Sight Reading: Can you or not?

July 3, 2011 at 04:03 AM ·

 I am interested in finding out why sight reading comes so easily to some people and other people find it to be a daunting task.  I am referring to people who read music very well but who cannot sight read very well.   Some students try, get it wrong, and try again no problem.  Other students never want to try at all because they know that they simply cannot sight read correctly.  Still others play it wrong the first time and wrong the 2nd time as well. One student said it was because people do not want to fail so they never try. Consequently the skill of sight reading is never practiced and therefore they are "bad" sight readers. I am curious to see what your experiences have been either with sight reading yourself or teaching students to sight read. Some people get it and some don't.  There has to be a reason! 

Toni Benecchi


Replies (30)

July 3, 2011 at 04:44 AM ·

 I was very thoroughly taught to sight read by my first teacher who made it part of every lesson every week for years.  As a result, I can read ahead so that it's unusual if I don't make it through reasonably well--I'm talking orchestra-type parts, not solo literature.

She would have me read from etudes a level or two beneath what I was studying, thus, reading from Wolfhart when I was studying Kreutzer, etc.  She would sometimes play under me on piano so the chords helped me maintain intonation during those early years.  Other times, it was just me and my fiddle.  The rules were, don't stop and try to not make the same errors twice.  By the time I was in high school I was expected to get rhythm, notes, and dynamics.  I hated it, but it's been so very helpful over the last  ** years or so.

July 3, 2011 at 04:57 AM ·

 You've either got it, or you don't.

Me, I've got it.  Do you?

July 3, 2011 at 07:13 AM ·

 Hi Toni! 

I totally got your drift about sight-reading. For me, it's always been a drag. In high school, it was breeze simply because the music we read was in matter words, REALLY easy. But as I got into more advanced orchestras and started taking private lessons and did some chamber music it became harder and harder. Who in their right mind can play a 3-octave chromatic run perfect the first time? I know! Absolutely ridiculous! I personally don't think sight-reading comes smoothly to anyone. The key is confidence. Most of the time, it's not that we don't how to play what we see, but rather that we are hesitant as to whether it'll sound good or not. Always remember that when sight-reading it won't be perfect the first time. If that were possible, then there would be no need for any rehearsal, and even the best orchestra in the world has to rehearse.

There isn't anyway to bypass sight-read music altogether, because lets face it, reading the music is the first step to playing it, and sight-reading is essentially the first chance you have reading it, whether it sounds good or bad. The secret is always confidence [and lots of sight-reading exercises such as scales]. I know, easier said then done, but believe something as small as confidence can go a long way! 


July 3, 2011 at 10:32 AM ·

<<<You've either got it, or you don't.>>>


Well. One can always develop the skill, this requires practise like everything else. 

Violinistic technique needs to be of high standard to execute the demands of the music. These techniques are better studied seperately thus they will be recognized in the music to be sight read. Many techniques are found in the etudes and in the study of scales, they should be isolated and practised with repetiton. And of course, rhythmic counting is important. 

July 3, 2011 at 12:47 PM ·

Perhaps part of the problem is the method of teaching.  Some kids are given a piece and study just that until finished and then get another one.  This is anathama to sight readingn - students need to have variety in addition to depth - to develop musical sight reading and also technical skills.  Only indeed, in my opinion you only really find out how good your skills are when faced with a fresh piece of music...

July 3, 2011 at 02:33 PM ·

 I always find this a fascinating topic.  There are so many things going on when I sightread, so it's difficult to dissect.  I know that all those etudes definitely help; my fingers don't see notes anymore ~ they see patterns, which may be arpeggios, harmonies, or chromatics, etc.  

I also sense that my eyes are always at least a measure ahead of what my fingers are doing ~ or maybe my fingers are a measure behind what my brain is processing...  And, I know that I try to imagine what I should hear before the bow moves on (or finger plucks) the string.  In sightreading, you can't always fix the situation where what you should hear, doesn't match what you do hear.  You simply have to go on, and remember that on the second reading ~ if there is one.

As for counting, I used to tap my foot as a child, until a teacher put her foot on my foot to hold it still.  Now I have this little metro-gnome in my head beating; oftentimes my breathing simply adjusts to the beat. When playing chamber music, if you have the first beat in your head, you have the opportunity to skip a whole bunch of notes to sync back up with everyone else, before the next measure passes you by, to make matters even worse.

Then, there's bowing...  Somehow that always seems to work out.

July 3, 2011 at 03:04 PM ·

 I personally am a strong sight reader. I feel like I am a great sight reader for different reasons
1. I listen to a ton of music and a lot of the time i've heard the piece i'm performing and it really helps
2. when I was younger I would print out different pieces i would like to learn, no matter their difficulty. I feel that all my fumbling through major pieces and then going back and playing an easier piece that I haven't seen, made it a ton easier.

Also, I 'act like I know what I'm doing" whether I do or don't know what i'm doing. Add plenty of vibrato to longer notes and dynamics are really key for auditions.

July 3, 2011 at 04:18 PM ·

i can barely read music, let alone sight read.  dyslexia rules - trying to coordinate shaking black blips and wavering lines with what my fingers aught to be doing is a tremendous chore.

instruction on youtube is varied - some useful, some not - and yes, i think having (or pretending to have) confidence helps. 

July 3, 2011 at 04:50 PM ·

I don't think that it's either/or. Like so many other aspects, sightreading may come more readily for some, but it can be developed and improved. There are a number of aspects involved:

1. rhythm. There are some good books, eg, by Starer that can help develop it.

2. Another is qucikly looking over the page or so at hand, finding the highest passages, and developing a quick stategy for getting to it and back down, w.o. worrying about the best fingerings. In an emergency you can take very high passages down an octave - but that's a reading skill too, if it's printed in actual ledger lines, etc.

3. listening to the movement of the harmony. (If it's atonal, lots of luck!)

4. a concentration aspect: try to get into  a groove of clicking into the music and staying with it. The harmony and the groove aspect are such that I am a far better sightreader in ensemble than a cappela.

5. Technique - this isn't divorced from sightreading. For example, if you come to a chromatic passage, it won't look novel to you if you have chromatic scales as a regular part of your practice. Similarly with certain types of string-crossings,. passages requiring speed, etc.

6. Experience and Pattern-Recognition. There really is no substituute for experience - particularly if you are not a natural-born sightreader. Years of playing all types of music in all types of situations all find a place in your musical equipment, including sightreading. If you get into a fairly busy freelance life-style where you have to put things together very quickly - on one rehearsal or less sometimes! - you learn to adapt. You also come to recognize many recurring patterns, and w.o. thinking conciously much, your fingers find the way to play them. Most professionals if say, called upon to do an hour of background music in a duo, trio or quartet, are expected to just arrive, and knock the music right off with no rehearsal and no hesitation. Some of the music you may have played before but not in years, or have not practiced it or even expected to do it that day. This sort of repertoire in such a gig is usually of the high-internediate to early advanced level. We're not talking Don Juan here! In such a situation, it often won't exceed the level of say Handel's Queen of Sheba entrance. But by that very token, a near-perfect reading is expected - and with some panache as well.

7. Practice Tip: find some unfamiliar music of very modest difficulty. This, of course is all relative to each individual, say something you could nail pretty well with 2 or 3 days of practice. Now take away that luxury and read it right through, under tempo for now, but don't stop or hesitate. See how much you pick up and how much you miss. Now keep some of the above aspects in mind and try it again,. It will eventually improve.

July 3, 2011 at 05:02 PM ·

I hate when like Paganini's 5th caprice they expect you to remember too many sharps and flats. It starts off A minor and thats easy but then you get alot of accidentals and they stay that way untill a natural sign. It would be nice if there is no such thing as a key signature or a natural sign. If a note is flat or sharp always put a b or # next to it. Then I could speed read.

Duuhhh - you could do that yourself with a pencil. I never thought of it.

July 3, 2011 at 09:09 PM ·

There is an orchestral playing technique vaguely related to sight-reading but perhaps only in the sense of being vaguely related to the inverse of sight-reading. You don't follow me? Never mind, I usually don't either. It is a technique that is known to the more experienced members of orchestras, but is not to be found in any textbook that I know of, and it is most certainly not in the teaching syllabus of any school of music. It may be acquired from that much more experienced colleague sitting next to you in the orchestra, or perhaps imparted verbally in a remote corner of the rehearsal room during the coffee break.

It is the gentle and hidden art of Faking It, and comes into its own when the concert is imminent and the conductor is near despair during the final rehearsal (I've come across more than one conductor who in desperation has said "Oh, fake it!").

Some important rules of Faking It are:
1. Make sure you play at least one note in a bar dead on a main beat (preferably the first) in that bar, even if you can't manage anything else. Surely that's not too difficult?
2. Don't get paranoid about the intonation of high notes in the loud bits; those good people in the brass, woodwind and percussion will happily look after that for you, and the audience will never notice.
3. Look busy, and the audience will never notice.





July 3, 2011 at 10:04 PM ·

I am sure there is a lot of faking going on in violin playing. Not only on orchestral level but also in the solo parts of concertos etc. I have tried to follow the very fast violin parts that Bram Heemskerk posts on his blog. If all the notes on those sheets are played then my ears are even worse than my reading. The notes are played so fast at such a tempo that no one will even notice a false or missing note as long as the general pattern emerge. The better players will play more correct notes, but from what I have heard I cannot believe that all the notes are played. 

July 3, 2011 at 11:33 PM ·

Actually, I'm currently studying to do voice-over work, and there are a number of aspects analagous to music such as volume, pitch, timing - and even sightreading!

And yes, a lot of faking does go on in orchestra! But as pointed out, there's faking and faking.

July 4, 2011 at 12:35 AM ·

 My first couple of years of playing the violin involved 'spoon-feeding' me the notes. My teacher was great in every single aspect apart from starting me with sight reading from day one. She sadly passed away and I ended up having a new teacher who started pushing me on the sight reading part of playing violin. I was also in a cathedral choir at the time where sight reading was a major major aspect of any learning. I got pushed on it and I'm a fairly good sight reader due to this, but I'm convinced it wasn't the tuition on the sight reading that I got from my violin teachers, but was the input from the choir I was in that really got me going. 

  Now, it's interesting when I think about the way I sight read. If you were to put a sheet of piano music in front of me at a piano, I would stumble a lot because of the mixed cleffs (not my strong point!). Nevertheless, I think of the notes as a, b, c, d, etc. Now, put a sheet of music in front of me for violin, and the way I process the notes is completely different. If I see the note 'b,' my brain does not think 'b'. It thinks 'first finger on the A string'. And this interests me because that's just how I read music whilst playing the violin. But, it puts me at a disadvantage because if someone said to me 'Play a b on the violin,' I would have to think about where the b goes, rather than doing it automatically like most people, and if they said 'play a b on the piano' it'd come automatically.

  Interesting discussion!

July 4, 2011 at 12:58 AM ·

Andre you crack me up.

July 4, 2011 at 03:52 AM ·

re Trevor's comments. In fact both my kids were taught about faking it by different conductors as the first step to sight reading in ensembles (this was at the Primary School level). One conductor preferred them to play confidently but really focus on getting the rhythms right  - asserting that a wrong note in the right place is generally less jarring than the right note out of time. And for another the violins were to make sure that the bow is going in the same direction as the leader whatever else is happening (as the younger one now leads her orchestra that makes it harder to fake!)

July 4, 2011 at 04:18 AM ·

 I used to be horrible at sight reading but I trained myself to do it by hoarding all the sheet music that I got in orchestra (my school used a lot of xeroxed parts and so do the orchestras in Aspen so I've got huge stacks of music by now). Every day I take out a part at random and attempt to play all the way through it. When I've made it to the end, I simply fold it back up and put it back in a stack. My sight-reading isn't amazing but it is decent and I believe it's getting better.

July 4, 2011 at 12:08 PM ·

I think this discussion is actually about "playing by sight". A basic requirement, in my view, for playing by sight is to be able hear the music immediately in one's head when seeing it on the page – i.e "sight reading". Until this skill is learnt it is going to be an uphill struggle for the player to coordinate the fingers instantly with seeing the music on the printed page, partly because he subconsciously is not sure that he's going to get the desired result. Musicians who are fluent sight players will already have acquired sight reading skills, probably without realizing it  – although, admittedly, this may not necessarily apply to some of the squeaky gate music that's around today!

July 4, 2011 at 12:41 PM ·

Some important rules of Faking It are...

Don't forget this one:

On a fast run or arpeggio -- no matter how muddy it gets in the middle, hit the LAST note on time and on pitch.

July 5, 2011 at 05:06 AM ·

I am a terrible sightreader. I started the habit  of putting the notes into a notation program that played the music for me, pretty early.

A really bad habit for sure, and propably pretty common these days. :(

Some of the older teachers don´t realize that many beginners do that that these days.





July 5, 2011 at 07:41 AM ·

don't know if this will be helpful or not but i see a tiny, little glimmer of light waaay down there at the end of the tunnel ...

July 5, 2011 at 11:45 AM ·

I know a teacher of Irish fiddle music who, in her group classes, has tab versions of the tunes for those learners who can't yet cope with staff notation. Tablature of course has an honorable lineage going right back to the baroque lute.

July 5, 2011 at 01:18 PM ·

To a large extent, a person's ability to sight read is innate.  Perhaps the most difficult part about sight reading is figuring out the rhythms.  And rhythms are nothing more than fractions -- e.g., 1/2 notes, 1/4 notes, 1/8 notes, dotted halves, etc.  People who are good at math tend to be better sight readers and vice versa.  But like anything, whether you were born with it or not, you can always improve through practice.

July 5, 2011 at 01:20 PM ·

Wierd, second time this happened to me.  I posted the above, and my name does not show.  Problem must be on my end because I haven't seen this on any other postings.

-- Smiley

July 5, 2011 at 03:27 PM ·

 Thank you everyone.  It is a great discussion!!!!


July 5, 2011 at 04:23 PM ·

It seems to me that there is a difference between the relatively "mechanical" task of instantly translating a visual notation into a finger movement on a violin string, and actually "hearing" in one's inner mind the visual notation. While there certainly may be an overlap between these two skills, I'm not sure that it is 100 percent. There is an analogy to typing and, say, taking dictation, which have some unique similarities to musical sight-reading.

The most incredible instance of sight-reading that I know of (unfortunately, only through reading) is Yehudi Menuhin's story about his study with Georges Enescu, which Menuhin related in his autobiography and I think in an interview. He was then 12-years-old, and although world-famous, was still taking lessons from Enescu. Menuhin and his mother were in Enescu's studio in Paris, when there was a knock at the door. It was Maurice Ravel and his publisher. Ravel explained that he had just finished composing his now famous violin and piano sonata, and that the publisher (the man with him) needed the completed manuscript immediately but wouldn't accept it without hearing it first. According to Menuhin, Ravel sat down at the piano, and Enescu either put the violin part up on his music stand or read over Ravel's shoulder (I'm not sure which). They read through the entire sonata, and Enescu was not only nearly (if not) note perfect, but musical as well. Everyone was amazed, and the publisher was quite pleased. But as Ravel and the publisher were about to leave, Enescu said he'd like to play it again. This time, when Ravel sat down at the piano, Enescu played in perfectly from memory. Now THAT'S sightreading.


July 7, 2011 at 03:09 AM ·

When it comes to sight-reading, the term "deer in the headlights expression" describes me perfectly!!  I studied piano for 13 years as a kid.  The teacher I studied with during most of that time would play through the pieces I was working on before I did my first read-through.  I would then play -- not based on the printed notes I was seeing, but more on the notes I'd heard.  It was a really bad habit to let myself get into!

Now that I'm learning to play the violin (I've been taking lessons for 13 months), I'm gradually seeing progress in sight-reading.  Knowing my history with the "helpful" piano teacher, my violin teacher never plays through the material before I do.  I'm feeling less panicky at the sight of a new piece of music, and that slightly-increased confidence helps me to build my ability -- creating more confidence, more ability, yadda, yadda, yadda.....  But I keep wondering if maybe a glass of wine would help even more!

July 7, 2011 at 09:34 AM ·

 In retrospect, one of the drivers behind my developing sight reading skills was my LACK of practice and preparation for lessons.  I recall in my earlier years being distracted by basketball practice, homework, swimming, and daydreaming; that left barely enough time to practice and prepare for the next week's lesson.  Shamefully ~ but bravely! ~ I would still scramble to my next lesson hoping to not be a complete disaster.  Without ever having looked at the notes before, I would get there an hour early, pull out my pencil and quickly mark fingerings wherever passages looked treacherous.  I would then sit there and play those passages in my mind, and feel the little pulses going to my finger tips.  While I would only have a "B" lesson, I came out there with my teacher's fingerings, bowings, and the occasional correction to the manuscript.  Perhaps there's a difference between "faking it" and "winging it"?

I knew that she knew that I knew that she knew that I knew that I didn't practice.  But, bless her soul, she was too polite to make an issue of it.  Instead, she just made the music harder and harder so that I couldn't sight read during lessons...  

July 8, 2011 at 05:50 PM ·

I'm not too bad, because I like to play 'new' music for fun - I've been doing that all along.

But if it gets too complicated I stall because my counting is less than stellar.  I'm working on counting is the main reason I've joined an adult beginner quartet.  I HAVE to count...can't fake it like I can when the going gets tough in orchestra...

July 8, 2011 at 10:08 PM ·

My sight reading is fair. I'm a late starter at violin, I played piano/keyboards as a kid/teen. What makes me "decent" at violin sight reading is that there is usually only one note to worry about.....not 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 as in piano.

This is of course assuming the rhythms aren't funky and there aren't  measure after measure of 16th notes.....

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