Tips and Tricks to Improve at Sight Reading

improve at sight reading

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Sight reading is an important skill every musician comes across on their path to becoming a proficient musician—a skill that sets the stage for spontaneous and delightful musical experiences. A common misconception in the online world of music learners is the difference between true sight reading and learning a piece to completion. In today’s post, we’ll distinguish between learning a piece and sight reading but also delve into the common mistakes made during sight reading and the often overlooked, hidden benefits it offers. You’ll walk away with some concrete tips and tricks that you can use to improve your sight reading practice starting today. 

Learning a Piece vs. Sight Reading

Learning a piece of music involves a dedicated, focused effort over a period of time, encompassing challenging pieces. The goal is to play the music accurately and musically from start to finish. It’s a gradual process that requires patience, persistence, and an understanding of the musical intricacies. While technically the first time the piece is played would be considered sight reading, anything beyond that would be considered practicing and would not fall under the definition of sight reading anymore. 

True sight reading is the art of playing a piece accurately and musically on the very first try. Typically, sight reading is practiced with shorter, simpler pieces in a progression that makes sense for the skill-level of the player. The objective here is to read and perform the piece as precisely as possible without any prior practice. Sight reading hones skills such as quick decision-making, pattern recognition, and adaptability—attributes that are essential for any proficient musician.

Common Sight Reading Mistakes

1. Tackling Overly Difficult Pieces

One of the most common mistakes made in sight reading is attempting pieces that are too complex. When faced with highly intricate compositions, individuals are often unable to recognize complex patterns all at the same time, making the sight reading process cumbersome and ineffective. The goal with true sight reading is to play through the piece as well as possible on the very first try, and this simply isn’t possible if the piece is too difficult. The key to successful sight reading is to choose pieces that are suitable for your skill level, allowing you to read and play without struggling.

2. Rushing and Lack of Focus

Sight reading demands a certain level of patience and focus not only as a practice, but within the tempo of each individual sight reading example as well. Taking the time to analyze the piece, identify patterns, and understand the dynamics can significantly improve the accuracy and musicality of your performance. Picking a comfortable (which often means slow) tempo can make all the difference. Turning on the metronome and forcing a speed that allows for breathing and looking ahead is essential for successful sight reading. 

3. Inadequate Materials

Randomly opening up pieces of music to sight read is not an effective way to make progress with the skill. Effective sight reading requires the appropriate materials and a structured approach which means the pieces need to progress in a linear way. Jumping around to pieces of varying levels will result in a lack of progress and most likely frustration. Utilizing well-organized sight reading materials will enhance your ability to read and interpret music effectively. Ideally these materials are written for the sole purpose of sight reading practice or at the very least, the materials progress in a linear fashion. 

4. Neglecting The Process

Sight reading, like any other skill, benefits from a structured approach. Failing to utilize a proven process for sight reading can impede your ability to tackle pieces efficiently. The Process involves understanding the structure of the piece, recognizing patterns, and making informed choices about things like fingering or phrasing before you start to play. Setting a timer for at least 5 minutes and being a musical detective will do the trick. Take notes on your music by marking in anything that sticks out to you as a pattern, or anything that sticks out to you as a potential trouble spot. A systematic approach ensures a smoother and more successful sight reading experience.

If you’re willing to put in the time and effort required to practice sight reading the correct way, it can benefit you in a myriad of unexpected ways. Not only does practicing sight reading ensure that you become a better sight reader, it also strengthens a variety of skill sets that will serve you greatly on your path to becoming a proficient musician. 

Hidden Benefits of Sight Reading

Regular sight reading sessions can significantly improve your learning speed when tackling new, challenging pieces. By exposing yourself to a variety of musical styles and patterns regularly, you become more adept at quickly deciphering and understanding new compositions. Sight reading encompasses the same skills as learning a new piece, on a smaller level. When practiced regularly, it strengthens the abilities needed to learn any new piece at a higher level. 

Sight reading enhances your inclusive awareness of musical patterns, structures, and rhythmic variations. When you practice playing a piece from beginning to end on a regular basis, you get better at doing this with larger scale pieces as well. Your inclusive awareness allows you to not only stay in the moment and focus on what you are playing, but also to think about what is coming next, and how best to express the piece and handle any unexpected things that come up while you’re playing. 

Regular sight reading practice can help mitigate performance anxiety because you become very comfortable with being uncomfortable. Imagine that you sight read a small piece every day and you focus on playing from beginning to end without stopping, while breathing through the tension and accepting any mistakes that come up and moving on from them. You would become really good at doing this while playing any piece, regardless of level. The more you expose yourself to different musical compositions, the more comfortable and confident you become in performing in various settings, with various unexpected occurrences. 

Tips to Enhance Sight Reading Skills

1. Consistent Practice

Regular, consistent practice is the cornerstone of honing your sight reading skills. Set aside dedicated time in your practice routine to focus on sight reading exercises and pieces. It doesn’t need to be a large chunk of time each day, 5 minutes will often suffice. 

2. Pattern Familiarization

To excel at sight reading, invest time in learning the most common musical patterns and commit them to memory. This knowledge will significantly enhance your ability to recognize and interpret patterns quickly during sight reading sessions. A great way to do this is with flashcards that you can practice for just a minute or two each day to increase your knowledge of the most common musical patterns. 

3. Effective Practice Materials

Select suitable sight reading materials that align with your current skill level. These materials should be well-structured and organized, allowing for a progressive and effective sight reading practice. 

Here are some resources to help you get started:

  • Free Class – Speed Reader: Discover the 3 simple steps to increasing your sight reading accuracy so that you can play with more expression and flow, every time.
  • Sight Reading Studio: Generate unlimited sight reading exercises using customizable parameters to fit your needs. Practice your generated pieces and receive real-time feedback as you play along.

4. Master The Process

Understand and master a structured sight reading process that incorporates pattern recognition, understanding of musical structures, and effective decision-making. Following a systematic approach will streamline your sight reading practice and improve your performance.

5. Continuous Evaluation and Adjustments

Regularly evaluate your sight reading sessions, identifying areas for improvement. Make necessary adjustments to your practice routine and approach based on these evaluations. Consistent refinement is key to enhancing your sight reading skills over time.

Mastering the art of sight reading is a valuable asset for any musician. By distinguishing between learning a piece and sight reading, understanding the common mistakes, and embracing the hidden benefits, you pave the way for a more enriching musical journey as well as mastery of your instrument. Through consistent practice, focused dedication, and a structured approach, you can unlock the true potential of your music-playing skills.

Ashlee Young is a pianist, educator, and content creator whose happy place is helping piano players learn to play beautifully by learning to practice smarter, not harder. Ashlee also works with piano teachers to help them scale and grow their businesses. 

Ashlee puts out a wealth of content for piano players and teachers with her YouTube tutorials, on her instagram page, in her FREE community for piano players, her free community for piano teachersThe Prosperous Piano Teacher Podcast, and in all of her programs and courses

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