Sight reading can bring people out in a cold sweat. A couple of exam boards have it as a compulsory element in their exams but being able to sight read is a skill well worth developing as it can help you in nearly any musical situation. For example, getting a new piece of music in your band or orchestra can be daunting, but with good sight reading skills it could be a little easier. In today’s blog I list my own personal tips I give to all my students in the hope
1. Look at the key signature. What two keys (major or minor) could it be? Are there any accidentals? If yes, do they correspond with notes in the minor key? What’s the last note? Does that make it minor or major? (See number one in the picture)
2. If you’re playing a keyboard instrument, look for the highest and lowest notes in each hand. Put your hand in the appropriate position, ensuring you cover any black notes needed for the key. Do you need to change your hand position at any time? Other instruments, do you need to navigate any tricky note keys? (See number two in the picture)
3. Look for any patterns that are in the music. Scales, arpeggios, chromatic sections, chord shapes. Think of music in blocks rather than individual notes. Five minutes a day playing Tetris or something similar (jigsaw puzzles) will help with this. (See number three in the picture)
4. Look for repeated rhythmic patterns. Are there any complicated rhythms you need to work out? Tap out the rhythm. (See number four in the picture)
5. Set a pulse. Remember speed is not important at this stage, but a regular, consistent pulse is! What’s the time signature? Does it start on the first beat of the bar? Be sure to emphasise that first beat of the bar. (See number five in the picture)
6. Try to hear the tune in your head before playing. It won’t necessarily be at pitch, but it will certainly help you with the intervals (distances between the notes). A good knowledge of scales and arpeggios and what they sound like is most helpful here. (Number six in the picture)
7. Decide which hand is most important. If you can at least get that strong it won’t be a massive issue if you can’t do hands together in the middle. Yes, you’ll lose points, but probably fewer than if you try hands together and make loads of errors. (Number seven in the picture)
8. Sight read EVERY DAY - WITHOUT FAIL! Sight reading is a muscle…the more you use it the stronger it becomes. If you don’t use it, it will atrophy!
9. If the music is moving up or down in consecutive lines or spaces, then you’ll be play alternate keys! (Number three in the picture)
10. Know your Circle Of Fifths inside out, back-to-front and memorise key signatures. You will then be able to identify chords and cadences! This is where scales knowledge comes in VERY handy!
11. Don’t look at your hands! Keep your eyes on the music!
13. Don’t think of it as sight-reading. Think of it as learning a new piece!
Order of “Importance”
1. Whilst everything in a piece of sight-reading is important, prioritising can really take the pressure off! Here is my preferred list of priorities in sight-reading, in order of importance.
2. Time Signature - Paying heed to this will help you keep that steady pulse. Emphasise the first beat! (Number 5 in the picture)
3. Key Signature - Pay attention to this but also look out for accidentals. (Number 1 in the picture)
4. Rhythm - This is vital! When you start playing, get the rhythm right and keep going. (Number 9 in the picture)
5. Notes (including accidentals) - The notes are of secondary importance to the rhythm because the rhythm gives a sense of the piece. (Number three in the picture)
6. Articulation - Staccato, legato and accents add colour. A line drawing still looks good even without the colour. (Number ten in the picture)
7. Dynamics/Expression - These make the music more interesting but are hardly vital (under pressure) (Number 11 in the picture)
8. Ornaments - These fiddly little blighters can take time to master - if you can confidently do them, do them…if you can’t - don’t! (Number 12 in the picture)
9. Speed - It is much better to play a piece with flow, correct rhythm and a steady pulse, than it is to try and play at the correct speed and make lots of mistakes! (Number 13 in the picture)
A few years ago one of my students was doing her Grade 2 piano exam. Of course as her teacher I wasn’t allowed in the room with her but I did very quietly sit in a room adjacent to the exam room (she didn’t know I was there). I sat with pride listening to her play all her scales and pieces to perfection. I smiled as I heard all the nuances coming through in the pieces. I was thrilled when she got all the aural questions right. When it came to the sight reading, which I knew she was nervous about and so I gave her my list of importance to go through, she took her time and sailed through. It sounded great; no hesitations, no wrong notes, a good flowing rhythm and the speed was consistent. I quietly left the room I was sitting in as she finished. She came out of the room in tears. I hugged her and asked her what was wrong and she told me that she realised at the end of the sight-reading exercise that she’d had her hands in the wrong position on the piano (it was meant to be in “C major” position, but she was in “G major” position). I told her that I’d heard what she’d done and that it sounded good. A few weeks later she got the results and we were both utterly thrilled that she got 100% in her sight-reading.