Music Sight Reading Practice & Tips

Bullet proof your music sight reading skills!

If you are a piano player struggling with sight reading and in need of some help to be able to quicker read music as you play, this lesson is for you.

The good news is that you can improve your sight reading with simple exercises.

Done every day they can take you from “stumbling” through a score to fluently sight reading music as you play.  

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Bullet Proof Your Music Sight Reading Skills

Part 1: "Tell Me The Story" 

Music Sight Reading. Sheet music on grand piano.Practice Sight Reading Every Day!

Music sight reading is also called prim a’ vista (at first sight). You can improve your sight reading skills with simple exercises like in this book.

A caveat though: sight reading practice is not useful for absolute beginners - yet.  Practicing prim a’ vista or sight reading requires that you already know at least the basics of how to read notes.

And a complete beginner will not need music sight reading practice just yet, since s/he will be busy learning about the notes and how to find them on the instrument.

After you know the basics of how to read notes and how to play your instrument, and would like to be able to play a piece straight from the score; then the time has come to take your music reading skills a step further.

This is where the extra music sight reading practice comes in handy!

In this first part you will prepare the score in your mind- away from the piano.

It's important to learn this preparatory work first- so don't skip anything!

After this lesson in part two, you'll learn specific music sight reading techniques at the piano.

Mental Preparation

An important key to sight reading lies in the mental preparation before playing or singing.

By using a set of steps to prepare the piece in your head, you will be able to read the notes as you play or sing with much more ease.

The steps you take can vary, but I will give you some ideas on what to do here.

Once you have learned the preparation technique below, you can practice to do this very quickly in your head, until you can do it automatically each time before you play.

Your goal is to prep each music sight reading piece in less than 2 min. Preferably 30 seconds!

Sight Reading vs Studying a Score

Please note that sight reading a piece (prim a’ vista) does not mean that you have learned it!

Skimming through a piece like this is great to get an overview, or to play whatever piece you like from a score, but not to really learn it.

When you want to really study a piece, you need to use other practice techniques that work with the piece in depth.

The technique of sight reading, however useful, is still a very shallow way of learning a piece.

"TELL ME THE STORY"- 10 Steps Of Mental Preparation

Sight Reading Music
  • Start your music sight reading practice with the simplest, easiest and  shortest musical examples you can find. A couple of measures will do.
  • The following 10 steps are to be done in your head, away from the piano. You can hum, conduct, wave you arms or whatever you like but not play anything yet.

So go and get a nice cup of something and plop down in a comfortable chair, and let's get started!

I ask my students to tell me (“the story”) about everything they see in the score starting at the beginning of the staff:

1. Range:

Check the notes in the score . In what range are you playing this piece? Is it high or low?

Pianists also need to scan the score for what hand to use, if the hands are played together or separately.

2. Key signature:

Observe the key signature, (the sharps or flats at the beginning of the staff).

  • Look at the last note to find out if the piece is in major or minor.
  • You need to see what notes are being altered in this tonality with sharps and flats. Scan the score quickly to see where notes that are being raised or lowered with the key signature are hiding.
  • Also check for any other accidentals (sharps, flats or naturals) that will be written where they are used.

3. Time signature:

Observe the time signature and what meter it indicates.

Try to feel the meter; for example if it is in 3, count 1-2-3 a few times with the emphasis on 1.

4. Rhythm patterns:

Are there any complicated rhythm patterns? If you know rhythm syllables, it is easy to quickly say the rhythms that seem tricky, otherwise count the rhythm patterns.

You don't need to do it in all the piece, just focus on where the rhythm seems more complex than the rest.

5. Melodic Outline:

See how the melody moves. Do the notes move with steps, skips and/ or repeats? If it moves with skips, how big? What intervals do you see?

6. Phrases:

How many phrases can you see? Imagine singing/playing each phrase, and the "breathing" you need to do between each.

  • Singers and anyone playing a wind instrument would also get an idea on how fast they'd need to play. Since they have to breathe, a phrase couldn't go on forever! 
  • String players would have to plan the up or down bow in general.
  • For pianists; you need to plan where to lift your hand from the keys ("breathe") and where not to. 

7. Articulation:

Should the piece be played staccato or legato? Are there any places where you need to use any other articulation like portato, or detached notes? 

Again, in your head get a “feel” for how that feels to play or sing.

8. Dynamics:

Is the piece loud or soft? Are there any crescendos or diminuendos?

Think and feel how this would sound in your mind. Plan the dynamic "outline" of the piece.

9. Tempo:

Even if the speed of a piece you play prim a’ vista should always be very much slower than the proper tempo, the tempo marking also gives you an idea about the overall character of a piece.

For example a piece marked Allegretto (a bit fast) gives you a completely different picture than Grave (very slow and serious).

10. Character:

If the piece has a title it might give you an idea in what way or style to play the piece, there might also be an explanation somewhere in the beginning of the score, like Giocoso (jokeful) for example.

If you now have a clear picture in your head about the piece (or part of) you're ready to continue with the preparation at the piano.

Continue to: Music Sight Reading Techniques, Part 2 >>>

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