You CAN Improve Your Sightreading

musicianship practicing Jan 26, 2015

For some musicians, sightreading remains the last great mystery. They can practice; they can perform. But the idea of sightreading still makes them break out in a cold sweat.

There are limited occasions in life when you actually must sightread. It is often required at auditions for colleges, sometimes at competitions and music exams, always for orchestra position.

But even if you aren’t auditioning anywhere, when you are a confident (or at least relatively confident) sightreader, all kinds of opportunities present themselves. Your preparation time for rehearsals and concerts is considerably shorter, allowing you to accept more engagements or at least not be so stressed about those that you have. You have less fear and so you are more willing to experiment with different musical experiences. Making music becomes easier and more fun.

But sightreading is not a skill on its own. Your sightreading facility is supported by the foundation you have built for it in terms of technical skills and musical experience. Those are the essential bricks in your musical foundation.


Or as I mentioned in a previous post, you can think of sightreading as a snapshot of your musical development.Included in the picture are your levels of technical and musical skill. After all, you can only sightread as well as your fingers can play, so if a piece is technically too advanced for you, sightreading it will be impossible. In addition, if you practice the basic technical patterns regularly – for us harpists, these would include scales, arpeggios and chords – your fingers as well as your eyes will recognize these patterns in music you sightread and respond fairly automatically. The musical skills necessary for sightreading include note and rhythm reading, and a basic understanding of keys and chord structure.

Sightreading is also a practical resume of your musical experience. The longer you have been playing, the more music you have played, the wider a range of musical styles you have played, the better your sightreading will be. All of those things add up to “experience points” that benefit you each time you sightread or begin to learn a new piece. Your eyes, ears, mind and fingers have accumulated a wealth of knowledge that is a both a resource and a foundation for learning or reading something new.

So how can you improve your sightreading? Here are some practical ideas:

1. Don’t forget your technical exercises! Working through scales and arpeggios daily, practicing exercises and etudes will give you a solid technical foundation.

2. Review rhythms and meters. Pick a piece at random from any music book or collection. Look at the meter (time signature), and count and tap the meter. Then count and tap the rhythm of the first eight bars or so.

3. Practice your note reading. Choose one line from a piece you are working on. Say the names of the notes in rhythm. Then try playing at the same time you say the note names.

4. Learn your key signatures! In your daily practice name the key of each piece you play. Play the scale for that key and the tonic and dominant chords (I and V) in the key, if you are able.

5. Keep a book or two of short and fairly easy (for you) pieces on hand to read through. Play through a new piece each week. Or pick a piece and play through it one time each day for a week.

6. Have a “Sightreading Day” with a friend or two. Sightread some pieces together, using teamwork to keep going straight through from the beginning to the end.

You CAN do it!

Ps. I have prepared a one page, step-by-step practice guide for developing your sightreading skill. If you are already a blog subscriber as of this writing, you will receive it automatically by email. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can sign up here to receive your copy. Step By Step Sightreading Guide


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