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Mastering the Art of Sight Reading


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Being able to sight read music well quickly opens up the world of music to a musician. Whether it’s music played for a purpose or just for fun, being able to play with some base proficiency quickly means you can get on to the fun part of making it your own or performing it with others so much faster. The best way to get better at sight reading is, you guessed it, regular practice. It is a skill that definitely benefits from consistent practice. In the post, I will provide practical tips and exercises for music students to enhance their sight-reading skills at home. 


What is Sight Reading?

So what is sight reading exactly? Sight reading, in the context of playing an instrument or singing, refers to reading and performing a piece of music on the spot without prior rehearsal or familiarity with the composition. It involves the musician looking at the sheet music and playing it in real-time, navigating through the musical notation as they encounter it. Every first pass through a new song is, essentially, sight reading. The more sight reading is specifically practiced, the faster those first passes are played, and the faster future music is learned. 


Setting Up a Sight-Reading Practice

Consistency is vital for all types of practice, especially sight reading. Sight-reading practice is very different than other song practice. You don’t practice the same piece over and over. In a sight-reading specific book, the goal is to play each short music section no more than three times! Sight reading should be a part of every practice session and is an ideal skill to work on in place of a full practice on busy days. Setting up a dedicated practice space at home makes it easier for your child to do all their practice and easy for them to sit down for a few minutes of sight reading on most days. 


Choosing the Right Material

Selecting a book dedicated to sight reading is easiest when starting out with sight reading. Many method books have accompanying sight-reading books that are level-appropriate and often utilize the songs your child is already playing in their main method book. Faber Piano Adventures has a fantastic sight-reading series if your child uses that method. There are also excellent stand-alone sight-reading curriculums, like Improve Your Sight-reading


Any songbook can really be used for sight reading, though. Encourage your child to sight read a few songs ahead in their current method book. Depending on their level, they could sight read each hand independently or only a few measures of a piece. There are also many websites where you can find free or inexpensive sheet music for sight-reading practice. Piano Song Download has a variety of folk tunes, nursery rhymes, and classical pieces that would make excellent options for sight-reading practice. 


Building Sight Reading Skills

Now, how to sight read? Sight reading isn’t just opening a piece of music and jumping in with playing. It is essential to study the music before playing. Here are a variety of pre-playing steps a student could take, depending on the student’s level and difficulty of the piece:

  • Visually scan through the entire piece. 

  • Clap the rhythm of each hand. 

  • Note the shape of the music and identify patterns- where it goes up, down, stays the same, etc. 

  • Find your starting hand position. 

  • Play the first note and try to sing, hum, or hear the song in your head. 

  • Check the time signature. How many beats per measure? What note gets the beat?

  • Check the key signature. What are the sharps or flats?

  • Check for accidentals: sharps, flats, and naturals not part of the key signature.

  • Check for articulation markings: staccato, legato, and accents. 


If using a piece of music for sight reading, rather than a sight-reading specific book, break the song down into 2-4 measure sections. Encourage your child to focus on the overall musicality of the song when they play and avoid getting frustrated or bogged down by small mistakes. 


A score study should be done before playing any new piece. Regular sight-reading practice helps a student practice the skill of score study as well. It may seem overwhelming at first to see that long list of steps. Beginner students will only use the first few. Over time, students can mentally run through this list quite quickly and set themselves up for a more successful first pass playing any song. 


Integrating Technology

Students today have a myriad of technology options for helping with sight reading. Two top choices are Sight Reading Factory and the Read Ahead app. Sight Reading Factory has options for other instruments and is accessible by browser or app. It customizes new pieces of music each time based on the parameters you set. The downside to this AI-generated music is that it won’t always be terribly musical. The Read Ahead app provides short daily sight-reading practice sessions using excerpts from actual repertoire. The app is free to download, and each level is purchased separately, so once you buy it, you own it. Useful when you have multiple students at home. Sadly, the best apps are only available on Apple. A second-hand iPad may be a worthwhile investment if your child wants to improve their sight-reading skills. 


Conclusion

Sight reading is a vital gateway to unlocking the world of music for any musician. It makes for a quicker journey toward making music alone or with other musicians. Consistent practice is the cornerstone of improving sight-reading skills. By dedicating time to focused practice, musicians can enhance their ability to interpret and play new pieces on the spot. Remember that sight reading is a skill that evolves with time and practice. Embrace the process, celebrate small victories, and use each sight-reading session as an opportunity for growth. 


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