factors every time you read a piece of music, your sight-reading will infinitely improve.

I. Concentration

This may seem painfully obvious or even unimportant, but your mindset and concentration as you look at a page of music is the single most important factor to your success in reading that music. Without it you miss notes and accidentals, you screw up rhythms, you find yourself disconnected from the time, and you lose your place in the music. In fact, most mistakes we make in performing music can be attributed to a lack of concentration.

So often we read music in performances and rehearsals with only half of our concentration, and what’s worse, we don’t even realize it. We scan the audience for people that we know, random thoughts pop into our heads, we think about what we are going to play in our next solo, we review our day. Sometimes we just zone out altogether.

We are looking at the page, we see the notes, but our minds are not completely involved and focused on the task at hand. This is a recipe for disaster. Step one on your journey to becoming a sight-reading master? Put a stop to this mindless music reading.

“Art has to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”~Saul Bellow

Instead of going through the motions of reading music, play a little game with yourself. Before you play a piece of music, mentally say to yourself: “Ok, I’m going to nail every note and rhythm on this page, no mistakes.” Clear out any unwanted or distracted thoughts and aim for 100% concentration on the music. As the tune is being counted off, focus on the time and the notes and rhythms in the opening measures.

Take this mindset with anything you read, whether it’s in big band rehearsal, a small group performance, or an average day in the practice room. You will immediately find that your reading improves, however, you’ll also find that extreme concentration is difficult to sustain for long periods of time. You may start a piece totally focused, but after a minute your mind begins to wander and little by little, you’re back to day dreaming. Be aware of this tendency and quickly pull back your concentration when it starts to fade.

By learning to control your concentration, you’ll ingrain the habit of becoming totally focused any time you read music. The next time that you have to sight-read, you will find that this skill is carried over and that things will be much easier.

II. Read bigger chunks of music

Go to any big band concert and you’ll immediately be able to pick out the great readers and the players that are struggling. The strong readers look confident, relaxed, and totally focused; even the most up-tempo tunes don’t seem to phase them.

On the other hand, the poor readers look completely flustered. Their heads are buried in the stand, they are furiously counting and subdividing every rhythm, and they tensely tap every beat with their foot; in other words, they’re hanging on for dear life.

What do these strong readers have that the others do not? These players have figured out how to look at and successfully read bigger chunks of music.

The area of reading music that is getting these other players into trouble, especially in up-tempo tunes, is looking at and counting every single beat of music that they see. They are thinking about every rhythm and processing every single beat of music. To become a better sight-reader, you must do the complete opposite. You need to be looking at larger pieces of the music and feeling bigger chunks of time.

Look at the music on the page as if you were going to read it in cut-time. Instead of looking at each quarter note and subdividing every rhythm into eighth notes, visually divide each measure in two parts and see where the downbeats fall. By doing this, you will free up your mind so that it can focus on more musical things.

Let’s illustrate this concept. Say you have this line in your music:

An inexperienced reader would count every beat and look at each individual note. However, a great reader would first visually see where the major downbeats fall (Beats 1 and 3 if you’re in cut time -shown below, or 2 and 4 if you prefer):

Next read the music as if it was in cut time, looking at two beats at a time as shown in the highlighted sections below:

Or even an entire measure at a time:

You can clearly see how reading in this fashion is much easier and relaxed than counting every single beat. Aim for visually interpreting music in this way. It will take some practice and experience, but the payoff will be worth it.

III. Recognizing rhythms and patterns

There are only so many combinations of rhythms that you’ll encounter whether you’re playing big band music, sitting in the pit for a musical, or reading a new chart in your combo. Becoming familiar with these common rhythms and recognizing them at a quick glance will greatly enhance your ability to sight-read a piece of music.

Ideally, you don’t want to be subdividing and counting out every rhythm when you’re performing, that is work that should be done in  the practice room. On the stage and in situations where you are sight-reading, view the music in a larger time frame as mentioned previously and look for these familiar rhythms. In doing so, you won’t have to spend mental energy deciphering notes and rhythms that you already know.

Here’s a great exercise to become familiar with many rhythms you may encounter: take a sheet of manuscript paper and in four-four time, using half notes and quarter notes, write out all the possible rhythms for one measure. There’s really not that many. Then do the same thing with other durations, for instance, take quarter notes and eighth notes, and write out all the various rhythms that can be assembled. Through this process you’ll gain an understanding of the different rhythms and become familiar with how they look visually on the page.

In addition to quickly identifying rhythms visually, learn to readily identify scale fragments and arpeggios. For example, look at the scale fragment in this line:

You don’t have to read each note to realize you’re playing a descending scale, you just have to take a quick glance. Being able to visually grasp that a melodic line is simply comprised of a scale or arpeggio fragment makes it much easier to process, and consequently, much easier to sight-read.

Watch out for tricky rhythms

It’s not the familiar rhythms and patterns that we have to look out for, it’s the occasional off-beat rhythms that throw us. Most of the time we get through a piece just fine, then we see a rhythm like this one:

Suddenly our brain freezes, we lose track of the beat, and get completely off. This happens because we’re unable to visually line up where the down beats are happening. The rhythm just doesn’t look “right” to our minds and our time goes out the window. The way to deal with these difficult rhythms is to figure them out at a slow tempo and then commit them to memory.

Be careful when reading rests

Oftentimes, we are so used to looking at notes that when we see rests, our brain turns off. This is true for extended periods of rest or lines like the one below, where rests are interspersed throughout a line:

To deal with a line like this, again find where the downbeats fall:

Next, isolate the places where there are rests that fall on a strong beat. These are tricky places because we are feeling a beat, but aren’t playing anything. In these places, I would vocalize or use a syllable for these rests so you are not guessing at the exact placement of the notes. By vocalizing, I mean mentally saying a syllable during the rest. For example, for the line above I would visualize the following:

On the first highlighted rest, I would use three syllables subdividing eighth notes to fill the space of the rest (“ba ba doo” or anything with 3 syllables). And for the two other downbeat rests, I would use a single syllable (“uh”).

Try to sing the rhythm of the example above. Sing the notes and in the place of those three highlighted rests, insert a syllable that subdivides the rest. This technique will help you to place every note exactly where it lies in the measure.

IV. Looking ahead

“It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.”~Winston Churchill

One of the main factors that contribute to our mistakes in sight-reading is the simple fact that we’re not ready for the notes we see on the page – they simply catch us off guard. Our eyes come upon a measure that we must immediately play and our brain can’t process the information fast enough. Next, we have to stop and think for a half-second about an accidental, a fingering, or a rhythm, and by then, it’s way too late.

To prevent this type of situation, you must get into the habit of continually looking ahead at the notes and rhythms coming up. Don’t get caught staring at the music that you just played, be prepared for the notes coming up. To do this, keep your eyes a beat or two ahead of the notes that you’re playing.

This skill, like all of the above elements, requires and uses a combination of all the previous ones. You must be totally focused on the task at hand and you need to see the music on the page in larger groups of notes, not individual beats. As you play one measure, your eyes are always scanning ahead so nothing will catch you off guard.

V. Continue through your mistakes

It’s inevitable that you’ll make a mistake as you’re sight-reading. We all aim for %100 accuracy, but eventually we’re going to miss a note –  it’s just a fact of life. That being said, a small mistake is no reason for your sight-reading performance to completely fall apart.

Even though we don’t want to make any reading errors, some mistakes are definitely worse than others. I once had a teacher that said, “I’ll accept a wrong or missed note, but I won’t accept a wrong rhythm.” It was weird hearing him say that he would accept wrong notes in sight-reading, but after awhile, I started to see what he meant. When it comes to sight-reading, a missed note is unfortunate, but a wrong rhythm or faulty counting can completely throw you off track.

As you sight-read a piece of music, there is a definite hierarchy for your attention. First, keep the tempo of the piece firmly planted in your mind and body, this is the glue holding everything together. Next, look at every rhythm that you come across and visually see where the down beats are falling, the bigger chunks of time that you’re able to process the better. Finally, pay attention to every note, interval, and accidental.

However, the most important thing to remember, is that when you do make a mistake, don’t stop. A note may not come out, you may hesitate for a second on a rhythm, or you might miss an accidental. Whatever it is,  forget about it. It’s gone. History. Just keep the time going and pick-up where you left off.

This is tricky to do when you are reading something by yourself, as you would in an audition process, but it’s much easier when you are reading with other performers, as you would in a duet or ensemble. Try sight-reading with others to practice this concept continuing through mistakes. When you play a wrong note or rhythm, you will immediately see that the time continues and that you must quickly get back on track.

Let’s review

This may seem like a lot to think about every time you look at a piece of music, however, these are small easily applied tricks that have a huge effect on your reading, so give it a try and see what happens. Chances are that you’re already doing some of these things, and the key to improving may lie in making a small adjustment or incorporating just one of these elements into your playing.

Go through this mental check-list every time you see a piece of music:

  • Get into the mindset of total concentration and tune out distractions
  • Before you begin, memorize the key signature and scan the page for trouble spots
  • Look at the music in larger chunks of time (see the page like it’s in cut-time)
  • Recognize common rhythms and watch out for tricky rhythms
  • Visually identify scale fragments and arpeggios
  • Remember to keep counting through rests
  • Continually keep your eyes scanning ahead so you’re always ready for the next measure
  • Don’t be phased by your mistakes, keep the time going and get back on track

If you make this mindset a habit, you will be able to confidently sight-read any piece of music. Start by using these concepts in your rehearsals, performances, and even in the practice room. Put your skills to the test and read a duet with a friend. Pick a random page, count off the tempo, and aim to get all of the notes and rhythms. If you make a mistake, keep going and get back where you can.

If you’re reading is proficient today, you’ve already got the basic skills and the potential to become a great sight-reader. Now you just need some fine tuning and practice. Take the concepts above and use them anytime you are in a situation where you’re reading music.

In a surprisingly short amount of time, you will find yourself sight-reading with ease and gradually, you’ll build up the confidence to sight-read anything you encounter.

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