Becoming a Better Sight Reader

I wasn’t always good at reading music. When I was a young piano student I frustrated my teacher because I tried to play things by ear instead of learning to read the manuscript. I could get away with this for a while because my mother is a piano teacher and taught out of our house, so I got to hear her students playing a lot of the standard repertoire that I was assigned. Eventually, however, the music got to be too challenging for me to do this and I struggled.

By the time I got to high school I started to take reading music more seriously and got better at it. The thing is, I never really made a huge effort to “practice sight reading,” I simply practiced music and developed a pretty good ability to sight read. In retrospect, it wasn’t just the practice reading music that helped me. I recently came across some advice by Eric O’Donnell on sight reading that is worth reading.

Sight-reading, like many other techniques that we develop as musicians, is a skill – a skill that can be learned and continually improved upon. Rather than putting yourself in a room and trying to blindly improve your sight-reading chops by doing it over and over again, look at the specific elements involved in this skill and work on developing them.

O’Donnell lists five different areas to work on when practicing for sight reading: Concentration, Read bigger chunks of music, Recognizing rhythms and patterns, Looking ahead, and Continue through your mistakes. Read through his entire article to get his discussion on each of those ideas, it’s very good.

I have a couple of things to add to his advice. First, listen to the music you’re practicing – at least the style. Each style of music has it’s own idiomatic rhythms and pitch patterns. Part of what makes sight reading easier is recognizing how the visual patterns you’re looking at should translate into sound. After you’ve heard enough music in that style and seen those patterns enough you’ll make the mental connections that your eyes and brain can gloss over them and look ahead more easily.

And lastly, learn music from the page. In other words, don’t practice sight reading, practice reading the same thing over and over. While I encourage my students to memorize things like scales, chord arpeggios, and tunes, it’s still valuable to practice reading them on the paper. Sure, you may not need to read that scale because you have it memorized, but seeing it on the paper will help you recognize that pattern when you see it in another context. Furthermore, you want to go back and correct your mistakes so that you’re not reinforcing playing something wrong.

Sight reading is a skill, like any other, and it take time and effort to get better at it. Following O’Donnell’s advice will help you speed up your progress by approaching it more efficiently.

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