How to improve sight reading?

November 1, 2018, 7:54 PM · I suck at sight reading. It takes me multiple trips through a piece--even an easy one well below my ability--to stop making stupid mistakes. I can't explain why this is so hard. What can I do to improve?

Replies (25)

November 1, 2018, 8:41 PM · slow down first.

Find simple pieces that are mostly 1/8th or 1/16th notes, fiddle tunes for example. Play the first 2 or 3 notes in a bar, look ahead while playing these notes, now close your eyes before the 4th note and try to recall the rest of the bar or to see how far you can get. Once you get better at this close your eyes at the 1st or 2nd notes.

November 1, 2018, 9:17 PM · I normally would have suggested to join a local community orchestra... but not this time given your situation. One thing I did is to sight read duets with my teacher playing along.
November 1, 2018, 9:27 PM · Can you explain what you mean by stupid mistakes?

And does it make a difference whether a piece is familiar (i.e. you've repeatedly heard it before) or not?

November 2, 2018, 1:03 AM · read string chamber works and other pieces with recordings at tempo or work up to tempo with a speed changing app. There are tons lf poeces on imslp and youtube for free.
How did your learn to read fluently? By doing it often!
Edited: November 2, 2018, 7:18 AM · Exactly right, Ed!
Just do it! And keep doing it, you will only get better.

In my early teens I had a wonderful book with 10 of the great violin concertos. I think I developed some competence at sight reading by reading through that music as fast as I could. For a variety of reasons I actually worked on several of them to a point of relative competence (for me, i.e., Bach, Mendelssohn and Beethoven) but most of the others were too tough for me too consider bringing them up to any kind of performance level at that time - but I read through them anyway and spend more time on them to find that out.

There are certain fingering and bowing patterns that occur with sufficient frequency that they become almost autonomous when you see them coming up in the next second or so, but one of the secrets of useful sight reading in an ensemble is to never let the tempo fail whatever happens to the notes. No question, when the fingering pattern at fast tempos deviates from the familiar ones you are likely to make a mistake the first time through at tempo. It is impossible to play it faster than you can see it and run it through your brain.

No apps in those old days other than your brain.

November 2, 2018, 9:25 AM · I suck at sight reading too :(
Edited: November 2, 2018, 4:41 PM · First of all, the accuracy of sight-reading is never 100%, so be kind to yourself.
Typically, the focus is on rhythm, not so much on the perfect intonation, although the later does not hurt.
Solfeggio, scales, studies.... all have their role in building a solid foundation for sight-reading. Other skills such as harmony, counter-porint, musical form and history also play a role in setting the mental context. For example, if you are familiar with sonata form, reading the recapitulation is a bit easier that exposition - you have been there, only the 2nd theme is in the home key!
Having someone who has played the music before helps a lot, especially in chamber music setting. Knowing who you can lean on / listen to is very helpful.
Last, but not the least, practice makes perfect or close to perfect. The more music you have under your belt (bow), the better sight-reader you will become.
November 2, 2018, 7:36 PM · I'm sure it's just practice. I've never been great at it but in the Good Olde Days of HS 38 years ago I was reasonable. So the reason I suck now is probably mostly just that I haven't done it in a while. I have been playing through etudes the last few days and can feel myself picking things up faster. I have a tendency to want to work something to death in an (utterly vain!) attempt at perfection, so I'm spending 10 min or so and making myself move on. I mark the ones I like to return to later on.
November 2, 2018, 9:11 PM · In my experience sight reading is a skill that gets lost when it is not used. I used to play quartets weekly with a constant group for 5 plus years and all we did was sight reading. Then my job forced me to move and I haven't had as much opportunity to sight read since. My ability has declined quite a bit--I discover that at the occasional sessions but also when I try to read something at home. That my eye sight has weakened and that I now have to use progressive lenses hasn't helped either by the way--maybe you also had better eye sight in high school?
Edited: November 3, 2018, 12:43 AM · I think sight-reading, for advanced players, lies at the intersection of technical automation, visual pattern-recognition, and aural familiarity.

Your eye takes in a chunk of notes; you don't read notes one at a time. Indeed, you read ahead of where you are playing. That chunk manifests itself as an automatic division of time in your head that corresponds to the rhythm. The shape of the notes corresponds with aural anticipation; you know where the music is going to go and can pre-hear it for intonation purposes. (This is why it is far easier to read things that are predictably tonal. You know that, say, Haydn, won't do anything weird.) Your fingers fall into familiar patterns, and your brain anticipates sufficiently that it knows what position is going to be most convenient to get out these notes and the notes ahead. Your bow division is automatic, including knowing how you're going to spend and save bow based on the note lengths, articulation, and dynamics. Indeed, some of your bowing is automatic even if it's not marked -- i.e., you might do a down up-up pattern automatically in a dance-like 3/4 work.

Scales and arpeggios have to be automatic, but they have to be automatic in a wide variety of fingerings. Bowing has to be instinctive, matched to the style of the work. The stylistic conventions in general have to be internalized -- Mozart is like this, and Beethoven like that, and Brahms this other way, etc.

Importantly, the goal of sight-reading is not "make no mistakes". It's "don't get lost", followed by "keep the pulse", then "get the structural notes".

November 3, 2018, 5:38 AM · Yeah--I feel that reading ahead is impossible. I keep my eyes glued to what I'm playing. I see that's the problem--I am too often surprised by what comes up.

I do wear progressives, Albrecht, and can't read music well with them, but thanks to Charles on this forum (who is an ophthalmologist), I went to the eye doctor and got reading glasses specifically for music, which has helped a lot. As long as the light is good, I feel I'm seeing the music pretty well.

November 3, 2018, 9:18 AM · My sight reading improved dramatically when I had no choice.
To clarify, as a student (not of music) I was an indifferent sight-reader. When I became involved in playing in pit orchestras I did not receive copies of the music in advance, if we were lucky we had one rehearsal for the band, then the dress rehearsal followed next night by the show. During the day I had a full-time day job, so practice time was negligible. As a result my sight reading improved beyond recognition, to the point where I would have classed myself as a 'good' sight-reader. But in terms of actual techniques (some of which are well covered above) I'm not really sure how I did it - it just seemed to happen out of necessity. I think rhythm and being careful not to play during rests helped a lot.
November 3, 2018, 9:54 AM · I read the responses from Charles and Lydia and I have nothing to add except that you just need to do it more. Nobody wants to hear that but it's often the best thing. Of course "doing it more" works better if you have a theoretical understanding of what you're trying to do and a practice plan. That's where I think Charles and Lydia have offered really great suggestions.
November 3, 2018, 5:42 PM · We should consider ourselves lucky of course: Unlike pianists we generally have to sight read only one note at time. I admire pianists who are good sight readers!
November 3, 2018, 6:27 PM · Albrecht--true, BUT when pianists hit the note it's at least going to be in tune without their worrying about that! :-)
November 3, 2018, 11:40 PM · Don't worry too much about intonation when you sightread--correction: Don't worry at all. The point of sight-reading is to get through the piece as best you can and without interruption so you don't have to stop the rehearsal. When you can do that is the time to improve from there.
November 4, 2018, 1:54 AM · I went to an Irish 'slow session' group last week, and a lot of the music was sight read. No it isn't classical but as Lydia suggested, it is easier to see 'chunks' of notes and patterns that are often repeated. Sight reading an Irish jig or reel will make your eyes and hands work hard while your brain learns to co-ordinate. I think there is something to be learned from different genres of music.
November 4, 2018, 5:14 PM · Count aloud (important), count the subdivisions (very important), and count to a metronome (essential), and start your daily sightreading drills at about 60mm (ie begin slowly).

Read studies and pieces that you could learn well and polish in about three weeks (music that is well within your capabilities).

Tap your toe inside your shoe. This is most important for many people (but don't let the world see you tapping).

Work on rhythm exercises: get the rhythmic flow under control and your other technical prowess will look after much of the sight reading challenge.

Look ahead, just enough. One bar ahead is plenty (but there are lots of variables, like tempo, complexity, etc).

Maintain a daily workout (45 minutes) of scales and arpeggios, and other technical work. This helps a lot, too.

Sight read 4 pages per day, every day (download free stuff, use libraries, second hand music, everything you can get).

Try to read once a week with another player, any instrument. And try to make sure this player is a stronger reader than yourself.

November 4, 2018, 7:55 PM · Not on violin, but another instrument, to reinforce what Janice said, I have a copy of O'Neill's Music of Ireland (real thick; lots of tunes) and every practice session I open it randomly and play a few tunes on sight. I don't play Irish music, otherwise, but it's regular in pace, and the note groupings are transparent.

For rhythm, my piano teacher recommended Anne Carothers Hall's "Studying Rhythm". It's a collection of short exercises you tap out on your thighs like playing the bongo--you don't worry about notes at all. It only took me a week or so to get happy with reading odd rhythms, and it's stuck with me. A small miracle, really. Second edition is less expensive and fine, but it's still a lot of money.

November 5, 2018, 4:45 AM · I love Irish music, so that sounds fun! Any suggestions as to which book to buy? Amazon preferred.
Edited: November 5, 2018, 9:06 AM · If you want to familiarise yourself with the tradition this is an excellent book
Matt Cranitch: The Irish Fiddle Book (CD Edition).

Also the compositions of Turlough O’Carolan, a travelling musician (harp/violin) They have a classical quality to them at times.

November 5, 2018, 3:47 PM · Truly generous, thank you Timothy....
November 5, 2018, 5:44 PM · Thanks so much! I grabbed a few. They are all very easy, but clearly harder when played faster! Should be fun!

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