Catching up on missed basics: (Sight)Reading sheet music

Edited: September 20, 2022, 10:19 AM · Hello everyone,
I am a young student who has just picked up his violin again. I have just come to a shocking realization, namely that I'm barely able to read sheet music properly. I cant remember if my teacher even told me properly. I'm pretty sure he did tho, I was just a very unconcentrated and unobservant student during my childhood. My question is: How does one even sight read? Do you have to remember all finger patterns on all 4 strings for each key signature? i guess that would require a lot of practice. Just to clarify: I know basic music theory about half steps, order of sharps/flat and so on. But I never memorized my scales for example, I always just opened up my Flesch. So where do I practically start so that I can slowly practice sight-reading?

Replies (17)

September 20, 2022, 10:32 AM · If you have a piano or keyboard, I find it immensely helpful to link a visual understanding of the notes to a keyboard layout, even if that eventually misses a lot of the nuances of violin playing.

I'm a little confused, though. It sounds like you know how to sight read if you are reading your scales, but you don't have a good understanding of how your sightreading mechanism is working.

It's kind of a long process, but there's a big audiation component (hearing the notes in your head), so can you hear/sing a whole step versus a half step? If you can do that, then do you understand the pattern of whole and half steps in any major or minor scale? If you can do that, then you can start any scale on a string with the 1st finger, and you will have the same finger pattern (just starting in a different place), and you can correlate that with what you are seeing on the page. You can also practice Schradieck, which is a fairly simple exercise that uses a single finger pattern, but mixes it up, so that you can start to train yourself to just see the interval patterns.

Once you have just a little foundation in sightreading, you just have to sightread a lot, and it will come.

September 20, 2022, 10:46 AM · When I was teaching myself to play and read, I made a chart of all the notes on the finger board.
Edited: September 20, 2022, 1:09 PM · As far as I know, learning how to sight read well is less about music theory than it is a matter of consistent daily sight-reading practice, preferably beginning at a basic level – MUCH more basic than your playing level -- so that you can readily sight read/play accurately (proper note/pitch, rhythm, dyamics, tempo) without stopping. From there, it's a matter of slowly increasing complexity (positions, tempos, rhythms, etc.). The various online violin shops offer a number of books with progressive sight reading exercises.
September 20, 2022, 2:30 PM · To practice sight-reading you can work on etude books, they can easily be etudes below your level, the point is, you sight-read them as well as you can. Doing this for a while will surely show improvement.
September 20, 2022, 3:05 PM · As Jean said, start with music way below your usual level. I suggest a book of children's songs - ones that you already know the tunes to. This makes sight reading much easier (your brain leads). Then gradually add easy pieces that you are less familiar with.

Its a forever journey by the way, even the most skilled violinist can get better at it! I routinely sight-read chamber music violin parts to improve mine.

Edited: September 20, 2022, 4:28 PM · There are books. For cellists in particular there is one called "500 Sight-Reading Exercises For Cello" by Robert Battey. I was a little surprised there was no lookalike for violin. So, I put this question to the author, and here is his reply:

"Many people have put the same query to me. With all my other projects, I don't have the bandwidth to transcribe the book. But what I can tell you is that somewhere, in some musty library in France, there have to be companion books for vn. and vla., and likely bass as well. My book was created by the Schola Cantorum in Paris, and although the books are long out of print, copies of the others must exist somewhere. If this is something you're interested in, you might try contacting friends or colleagues in France to look into the matter."

There is sight-reading is like everything else -- you get better at it over time by trying. I agree with Elise that chamber parts are wonderful because, first of all, you might play them eventually, and second, there's no end to them.

September 20, 2022, 8:52 PM · Yep - agree with the above. And once you're feeling a little more confident, if you can sightread with others in ensembles, that takes you to the next level, as it adds timing imperatives (and it's more fun!)

When I was doing a LOT of sightreading, I found it incredible how I could get through even really challenging pieces with relatively few mistakes - it's a whole other skill, but like everything needs regular work.

Edited: September 20, 2022, 10:15 PM · ""500 Sight-Reading Exercises For Cello" by Robert Battey""
There are similar books from other author. There is a whole series "300 Progressive Sight Reading Exercises for ...." by Robert Anthony.
I got the violin one; it did not inspire me very much so I didn't advance much into it.
I have tried several "apps" and they didn't work for me.

Reading is a practice, not a study, so I believe that what will work better for anyone is a set of exercises that stimulates you to do your daily 20'.
For reference, and to build your own routine, what got me further was to buy the series "ABRSM Baroque Violin Pieces". They start in a very manageable level. You first try to sing the pieces in your head, you can do it a couple of times... Try it in the violin... And to correct yourself you can use the App "Sheet Music Scanner", for Iphone or Android. It uses the camera to scan any sheet music, turn it into pdf and midi-play it. This is the sight reading version of looking the answers at the end of the book...
You could choose any compilation of pieces of a beginner level and do that, try to read in your head, then in the violin and finally "check" the answer. But the key is daily practice, IMHO.

September 21, 2022, 5:29 AM · Thank you very much for your tips and recommendations for literature!
September 21, 2022, 5:29 AM · Thank you very much for your tips and recommendations for literature!
Edited: September 21, 2022, 10:22 AM · The Bartok violin duets make for very good sight reading material: there is a variety of key signatures, meters, tempos, and dynamics to contend with, plus the odd accidental.

There's some elementary violin duets by Hindemith that might work too; these contain some really beautiful music. I discovered these only recently but I'm warming up more and more to his music, some of which is quite challenging to play.


September 21, 2022, 11:19 AM · Our music notation system is like a code or foreign language. You can read music but are not yet fluent, like a language student who constantly needs to stop and consult a dictionary. It takes time and experience to become a fluent sight-reader. Playing in an orchestra helps. Start in a 2nd violin section, where your part doesn't make much sense on its own. Correct rhythm is the first priority, including the rests. With correct rhythm you can keep going no matter how many wrong notes you play. A very helpful but difficult habit to develop is looking ahead. Literally have your eyes, on the paper, in front of where you are playing. Otherwise, everything catches you by surprise.
September 23, 2022, 8:18 AM · Hi Justus!

This is a late contribution, and there are several practical and attractive ideas in this thread, so I hope I am not over-egging the pudding with further suggestions. I find folk/country dance/regional music makes great sight-reading, and I particularly use two books:

* English Country Dance Tunes (ed. Michael Raven)

* O'Neill's Music of Ireland (compiled by Miles Krassen)

You can pretty much open them at any page and find six or eight pieces that are great for sight-reading, for finger dexterity, and for social occasions. Some of the music in the Michael Raven book has chords, so a pianist or guitarist friend can join in. If you particularly like something you can memorize it, and it becomes a warm-up. You can find similar compilations of Kletzmer, Nova Scotia, Scottish, Appalachian and a rich etcetera of other styles.

Edited: September 23, 2022, 3:46 PM · I made a cheat sheet where each row had all the intervals in the column (1, b2, 2, b3, 3, etc for ionian row, mixolydian row (5, ...) above it, etc) in bold if they were part of the mode for that row and each row separated by a fifth until I ended up back on the ionian row. That way it was pretty easy to notice patterns, and now I just think of a certain key signature as being one "chunk of neighboring rows" so to speak. If there is one b in the signature I just think of the lines "one row lowered" etc (only works for the usual signatures).
September 28, 2022, 5:47 AM · As someone who switched to the dark side, I suddenly found myself empathizing with my beginner students - alto clef sux!

I'm with Richard on this - find your folk style. There's a plethora of books and sheet music around. If you have no idea about what style you like, get the Huws Jones' Playalong collection which has a bit of everything (it's a sample of a wide collection of fiddle style books, from Celtic to klezmer to tango) and an inspiring CD band to play along with. Folk, in it's basic iteration, are easy and ensuring tunes, and heaps of books come with sounds tracks so you can hear where you're going wrong with the sight reading.

A suggestion for scale practice - play all the notes of the scale on all the strings (in many positions if that's where you're up to), not just doh - doh. That's helped me alot.

Edited: September 28, 2022, 6:44 AM · General tips I teach students (other teachers will have better ideas). Other than 1-3, pick and choose anything that sounds useful to you.

1. You have to be able to read ahead of what you're playing - I do this with rhythm/clapping flashcards that move too quickly, so they have to be reading the next card while playing the first one, if that makes sense. You'd need a partner or maybe a rhythm teaching ap (the sort where you tap the answers) for that.
If you have a partner, you can blow up bars or phrases of a new tune/orchestra score to practice randomly.

2. Examine the music before you play it. Where are the highest and lowest notes? Where are the fast or slow bits? Are there any repetitions it variations? (esp with folk tunes) What's the shape of the music - are there mostly steps, or skips? Where are the big jumps?

3. Clap or tap the rhythm before you try adding the notes.

4. You don't need to know the names of every note. Music is about the shape of the sounds.
Sometimes you have a staircase with a step at every note (scale passages); sometimes you have a ladder where notes are skipped line to line or space to space (arpeggios); and sometimes there are big leaps (5ths and 8ves are easiest to see).

If you're up to it, practicing scales in various intervals helps with this - If you can play a basic scale, you can also play it in thirds (doh-mi, re-fa, mi-soh etc)
If you're a gamer, some of the aural skills aps might be useful for linking visual and sound in these intervals.

5. Sight-singing helps enormously. Get a beginner violin book and practice singing the shapes of the music. Then play them.

I find the movable doh (so every scale goes doh re mi etc no matter what note you begin on) easiest for sight singing because it gives a name to the interval-shape. Some of my students prefer using ta, ti-ti etc rhythm names, others just la la la.

The beginner book is because it has restricted ranges (often just one string, doh-fa)
Watch that doh-re-mi scene from sound of music for inspiration!

6. Know exactly where your open strings are! (This is my go to when my brain won't deal with the evil/alto clef) - hang a big stave marked with open strings on the bottom of your music stand at home, or draw it at the top of your orchestra score.
Even if these are the only notes you recognize easily, you can identify a note above (first finger) or below (third finger) the open string, or a note two notes up or down (second finger) without having to think too hard/name it.

7. Highlight each string in a different colour to help with 6. (unless you're sharing music with someone - it will drive the other person nuts!)

8. Over time you'll read groups of note patterns like you read words eg doh-re-mi-re, re-mi-fa-mi. Folk (esp Celtic and us genres) and baroque music are really good for this.
So is practicing scales in patterns, which is pretty much any etude book you pick.

9. Once you've played it twice, you're not sight reading any more; you're learning it. A library or second hand music store is your friend.

10. If you're fixated on note names, there are lots of practice aps out there, but I still refer you back to point 4. The names are immaterial; it's the spaces between the notes that matter.

Good luck!

September 29, 2022, 11:28 PM · Hmm... it seems like you know some stuff about half steps etc. which will definitely help with catching up with sight-reading again.

I suggest starting with the Suzuki Method Book 1 as there are preliminary exercises on how to identify notes. If you start off with little 30 minute practice sessions everyday and just identifying the notes in those practice sessions, you should be able to identify them again. Based off personal experience, if your teacher has told you something, it is basically your responsibility to adapt the knowledge that they have passed onto you during that lesson and to spend time fixing up the things that they have said. My advice for you is to put more focus and concentration during your lessons and to repeat what the teacher had instructed you during your lessons at home. Hope this helps :)

Best wishes,
Jialin

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