Sight reading material

Edited: September 26, 2020, 8:06 PM · What makes good sight reading material? I’m using an older book (my childhood teacher’s Gingold orchestral excerpts) but is that book more for mastering excerpts typically asked for in orchestra auditions? Let me know if you have any suggestions. I’d like to join a community orchestra in the future and want to build up my ability to sight read.

Replies (16)

Edited: September 26, 2020, 8:03 PM · IMSLP is great for that, because there's a lot more music than anyone can read through in a lifetime.

The British ABRSM publishes books of sample sight-reading tests at all grade levels, all composed for the purpose. That's how I worked on sight-reading on piano.

More recently I've used David Hickman's "Music Speed Reading" books.

September 27, 2020, 2:08 AM · I don't think there is any special material for sight reading. The way to learn it is to do it. Choose any music that is within your range technically and start at the beginning.

I learned sight-reading because I am curious. When my teacher studied a Vivaldi sonata with me there were 5 more sonatas in the book (op. 2). I played those through to find out how they sounded. Then I bought the second volume with 6 more sonatas and played those too.

I think the main problem people have is that they let themselves be discouraged by errors that will happen unavoidably. If anything goes wrong try to ignore it and move on.

September 27, 2020, 5:03 AM · I agree with Albrecht -- the way to become a better sight-reader is to do it. Do a lot of it. Do some as part of every practice session. The actual material doesn't matter. As has been pointed out you can get a lifetime of material from IMSLP but my advice is not to worry about playing entire movements of major works for sight-reading. Do a lot of shorter sections from a wide variety of composers and styles. There is a ton of fiddle music (Celtic, Old-Time, various nationality folk-tunes) available free online, and that makes for great sight-reading material. If you have a tablet that's large enough for you to read music on, that's an excellent tool for reading all the PDF files of music you can download. You won't have to waste paper printing music you will most likely play through only once.

Further, as you do your daily sight-reading practice, learn how to quickly scan the music for potential problems before you begin to play, making special note of key or meter changes, tricky rhythms, strange accidentals that might throw you. The when you start playing, don't stop if at all possible. Mistakes will happen but if you train yourself not to dwell on them but rather to keep looking ahead to the next note, the next beat, and able to continue playing you will find that gradually over time you make fewer and fewer mistakes.

If you trip up, get to the next beat and keep playing. Then once you've reached the end go back to the spot you had a problem with, think through what happened and why you made the mistake, possibly practice that measure or two, but then go on to another piece that's brand new to you.

Playing a sight-reading piece a second time is practicing, not sight-reading, so avoid it. However if you find something you love, move it out of your sight-reading list and into your practicing list.

Sight-reading is a very valuable skill every musician should have -- it makes you more desirable as a substitute musician and more versatile to have in an ensemble where the repertoire might need to be changed at the last moment. And it's just plain fun to be able to play a piece very well the first time -- you can get together with pickup quartets or sit down with a pianist friend who is also a good sight-reader and have a great time discovering new music.

September 27, 2020, 5:27 AM · ‘ If you have a tablet that's large enough for you to read music on, that's an excellent tool for reading all the PDF files of music you can download. You won't have to waste paper printing music you will most likely play through only once.’
I have just treated myself to an upgrade to the 12.9” iPad for this very reason - all the music I’m learning at the moment is arriving electronically, and I was sick of having to remember to print it out at work, or peer at the smaller iPad.
And last night, I hadn’t planned on it, but spent a happy evening doing just that, experimenting with sight reading pieces I’d downloaded following recommendations from here, and just poking around. and finding I could make my way recognisably through the whole thing.
(There’s not a lot to do in Melbourne on a Saturday night at the moment)
September 27, 2020, 8:05 AM · Check out Sight Reading Factory. https://www.sightreadingfactory.com/ It's highly customizable and you can do 20 "excerpts" for free. A year subscription is $35.
September 27, 2020, 9:56 AM · Rosemary wrote, "I was sick of having to remember to print it out at work..."

I solved that problem by buying an inexpensive black-and-white laser printer. I use better paper than they have at work too. The one thing I don't have is the device that puts on the coil bindings. But I see that they're only about $150 (on the low end) and I might go for it since I have a lot of gig books and other stuff that I need to organize.

But I also agree that the giant iPad seems very cool, if you have that much cash laying around. And of course you'll also need software and you'll need the bluetooth page-turning foot-pedal. And with sight-reading in particular, if that's your goal, then you're doing a LOT of printing, and you have to think about how many trees you're wasting.

As for sight-reading material, I recommend chamber parts. A student needs to get an introduction to that literature anyway, and there is a good range of difficulty, and it's possible to play along with recordings after you've read through something a few times, maybe if you've identified something you really like. And of course IMSLP had a bottomless quantity of chamber parts.

Edited: September 27, 2020, 10:18 AM · I don't think it makes too much difference what you read through as long as you find a good place to start and keep doing it.

For me, it worked back around 1948 to start with books of "salon pieces" and then I found a wonderful book of 10 violin concertos ("Standard Violin Concertos") for $1.25 (Amazon has one copy right now they are trying to sell for $88). Reading my way through the Bach A minor, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and later Brahms, Tcha1kovsky and Paganini D Major helped hone my sight reading skills. That and lots of practice got me the concert master chair in my high school orchestra later that year and I kept it the 3 years until graduation.

I have also played in string quartets and smaller and larger ensembles for over 60 years since those early days and much of that involved sight reading in the group. Such involvement provides a strong impetus to develop sight reading skills. SO - looking back, I'd say that reading through parts of some Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven Op. 18 parts will also develop sight reading skills.

The chamber orchestra I have played with the past 9 years (until COVID-19 shut us down) downloads 99% of its music from IMSLP.org so if you want to find music to sight read that is the place to go - and that's where I go to find new music - or to replace some that may be wearing out.

September 27, 2020, 10:16 AM · Adding to what Rosemary and Paul have said - one of the first violinists I have been playing with has been using a tablet for all his music the past 2 years. That, a bluetooth connection and foot pad work together very well. One thing you might also look into, if you go this way, is a way to mark fingerings on your e-scores.
September 27, 2020, 10:46 AM · Raymond, great idea! Take note that, in orchestra, rhythms (including rests!) are equally important as notes. I find that orchestral suites of ballet, opera, and incidental music often provide good sight-reading practice material, e.g., l'Arlésienne, Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Carmen, Aladdin (Nielsen), Debussy Petite Suite, Peer Gynt, and the like. Also, various overtures. Also, do you know someone at the orchestra that you plan to join in the future? Then try to get a bunch of second or first violin parts of pieces they have played in the past. You should know that community orchestras often play arranged music (e.g., film score arrangements) that is not free on IMSLP.
September 27, 2020, 12:06 PM · Andrew, on their app, IMSLP has annotation mode. You’ve just helped me twig what that’s for. Not quite as easy as scrawling with a pencil, but you can undo it.
September 27, 2020, 12:34 PM · When sight-reading, pick music that is easily within your technical comfort zone until you get reasonably decent at sight-reading. (Learning to cope with stuff that you can't easily play even with practice is its own skill, better left for later.)

I would avoid the Gingold orchestral excerpt books, because stuff that is selected for auditions is deliberately hard.

I disagree on "play it only once". I think you might want to give something a shot at least two or three times, maybe as many as five times, because that's how many times you might get to play it the first time you encounter it in a rehearsal, chamber music reading session, etc.

(Honestly, you shouldn't come to the first rehearsal of a community orchestra and sight-read. I recognize lots of people do, but most orchestras hand out music in advance; do everyone a favor and spend a little time working on it prior to the first rehearsal.)

I second the recommendation of chamber music parts. If you can, do it "Music Minus One" style, which you can do either by buying MMO, or using an app like Cadenza Live or Tomplay. You want to hear your part in context, get used to fully counting your rests, etc.

Edited: September 27, 2020, 1:45 PM · Lydia I remember the very first community-orchestra rehearsal of my life. I was in 7th grade, and my violin teacher was the concertmaster (and he was a very good violinist, he could play anything), and he put me in the back of the first violins with another of his students, a girl my age. We did NOT get the music in advance. At least, I didn't. I'm sure Mr. Kraynak did, because he had to finger and bow the parts. Now, imagine being in this situation and having the conductor tap his baton on his stand and say, "Let's start with the Glinka!" Those were his exact words and I will never forget them. (Yes -- we were somehow meant to sight-read the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture.)
September 27, 2020, 2:31 PM · Hah. I do remember my first experience with the Glinka -- in a community orchestra rehearsal, subbing in for a missing player last-minute, sight-reading it at a performance tempo, one that was faster than is typical.

Fortunately, it's a piece that effectively demonstrates why you practice scales in a variety of fingerings so that your reactions are totally automatic. And for everything else, you cheerfully drop notes. :-)

Edited: September 27, 2020, 2:38 PM · I also remember the first orchestra rehearsal of my life... my college orchestra, which somehow let me sit in the back of the second violin section even though I'd been playing for about a year and a half and was completely self-taught. (There was no music department, and there were no music classes other than performing ensembles.)

We started with Brahms 1. Parts were not distributed in advance.

By the way, as for Lydia's comment: in my experience, the majority of community orchestras don't hand out parts in advance. Out of 9 community orchestras I've played at least one concert in, only three have distributed parts in advance of the first rehearsal, and one of those emailed out the parts barely 24 hours in advance. The more typical experience for me is to not even get any notice of what will be on the program (except MAYBE one featured piece) until I show up at the rehearsal.

September 27, 2020, 3:42 PM · Most Community/amateur orchestras are a pretty safe place to start.
Start in the second violin section, not first stand. Second violin parts are good for sight-reading training because you must quickly decipher the rhythmic notation, without the melodies in the first violin part.
My sight-reading story is; After very recently acquiring a Viola, I was placed as principal Viola in one of those summer student orchestras. At the first rehearsal for the first concert, on a Monday morning, we did Stravinsky Firebird. It was like being tossed in the deep end of the pool. I think a played a few spots a third higher than printed.
Edited: September 27, 2020, 9:09 PM · Thanks everyone for your feedback. You've given me a lot of great ideas. I'm certainly going to take advantage of IMSLP and try some different styles too.


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