The ability to see written music for the first time and play it on the spot is a superpower that will open creative and career possibilities. Here are some tips to expand your skills at sight-reading music.
Imagine your friend’s band is performing to a packed house, the guitarist gets sick last minute, and you get the call to fill in — but there’s no time to learn the material before stepping on stage. Or what if you’re finishing a production, your friend sends you sheet music for a brilliant synth-string part, and you have to track it in before your deadline?
These and many other scenarios call for sight-reading chops — and while some may think that sight-reading music is a skill only classical, jazz, and musical theater musicians use, that’s far from the truth. The ability to sight-read fluently can create wide new creative and professional avenues for indie artists of any style and genre.
Here are some tips to help you expand your sight-reading skills, fluency, and confidence.
Do it every day
Sight-reading music takes practice: repetition, commitment, and tenacity will get you far. This may be well-worn advice, but it stands because it works. Carve out even five minutes a day, grab a random piece of music, play your way through it, and see the results begin to compound.
While some people take to sight-reading with remarkable ease, for many, it’s a real struggle. Even if your practice feels painfully full of wrong notes, missed rhythms, and exploded chords at first, don’t worry and don’t stop. Like with any language, building sight-reading fluency can take time. Be kind to yourself and recognize the incremental progress you make along the way.
Is a piece you’re about to sight-read marked at 180 BPM? Knock your metronome down to 60 BPM and see what you can do. There’s no shame — and great benefit — in greatly reducing the speed of the music you’re reading as you practice.
Starting slow doesn’t just refer to tempo. If you’re a piano or keyboard player, start by sight-reading one hand at a time. If you’re a singer, trumpeter, or player of any other monophonic instrument, start with very simple melodies. The more time you log sight-reading material that feels slow and simple, the easier things will be when you turn your eyes to more complex material.
Focus on rhythm
An early teacher of mine recommended I improve my sight-reading by working through drum rudiment books — even though I was studying piano. The goal? To be able to look at notated rhythms and instantly know how they should sound, rather than having to count out “one-e-and-a-two….” every time I encountered a tricky syncopation in my sight-reading.
I’ve seen the wisdom of this advice in my own sight-reading — and whether you decide to memorize all of the patterns in an instructional drum book or simply focus on nailing rhythms in your daily sight-reading practice, your time will be well-spent. The less of your brain you need to calculate complex timing on the spot, the more attention you can devote to hitting other musical elements and to playing music you can feel proud of.
Focus on pitch
Sight-reading can become difficult and stressful when you have to count ledger lines, decipher a cluster of sharps or flats, or otherwise stop and figure out exactly what notes you’re supposed to be playing. The more you can train yourself to instantly recognize what pitches you’re supposed to play from a quick glance, the easier your sight-reading will be.
From music flash cards to online training programs, many resources exist to help with fast-paced note recognition. Experiment with whatever method works best for you and practice until identifying pitch becomes a reflex.
Focus on dynamics and articulations
If you’re spending all your mental energy on hitting the right notes and rhythms, it can be easy to overlook markings for how loud or soft to play, whether to play jaggedly or smoothly, if the key signature or tempo needs to shift, and so on. But these elements of written music are just as important as everything else you’re trying to absorb as you sight-read.
As you practice, try playing through a piece of written music and focusing almost exclusively on dynamics, articulations, and any other elements that are not strictly notes and rhythms. If you flub chords or timing here or there, don’t sweat it, as long as you play with the phrasing, dynamics, and other musical instructions indicated.
Put it all together
As you become more comfortable reading rhythms, notes, dynamics, and the rest, challenge yourself by seeing how well you can deal with all of them at the same time. Whether you play the piece perfectly or crash and burn, keep going. Remember, it’s all about building comfort, fluency, and confidence so you’ll be even slightly more proficient the next time you sit down to sight-read.
Try sight-reading live
Once you have some practice hours logged and are starting to feel solid on even basic sight-reading, give it a try with other people. Whether you’re accompanying a singer in a rehearsal studio, sitting in with a band on-stage, or joining a jam session, sight-reading with other musicians and/or an audience can push your skills into overdrive. There’s nothing like the excitement of sharing music with others to pull your hours of practice together and help you build confidence for future sight-reading opportunities.
— — —
Don’t give up. If you’re able to summon a little time and a lot of gumption, there’s nothing stopping you from being a fully fluent sight-reader.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
8 tips to help you learn new music … fast
Studying song structure can help you learn new material quickly
The case for playing every style of music
Playing at Carnegie Hall … with five days’ notice
Turning popular songs into instrumental covers