Improving My Sight-Reading

February 17, 2010 at 07:14 AM ·

 I really need to improve my sight-reading.  Unfortunately, I don't have unlimited time.  I would like (if possible) exercises that I could do for 15 minutes a day that would help me get better.  Thanks!

Replies (22)

February 17, 2010 at 04:34 PM ·


ah... a subject near & dear to my heart... or in another light, the bugaboo of my existence.
As an advanced amateur with a thing for chamber music I worked to improve my technique, but at one point it became obvious that technique doesn’t amount to all that much if you don’t have the music-reading skills to keep up.
The way to get better is to just keep doing it, but at the same time I have found that it’s also useful to break music-reading into components, identify which are the ones that tend to trip me up the most, and read through material that emphasizes those components- things like ledger lines, identifying intervals (especially across strings) ,  subdividing/ dotted rhythms (the 1st violin part for the slow movements of many Haydn/Mozart/ Beethoven string 4tets are great for this).
the thing that has bubbled to the top as being the most important aspect is reading ahead. It’s not just sight-reading, it’s music reading in general. I can be playing something that I have played before but if it’s not something I’ve been working on I can just as easily get tripped up on a difficult passage if I’m not prepared for it and the only way to be prepared is to see it before you play it.

February 17, 2010 at 05:58 PM ·

practice is everything. you need to buy a few sight-reading books, or even an old tutor book would do.

February 17, 2010 at 06:05 PM ·

IMSLP is more than all you need for sight-reading material

February 17, 2010 at 06:43 PM ·

 Read Clayton Haslop's blog here on

February 17, 2010 at 07:11 PM ·

I teach my students to try and see larger groups of things, whether rhythmic or melodic or harmonic. Be willing to take a little risk and play what you think you see at a glance instead of being aware of every little mark and note.

It is like reading words in English. You read the word and often the entire phrase without even being aware of each letter.

Of course, practice, to establish a different sort of reflex so that when you see a note your finger just drops automatically without conscious thought or effort.

Mostly, rejoice that you are musically literate!

February 17, 2010 at 07:34 PM ·


How about for those of us who are very new to the violin and/or to note reading? Perhaps, good beginning strategies and/or habits to start developing?

Thanks, Phil

February 17, 2010 at 09:28 PM ·

 Tricky area this.  I am a beginner violinist but I do have more than 3 decades of playing the piano at a pretty decent standard, where sight reading at advanced level can be even more demanding (two staffs and a hell of a lot of notes).   

To get good at it there are some essentials.  Others may disagree but here are my thoughts:

1 Sight reading is only sight reading if you have not practiced the piece - so don't kid yourself.  When you pick up the violin then you must play the piece.  If you have played it a few times, then it is not sight reading!

2 If you can (i.e. if you have time), read the piece through before you touch the instrument.  Play it in your head.  Identify tricky aspects and work them through in your head.  I read scores in front of the TV when I am feeling in need of a head start on a difficult piece.  It helps an amazing amount.  

3 When you play - don't stop.  Play the piece or section all the way through and just keep going.  When you make a mistake still keep going.  You MUST learn to recover from slip-ups.  Pro musicians do not have the option of starting over.  

4 Start with easy pieces - well below your level.  It builds confidence.  Play two or three easy pieces one after the other.  

5 In my case I hardly ever read notes: I look for patterns. These patterns may be scales or arpeggios or (in the case of piano especially, common chord shapes) or simply common bowing sequences.  Patterns are much quicker and easier to recognise than notes: and they really help you to read ahead.  This skill is the most important of all.  

6 Try not to think too much - let your subconscious do the work. I know this sounds weird, but over-thinking slows us down.  

7 Do two or three sight reading pieces (or at least one) every day.  They need not be long - but you must do something.  10 minutes is probably ample.  

8 Don't worry about mistakes.  Mistakes are fine as long as you know you have made them.  They will get less and less.  Never practice your mistakes!

9 Practice improvising.  This helps you to cover up mistakes or if you lose your place in the score.  I almost never look at the violin (or piano) when I am sight reading - my eyes are 100% focussed on the score and my ears are 100% focussed on the sound.  

10  Even when you are not sight reading, get into the habit of picking up music from any bar.  Not the beginning of a piece or a line...pick it up anywhere.   This helps subliminally with sight reading.  Do it routinely with every piece you are working on.  

11  LISTEN to what you are doing.  Even if you are not 100% accurate, concentrate on being musical.

12  You MUST be familiar with your scales and arpeggios in all the common keys.  By familiar, I mean you must be able to play them on autopilot, backwards, forwards and inside out.  This will save you when you screw up as you are no more than a semi-tone away from a note that works!  (Even if it is the wrong note).  Your fingers know where to go even if you don't!

13  I know that several of these points help you to hide mistakes.  But if you do a little bit of sight reading every single day, you soon won't make mistakes.  

14  Play with other people (in an orchestra or whatever) at whatever level you can manage.  Even if you cannot play every passage, get into the habit of reading everything and come in where you can, even if it is only the easy bits on third violin.    

Excellent sight reading (and the ability to memorise) is a fabulous skill.  It takes most of us a good deal of work (me more than most!), but it is worth it ;-)

Good luck.  

















February 17, 2010 at 10:06 PM ·

James, that is a great list.

February 17, 2010 at 10:13 PM ·


Excellent suggestions!  When I was getting my BMus (I now play professionally and also teach violin and piano, so see this with my own students, too), I did a survey of the students at the conservatory where I was studying, and found to my surprise that almost without exception, these excellent musicians who were now working toward professional careers in music, had wanted to quit somewhere between the ages of 11 and 14.  One factor teachers need to take into more account that keeps many going at this age, is a good ability to sight read before they reached the "drop-out" age, as this makes music accessible and learning quick and fun.

And on how to achieve this, again, you have listed some great suggestions!


February 18, 2010 at 12:48 AM ·

 James, would you say that you read ahead a lot? The pianist in my trio is a piano teacher & an excellent sight-reader... but I think that the reason our slow movements seem to end up more like Scherzos is because his hands sometimes catch up to his eyes!

that's a great post you wrote, thanks.

February 18, 2010 at 03:24 AM ·

Hey Sydney,

What i do is I get a lot of unfamilliar pieces ang just play them by sight-reading. I don't stop even if i make a mistake. After playing it once, i move to the next piece. It really helps.

Another thing you can do is practice slowly, but be conscious of how fast your eyes move. It should move faster than your playing.  At least one or two notes ahead, i guess.

Hope this helps! :)


February 18, 2010 at 09:13 PM ·

Lynae and Christina....thanks!

Yes - I do read ahead quite a bit.  On piano I will have scanned several bars ahead to get a rough idea of what is happening, and I will have the note patterns and dynamics clear at least two or three bars ahead.   This is a real pain when I have a slow page turner! 

Oddly enough this causes a problem on violin: I will have taken in the notes and phrasing for a few bars, so I will know exactly what is coming up.  But, and its a big but at this stage, I will NOT have got the bowing sorted out.  For beginners (I suppose I am operating at between ABRSM grade 3 and 5 currently) the subtlety and skill of bowing is much harder to read ahead.  This is in many ways the most interesting technical challenge on violin at my stage.  

Anyway, to get back to the point, I happen to think that to be a good sight reader it is essential to be able to read a bar or three ahead AND to be able to pick up scores at any point.  

For this reason I think it is very valuable to simply listen to music (say on youtube or a CD) and follow the score.  It really helps if you know what the score sounds like in your head.  With practice you can rapidly scan a shortish score whilst listening to a piece part way through, and pick up where the players have reached.

I will say again - for me, this is not about reading notes: it is much more to do with recognising patterns.  

I am hoping that on violin, many of those patters will find there way into my fingers without me thinking about it ;-)  This certainly works on piano: I can see a chord and my fingers just drop on the notes without me having to think about it and certainly without me working out what the notes actually are.  

On violin, I am still tending to think "which position is optimum here?".  Quite often I run out of fingers....


February 19, 2010 at 01:09 AM ·

I think the first thing you need to be able to do is develop the ability to sight-read any rhythm before working on pitches. The best thing to do for that is pick up anything that has unusual patterns and time signatures. If you're able to feel the pulse and keep up with the difficult rhythms you're half way there. The next thing would do is practice stuff that's not written for violin. Play the right hand part of a piano some flute excerpts...and my favorite, take a cello part and turn is upside down and try to read it (in treble clef).

People talk about repetition being the answer, but that can get boring, so try to do something different every once in a while and you'll be awesome at it. Good luck.

February 19, 2010 at 08:04 PM ·

Just to add to Marty's post, try doing some of Hindemiths Elementary Training for Musicians. These exercises will really help the rhythmic side of your playing - and not just for sight reading. The book is (or at least was) published by Schott. They're a bit scary when you start, but stick with em!

February 19, 2010 at 08:06 PM ·

Just to add to Marty's post, try doing some of Hindemiths Elementary Training for Musicians. These exercises will really help the rhythmic side of your playing - and not just for sight reading. The book is (or at least was) published by Schott. They're a bit scary when you start, but stick with em!

February 19, 2010 at 08:06 PM ·

Just to add to Marty's post, try doing some of Hindemiths Elementary Training for Musicians. These exercises will really help the rhythmic side of your playing - and not just for sight reading. The book is (or at least was) published by Schott. They're a bit scary when you start, but stick with em!

February 19, 2010 at 10:24 PM ·

Just to add to Marty's post, try doing some of Hindemiths Elementary Training for Musicians. These exercises will really help the rhythmic side of your playing - and not just for sight reading. The book is (or at least was) published by Schott. They're a bit scary when you start, but stick with em!

February 19, 2010 at 10:24 PM ·

oops - sorry!

February 20, 2010 at 02:22 PM ·

 The hardest part of sight reading is the rhythmic aspect. I found that transcribing or writing tunes, forces you to analyze rhythms to figure out how to write them down. You'll eventually get to where you'll recognize rhythmic figures & phrases rather than each note. Just as you're reading this sentence: you're seeing groups of letters & words; not individual letters. Also, get in the habit of looking over the music before you start playing it, for any key changes, repeats, tricky places or repeated figures & phrases. Always have a pencil handy. And a good eraser. You might not like the way somebody else marked up the part. You can do it.

February 20, 2010 at 06:12 PM ·

 Ever noticed how easy it is to play things that you would have played a few years ago? My view is that if you get good enough to tackle very hard pieces it will become easy to tackle things below that level on the spot. 

You can always go below your level quite easily, so the trick is to get good enough so most everything is below your level, and when it's not; practice, practice, practice.

February 20, 2010 at 11:22 PM ·

For nearly all the students I work with, as others have mentioned, the ability to interpret rhythms quickly is paramount. At least where I am, there tends to be plenty of focus on note-reading, but a deficiency in rhythmic training.

I use a series of exercises from Robert Starer's "Rhythmic Training" in order to develop those skills.

February 21, 2010 at 12:50 AM ·

This is all great general advice.  The trick to being a great sight reader is to have played so much music that you feel like you've "seen it all."  There are only so many itervals and rhythms that can fit into a phrase and what happens, as mentioned above, is that you start biting off bigger and bigger chunks  at one time, seeing the structure of a phrase in one moment.

Practically, I would spend that 15 minutes a day reading new songs one after the other.  I say songs rather than pieces on purpose.  I suggest getting a collection of fiddle tunes, the kind of book with 2-5 songs on each page (Fiddler's Fake Book or maybe O'Neills book of Irish tunes) and spending your 15 minutes playing through the book 1 song at a time.  You don't have to play these tunes as a fiddle player necessarily would, instead worry about keeping strict time and intonation.  Other options are books of elementary etudes you've never played,  maybe a Real Book of Jazz Standards (though that'll really test your ability to read rythms and play in odd keys), any collection of short tunes should work.

The only drawback with this is that it helps you read melodies much more quickly, but doesn't do much to help with sight reading 2nd violin or viola parts.  I find these parts the most difficult to read and, honestly, can't think of any exercise that would make them any easier.


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