3 Skills Essential to Sight Reading

Posted on

sight readingDo you want to improve your sight reading? Are your efforts not yielding visible results? Maybe you’re going about it the wrong way.

Sight reading is an essential part of musicianship. When a musician can sight read fluently, he can learn music faster, saving practice time and developing more confidence at the same time. And while most musicians know they should be practicing sight reading, it can be difficult to know how to go about it.

One tried-and-true method is the obvious one: sight read a piece every day. Choose the pieces carefully so that they are within your ability and maintain your tempo strictly. This method only works, however, if you have been developing three underlying skills.

You see, sight reading isn’t so much a skill in itself as it is a demonstration of your skill level in three key areas. The stronger your skill in these areas, the better your sight reading will be.  Conversely, if  one or more of these skills is weak, it will make fluent sight reading nearly impossible.

The good news? Each one of these skills is easy to practice. In fact, you probably are practicing them already, but you may need to be a little more intentional if you are serious about improving your sight reading.

Sight Reading Skill 1: Technique

This is very simple; you can’t sight read a passage fluently if you can’t play it. Your technique needs to be up to the demands you want to make of it. Of course your technique will improve gradually over time with regular practice, but you need to do the right kind of technical practice.

Be sure you practice your fundamentals like scales and arpeggios, as well as characteristic patterns. Etudes are also useful for gaining experience with more musical application of these patterns. Naturally, your technical work will need to include hands together practice; etudes will be invaluable for this as well.

In addition, practice at varying speeds; you’re training your fingers to respond confidently, accurately and more or less automatically. The more varied and demanding your technical practice, the smoother your  fingers will perform when you sight read.

Sight Reading Skill 2: Inner Metronome

It’s all in the timing.

Traditional sight reading tests that are part of music examinations require that the test piece be performed with a steady pulse at a constant speed. Do you practice counting while you play, either silently or aloud? Do you use a metronome to help develop your sense of timing? Do you practice different rhythms? These are all excellent ways to strengthen your inner metronome.

When you sight read, you want to play fluently and maintaining a steady tempo is key. A muffed note here or there is of less consequence than hesitations and stutters. Practicing with a metronome regularly will help you develop the coordination you need to keep the music moving.

Sight Reading Skill 3: Note Reading

This is the “reading” part of sight reading. Note reading isn’t just about knowing your lines and spaces. It’s about your speed and accuracy in translating the written note on the page into music.  That dot on the page has a name, a place on your instrument and a pitch. When those associations are strong, the music takes shape in your mind before you play it. The most skilled sight readers aren’t just reading the music; they are hearing it.

You can begig developing your note reading skills by saying the note names of a passage or two in your practice each day. You will notice immediately how much more aware you become of the notes you are playing and how much faster it is to correct a mistake when you name the correct notes as you play.

Even better, you can sing the notes. This is the best way to develop your understanding of intervals and chords, to improve your improvising skills and to speed your memorization.

Oh yes – it will help your sight reading too.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

  • Regina

    Sight reading means following the sheet music without looking at the instrument. So to do it well you have to know where to put your fingers without looking at the harp. That is not easy. I can read the notes fine on their own, but I cannot play without looking at the strings, so in the end I have to memorize the notes before I can play a piece smoothly. I so admire those who can sight read on the spot on any instrument, but especially the harp. It’s not like a wind instrument with a few positions to use.


  • Nanci

    actually Regina, one reason harp is a more difficult instrument is it requires looking at the sheet music AND the harp. My teacher tells me sight reading for harpists is harder for that a reason. But what you might not be doing is placing your fingers and looking ahead so you’re ready. I like you mostly memorized than sight read….and my teacher called me on it. So she’s really working with me on this skill. However…the biggest help for me was when she said “you’ve placed your fingers now trust them and look ahead. Don’t just stay staring at the same place where your fingers are already”. Anyway…it is a skill that one must work at all the time like Ann said.


  • Rob

    Hi Anne: You have given me so many good suggestions as to practicing, including these, thank you! Familiarity, that’s the word I like to use for my gradual improvement on the harp. The more technical aspects of the harp I get exposed to, work on and a variety of pieces, the more comfortable I get, but some things are difficult and you can’t expect otherwise, since many of the pieces are written and performed by mature harpists, or experienced composers! That’s why your suggestions come in handy, as they are practical and aren’t shortcuts per se, but “break down” the process of learning, offering “real” solutions!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *