orchestral pieces for practicing sight reading

Edited: August 23, 2023, 8:30 AM · I’m a relatively advanced adult violinist, but my sight reading skills are relatively poor. I joined an orchestra and am struggling.

I’m embarking on a routine for the next six months in which I practice different orchestral pieces in different styles every day. I’m thinking I’ll pick one or two pieces every week and read various sections from different movements a few times.

Can people suggest orchestral pieces that I can try? Either first or second violin parts. Thanks

Replies (29)

August 22, 2023, 10:50 PM · Brahms Tragic Overture or Academic Festival Overture
Sibelius Finlandia
Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Overture
Dvorak New World Symphony

These are all youth orchestra staples - moderately difficult.

August 22, 2023, 11:44 PM · Greetings,
Mary’s suggestions are excellent but instead of trying to find your own passages why don’t you invest in books of difficult passages?
August 23, 2023, 3:40 AM · in addition, assuming you receive your parts a few weeks in advance to the first rehearsal, you can also just practice your parts in advance, so that you do not have to sightread. or, am I missing something?
August 23, 2023, 4:33 AM · There's more on IMSLP than you might think, so I wouldn't spend money on books.
Edited: August 23, 2023, 5:08 AM · One violinist I know spent much of the first year and a half of the pandemic sight-reading as much of the Romantic symphony repertoire as he could think of and find on IMSLP. He ended up reading the first and second violin parts of a total of 157 symphonies in that time, an average of about two a week.
August 23, 2023, 5:07 AM · Jean - in my community orchestra experience it varies widely. The better-organized orchestras usually distribute parts 2-3 weeks in advance, but I've also played in several community orchestras where musicians do not even learn what is on the program until the first rehearsal, let alone receive music before then.
August 23, 2023, 6:49 AM · I think it would probably be easier for you to buy the orchestral excerpt books -- there are several volumes published by International. IMSLP is of course free, so if the books are too pricy, that is a slightly more time-consuming method.

There is also a website that has a lot of the orchestral excerpts online here: http://orchestraexcerpts.com/violin/

Edited: August 23, 2023, 8:47 AM · I started playing violin in orchestras 75 years ago, in my high school orchestra. The next year I also joined the community orchestra as a cellist. I developed my sight reading skills by reading other things. There was a book of 10 major violin concertos that really got me going reading harder things (no longer published or available). I also played chamber music for over 50 years - lots of sight reading there (string quartets and piano trios). I added viola playing 50 years ago.

I think it will not matter what you practice sight reading, just read play everything you can find.

Of course it will not hurt if you get to read through 157 symphonies.

ADDED LATER: Do not be discouraged. If you work on this you will get it.
50 years ago I participated in a violin masterclass led by Heifetz's assistant at the time, Claire Hodgkins. Half the class was composed of "duffers" like me, the other half was made up of the then current students in Heifetz's Master Class at USC, virtuoso players, every one of them. The real purpose of that violin class was to gather together the violinists for the orchestra of conductor Herbert Blomstedt's 2-week Conducting Master Class in the evenings.

For me (playing in the 2nd violin section of that orchestra that first evening) it was eye-opening to see and hear the struggles of some of those marvelous young violinists reading a couple of early classical symphonies for the first time. But the second reading, minutes later, they played as if they had known the music all their lives.

P.S. I just read that Maestro Blomstedt is still conducting at age 95 and had a "gig" with the Philadelphia Orchestra this Spring.

August 23, 2023, 7:07 AM · Andrew wrote: " also played in several community orchestras where musicians do not even learn what is on the program until the first rehearsal, let alone receive music before then." Me too - and what a self-destructive method! Basically ensuring that the weakest members will be the least prepared, whether they want to be so or not. What's weirder is that if you inquire you will find out that the first desks all knew the rep long before - which is a one reason (other than ability of course) why they are so well prepared before the first rehearsal.

Some concerts - lighter fare - the music really is handed out the first rehearsal and its fun to read it together. However, more serious fare - e.g. our first concert this year with three good pieces, including Brahms first, needs substantial preparation and at lest musical familiarity.

August 23, 2023, 7:59 AM · Thank you all very much. I’ll start on my journey of reading 158 symphonies today.

A question on a divinely different topic: it takes be a long time to get proficient at tricky bits in a part. They’re not technically difficult, it’s just fingers and bows have to move quickly and in coordination. I dread presto movements. What can I do to make this learning faster?

Thanks again.

Edited: August 23, 2023, 8:06 AM · Do you mean you can't read and play a part that you're just looking at for the first time? This is normally what people mean by sight-reading. In that case, you want access to endless amounts of new material. Trouble with IMSLP is that it's like getting a sip of water from the bottom of Niagara Falls. My daughter was trained by ear on the cello from early childhood and in her mid-teens she noticed some weakness in sight-reading. The book of 500 sight-reading studies by Robert Battey helped, and joining a group that reads string quartets was beneficial, too.

Or do you mean that you struggle to learn your parts quickly, such as in one week between rehearsals?

Seconding Jean's comments, my amateur orchestra posts everything on Google Drive in PDF format for players to look over before they arrive to the first rehearsal. That's because we have a music director who is willing to do that work! (I'm the CM so I have the printed music for the purpose of working up bowings.) But this is a new policy for us. Until a year ago, players just showed up at the first rehearsal, signed out a folder, and sat down to play. And yeah that was hard for a lot of folks and quite off-putting to newbies. I'm pretty good at sight-reading but I'm glad I won't be seeing these parts for the first time at our first rehearsal. Even the little Fasch symphony has got a few tricky bits!!

If it's really sight-reading you can't do, then I agree with Buri (and supported by my daughter's experience) that the tailored sight-reading books can be very beneficial. The first and second violin parts from the Beethoven String Quartets Op. 18 are at a reasonable level of challenge also (a few movements are quite difficult). If it's part-development that you struggle with, then the works that Mary Ellen proposed will be great. They'll be great for sight-reading, too, but only once or maybe twice. :)

Edited: August 23, 2023, 8:17 AM · Those baroque prestos with an odd number of bowings per measure are the killer. Go through the Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi as well as the Romantic.
August 23, 2023, 8:17 AM · Paul wrote “Do you mean you can't read and play a part that you're just looking at for the first time? …
Or do you mean that you struggle to learn your parts quickly, such as in one week between rehearsals?”


August 23, 2023, 3:42 PM · Do you have a duet partner ?
I was a terrible sight reader in my teens , until I changed teacher to my wonderful pre- college teacher. The first 10 minutes of each lesson for the next couple of years were duet sight reading - starting with the Bartok Duos - and there was no mercy , I just had to keep going/counting . It took about 6 months for the penny to drop that keeping time was essential , rhythm was helpful , notes were almost optional , so long as I stayed with the beat and in key. It then took at least another 6 months before I felt confident enough to improvise where I needed to in order to just keep going.

Sight reading is just that - understanding enough of the structure/musical scaffolding to keep going, and enough of a technical and musical base to improvise where necessary. Start easy, and build your confidence at keeping going.

If you don’t have a willing-and-able duet partner, I second the suggestion of using Imslp for downloading anything you fancy having a go at. Start easy , and use a metronome. I suggest some of the Mazas and/or Pleyel violin duets , but with an easy metronome speed , and no cheating ! - an orchestra / conductor will not wait for you so practice keeping with the beat even if you have to simplify/improvise/miss bits out to start with.

August 23, 2023, 3:56 PM · I'm sure it's not to everyone's taste, but faced with the exact same dilemma as the OP, I found the Sight Reading Factory pretty useful
Edited: August 23, 2023, 4:50 PM · Sight reading seems to have been replaced in many orchestras by pre-selected excerpt books. Which are often the same. If you go to the Boston Philharmonic's website bostonphil.org, you can get a list. (Actually, the youth orchestra has a different batch.) Here is a very serious list from a professional orchestra: https://orchestraexcerpts.com/violin/

But back in the day, sight reading was really required. Joseph Silverstein knew so much of the literature just from being an orchestra nerd that the Boston Symphony librarian had to be summoned to find something he didn't know.

William Primrose tells a nice story of his teaching days. Apparently, he had a student from a rich family who wasn't quite making the grade. At the end of Year 2, he determined to sit down with the poor guy and let him know where he stood. At which point he got a flood of tears and insistence that he really couldn't go back home to work in the family business, etc. So they compromised. This fellow obviously wasn't aiming to make it big on the recital circuit, so Primrose used his knowledge from audition committee days to teach him all the juiciest sight-reading excepts. That was how they spent the bulk of lesson time from there.

After graduation, he got a phone call from a music director somewhere in middle America. After pleasantries, and confirming that Primrose had indeed been that violist's teacher, the conductor said "we've decided to take him on. He might not be the very best we've ever heard, but his sight-reading is unbelievable!"

By contrast, when the BBC Symphony was starting up [or the Philharmonia, maybe], they used a lot of Wagner excerpts for their auditions, and were stunned by how few could handle the parts-- including violinists from the opera at Covent Garden who had been doing complete Rings under Beecham and Furtwangler!

My most recent orchestral audition included a chunk of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. It might have been on the first program, and was a pretty good way to see if you could play scales in any key.

Edited: August 23, 2023, 4:47 PM · You can get orchestral parts from IMSLP.org. Brahms symphonies are deceptively hard, especially second violin parts. Then there are the obvious fiddle killers: Wagner operas, Strauss tone poems, etc.

There was a Mozart divertimento-- forget exactly which one-- that Karajan used to drill the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. The players feared they'd never get it quite good enough for performance, but it stayed on the work list nonetheless.

If you're not quite ready for those, just reading through every Beethoven symphony would teach you a lot. Or something simple like Broadway shows, if you can get the violin parts for the pit orchestra. I remember Wonderful Town and Camelot from high school days. Lots of different keys, quick switches in meter, unfamiliar rhythmic patterns, etc.

Edited: August 24, 2023, 7:51 PM · I have found that when all else fails, taking such passages at slower tempos, repeating them while gradually speeding them up always works.

I have also found as I have gotten older, this is happens more frequently and takes more time to work. But I have also found that on such passages that I learned many, many years ago, my fingers still work at sight.

So if you are young enough, practice more of such musical challenges. If you are too old. Good Luck!

This sight-reading "thing" may depend on how many steps you have taught your brain to take between your eyes and your fingers. When I finally took the time to think about it I realized that although I learned the names of all the treble clef notes (reflexively) when I was very young I had taught my "finger brain" to associate positions on the staff with positions on the fingerboard (in 2 dimensions). So when, at 14, I learned bass clef on cello that first morning I was sight-reading in the afternoon. This followed into cello concerto literature in the next 2 years over all 3 cello clefs. However I never learned the bass or tenor clef note names reflexively until I had a cello student who was also a full-time piano teacher and I taught myself to read 2-handed piano music (2 clefs). So I can do the bass clef note names faster now, but not reflexively. Nevertheless I had quickly internalized the links between note positions on the staff and on the cello fingerboard.

Edited: August 24, 2023, 12:55 AM · Andrew that is exactly how I read, I don't consciously think which note I am playing. I am not the greatest sight reader, generally I have to hear the music first, which I don't think is a problem.

I actually think the greatest skill any musician has, is the ability to hear something and play it back without reading, just my opinion and will probably be shouted down.

August 23, 2023, 7:30 PM · Greetings,
It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be an exact correlation between technical ability and sight reading per se. It does seem to be basically tru that if you want to be good at sight reading then it seems one has to do quite a lot of it although this varies from person to person. When I was young I was really good at it and I don’t think I had done huge amounts of work at it. At RCM the brilliant potential soloists (not actually in the real world) often strugggled with the -first - run through but then….
I suppose if we were to analyse the procedure it might have two aspects mediated by the mind. On one side there is the idea most succinctly expressed by Galamian that practice is the development of mental control of physical actions. So using his approach to practice scales is one side of the coin. But then the mind has to look at the unfamiliar patterns on the page identify what they are and send out the appropriate instructions. Thus:
1) Great technique (mental control) / Poor pattern recognition = Poor sight reader.
2) Less technique (weak mental control) / No pattern recognition = Cannot sight read
3) Less technique. / Good pattern recognition. = Relatively good sight reader
4) Great technique /. Good pattern recognition. = Can play in British orchestra…

The best sight reader I ever saw in the flesh was Steve Bryant who is a top player in Britain now I suppose.
So improving technique is not that complicated but pattern recognition might need more thought than just playing through stuff. For example , a very strong focus on finger patterns using color coding might be helpful in this area. Creating one’s own book of very short extracts and grouping them in your own way (Scales in Beethoven symphonies, High Passages in Tchaikovsky. Or something like that) might be any idea.). Then trying to integrate technical practice and orchestral excerpts by pra ting your scale using the difficult rhythms and bowings you find in the repertoire is essential. Dynamics are interesting. We have a tendency to play scales mf-f without any further thought, where as the work in question may have any number of dynamic and accent markings.

Edited: August 24, 2023, 10:01 AM · The standard International/Gingold excerpt books are not in order of difficulty, they seem to be designed to force you to buy all 3 volumes. Another approach would be to buy the individual 1st violin parts from Kalmus or Lucks. The order of difficulty for orchestra music is approximately chronological, so start with Schubert-late Mozart-Beethoven-late Haydn symphonies. I have gradually built a personal library of 1st violin parts. I usually don't need to practice 2nd violin parts. If you learn the 1st parts you can usually play most of the 2nd.
For the pro level orchestra violinist sight-reading is a survival skill. There just isn't enough time to practice or rehearse like you would for a solo piece. For a new orchestra piece I use a version of the triage concept. I look at my part; this I can sight-read, that section I can learn at the first rehearsal, this spot I need to practice, and then this awful thing is impossible, I'll accidentally drop some notes or fake it. I usually need to work on any section that has the very high notes. Anything with more than three ledger lines looks like a pine tree forest.
Be able to play all your scales and arpeggios quickly from memory without thinking of the individual notes. There isn't time for that.
Another group of amazing sight-readers would be the recording studio musicians. They don't get the parts in advance and their time is so expensive that sometimes there is zero rehearsal time.
August 24, 2023, 12:42 PM · Please do not underestimate the difficulty of Mozart first violin parts, and most especially Mozart second violin parts.
Edited: August 24, 2023, 1:05 PM · For several years I played in the London Repertoire Orchestra whose mission was to give young aspiring players from the music colleges (not me) as much sight-reading experience as possible. Each Wednesday we'd rehearse a short chamber program finishing with a playthrough, and each Friday it was the turn of the full symphony orchestra. I doubt that any of us had time to acquaint ourselves with the parts beforehand. We also played three more thoroughly rehearsed concerts each year, plus a weekend course culminating in concert performance of a large-scale work. How many of the players made it through to the profession I couldn't say, but it certainly gave me a major boost in the pro-am world.
August 24, 2023, 1:51 PM · My most unforgettable sight-reading experience was with an orchestra that I sat in with "to provide another sword arm" for the season closing concert. Only attending the last three or four rehearsals was a sight-reading experience in itself. But after the concert we decided to have one more rehearsal to go over some new material. We sight-read Stravinsky's Rite of Spring! It was wild, it was a string of train wrecks, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. Not something I'd recommend on a regular basis, though...
Edited: August 24, 2023, 4:34 PM · Shankha you don't need 158 symphonies. You just need the ones Mary Ellen recommended. Well, at least that's who I'd trust, if'n I had to choose.

I struggle with tricky and fast parts too. You know -- the parts where it's not just fingerings OR bowings but BOTH?? They're called "the hard bits" for a reason. And curiously enough it's the same reason I shall forever wear the letter "A" -- for "Amateur." And they take time to develop, and if we're being honest, most of us who play in amateur orchestras don't always play them as well as we'd like. And the collective result is that our orchestra wears the scarlet letter, too.

And that's all okay. I wanted to get better at fast stuff. So, I went to my teacher and I said, "I need facility. I need to be able to play faster 16th notes." So he showed me some stuff to work on -- starting with Kreutzer No. 2, and why not? Next lesson I said, "I need range. I need to learn how to produce sound and get my left hand working at the top of the E string." More guidance issued forth from said teacher. Taking those lessons home, I understood that I have a lot of hard work ahead of me to improve such that anyone (including me) would notice. But, that's the violin -- the work of the Devil.

August 25, 2023, 4:06 PM · I wasn't really suggesting that sight-reading the entire Romantic symphonic repertoire was the best way to go about it... just mentioning that someone did that as a COVID project, following Gordon's comment that there's more on IMSLP than you might think.
Edited: August 25, 2023, 8:17 PM · Thank you Andrew. Yes I understood, I’m not planning on 158 symphonies either. :-)
Edited: August 25, 2023, 9:48 PM · Marion Ellen's comment is correct. I am well aware that it is technically difficult to play Mozart symphony parts well; top tier level performance or audition winner level, and those excerpts, especially Mozart #39, Eb, are a common choice for an audition. I was thinking more of the literal technique required for a mid-range player (me) with less than excellent sight-reading skills, to survive the first rehearsal with dignity. If it is a Richard Strauss piece, I am in big trouble. Second violin parts can be busier and more awkward. I have noticed that those coming from a "fiddle" background (also me), can have superior velocity and bow control and can be good second violins at the lower tier of orchestras.
September 1, 2023, 4:59 AM · Just a note on excrepts. There is a nice collection of excerpts on Archive.org, the Lexcerpts collection, at:
(Just ignore the Bass Clarinet, which is merely the first of the instruments in the collection to show up: it covers nearly the entire orchestral instrument set.)
To quote from the "blurb" on the Archive page:
"Contains PDFs of orchestral excerpts, scales, and arpeggios for the following instruments:

Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass
Woodwinds: Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon
Brass: Trumpet, Horn, Trombone, Euphonium (TC/BC, Scales/Arpeggios ONLY), Tuba

This is a backup of the recently defunct Lexcerpts."
It's worth looking into.

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