You CAN Improve Your Sightreading

Posted on

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.musical foundation

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 positions.

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

Tags: ,

  • Iris Linkletter

    is it just from “Anne” not Anne Sullivan? I have one waiting to be opened title Bonus Blog from “ANNE” just thought I would ask it looks like Japanese written after it so I was not going to open it but if it is from you as Anne then I will open it. Thanks. Iris Linkletter.


    • Sonya

      I received the same email, a bunch of gobbledy gook!


      • Anne Sullivan

        I don’t know where that strange email came from. I did send an email to all the subscribers with the file attached, the one I mentioned in the blog post.Most people seem to have received it just fine. If you didn’t get that, let me know and I will send it to you separately. Just send me an email.
        Fortunately, most of the emails seemed to go out normally.
        Sorry about that!


  • Tara

    Hi Anne,
    I downloaded the PDF on sight reading. thank you very much, my ink must be low because the part in the yellow with the written words in white didn’t show up so I wrote them in by hand. The information is not only helpful but very timely because I have to learn a lot of new music recently for my harp therapy program. I struggle with reading the base cleft so I tend to try to learn that last. I don’t think its been helpful to do it my way so I am looking forward to trying a new way to learn my music.


  • Joe Wessels

    Thank you for providing this ~ it is another tool for me to use my quest to become fluent in sight-reading.


  • winniferd

    Thank you very much. It is beyond words the need for this insight. From on who struggles -Thank you.


  • Linda

    Thank you! I always appreciate your insight, help, positive support. Generally I don’t make a comment, but you are quietly helping me improve. Many thanks 🙂


  • Vickie

    Hi Anne,

    Thank you for sharing this tip on sight reading. Just like the tips you have shared before, this tip is really very helpful.



  • Regina Clarke

    I have read several articles on sightreading you have here, Anne. All of it helps me identify a more consistent process for playing. But it does not speed things up. I wonder if I am missing something. If I look at a piece of sheet music–at the notes–I cannot play them on the harp unless I also then look at the harp strings for placing, so it’s a stop and start process throughout the piece. The only solution so far is to memorize it all. If I was practicing the flute I reckon that would not be too hard to look only at sheet music. Same for the piano, because there I have some peripheral vision and see where both hands go a bit, even while watching the sheet music, since that is a familiar horizontal perception. But on the harp, it is all vertical, and unless I set the harp at a 45-degree angle (which is not possible to play unless I morph my arm like in a movie!) I am not likely to see the strings very well. Again, my fingers do not automatically know where to place, so I can’t only look at sheet music and just hope my fingers find the notes on the right strings on their own. Unless I memorize first, the piece is not flowing. I have to wonder what, conceptually, again, am I missing? Many thanks for any insight.


Leave a Reply

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