Sightreading – the MASTER System

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FreefallSightreading, a word that can cause the palms of even experienced musicians to sweat. Perhaps that’s because it is the one performance situation that we really can’t practice. It feels more like a free fall; take a deep breath, step off the edge and count the broken bones at the bottom.

But if we could practice sightreading, we could take away the fear factor. We could find more freedom and pleasure in any musical situation. If only we could figure out HOW to practice it.

I believe the key lies in understanding this: sightreading is a snapshot of your musical development. All your musical skills – technical, aural and expressive – come into play when you sightread. If your skills are above the difficulty level of the piece,you will sightread well. Think of a piece you played when you first started taking lessons, perhaps one you played at your first student recital. It took hard work and many months to prepare it. And now, years later, you can pull it out and read it flawlessly at sight. That’s because you have grown as a musician, and your skill set is now much greater than the demands of the piece.

This suggests two possible ways to become a better sightreader. You could sightread only very easy things. Or you could keep developing your musical skills so you could sightread better. You can choose the first option if you want, but for those who want to grow, I offer this system to MASTER sighteading.

M is for Musical Maturity. This is the one step that is not entirely under your control. Maturing musically takes time. But you can help the process by playing as much and as often as you can. You become more experienced by experiencing more.

A is for Attention. Practice paying attention to details in each piece you play. Details like key, meter, tempo, dynamics and phrasing turn notes into music. They need to be on your radar at all times.

S is for a Steady approach. Use a metronome regularly to help develop your inner metronome. Count while you play. Decide on your tempo before you begin playing and maintain it.

T is for Technique. Practicing scales and arpeggios and etudes not only keeps your fingers nimble, but it will engrain these essential patterns into your muscle memory.

E is for Ear training. Your inner hearing is probably the most important skill for fluent sightreading. If you can “hear” in your mind what the music will sound like, you will be able to play it correctly and musically. Think about reading aloud in a language that you can pronounce but don’t understand. You can say the words, but they make no sense to you and so you convey no meaning to the listener. But when you understand the words, the listener hears the story. In a similar way, ear training allows you to sightread with understanding.

R is for Rhythm. In your daily practice, be sure you understand common rhythmic patterns, like dotted notes, for instance, and that you can play them with precision. There are many books that can give you extra practice. My favorite is Basic Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer (see the link below).

These are steps you can take every day to help develop the skills you need to sightread more confidently. Then you just have to put your skills to the test!

Some additional resources:
Robert Starer, Basic Rhythmic Training
ABRSM Specimen Sightreading Tests for Harp
Anne Sullivan, Aural Skills Builder Books

Note: I offer a two-hour sightreading workshop called, “Master the Art of Sightreading,” in which I present a detailed plan for studying the techniques above, and teach a step-by-step method for learning to sightread well. If you are interested in having me present this workshop to your group, I would be happy to talk with you. Just send me an email

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