steps to better sightreading
Sight-reading - performing a piece having never seen it before - is often the most feared part of any music exam for inexperienced players, and the cause of many an anxiety dream for experienced musicians too: I once dreamed I had to sight-read a very contemporary bass clarinet concerto on stage at a packed Royal Festival Hall, in front of the composer, on a bass clarinet that didn’t work. But like any musical skill, there’s a system to getting it right, and good sight-reading ability comes mainly from two things: 1) actually doing it as much as possible rather than avoiding it and 2) the skills you build up in the practice room on an everyday basis. In this article, we’ll be concentrating mostly on the latter.
1. KNOW YOUR SCALES AND ARPEGGIOS.
Seriously. I’ve put this in capitals because its importance to good sight-reading simply can not be overstated. And the crucial bit here is: just being able to play them isn’t enough; you need to know what they all look like whether written with sharps/flats or with a key signature.
We tend to see things in patterns rather than as individual “things” - think about how you can recognise words by just the first and last letters, and the shape of the ones in between, for example; you don’t read out every single letter every time you say a word. Scales and arpeggios are patterns, and because of our 12-key tonal system, most Western music is built upon them in some way. Learning to recognise them, and practicing the associated finger patterns until they’re automatic, means that when we come across scale and arpeggio patterns in a piece of sight-reading, we can instantly play those passages without having to stop and work out every note.
Two examples from the clarinet repertoire that I always use to demonstrate this principle to students are 1) the terrifyingly fast run up to the A in the 2nd movement of the Poulenc sonata - it’s simply an A minor melodic scale:
and 2) the Db major semiquaver run up on page 2 the 1st movement of the Saint-Saens sonata, which granted doesn’t start on a Db, but the scale it is nonetheless.
The latter is full of scary looking accidentals, but knowing the pattern frees your brain, and your fingers, from having to work it out on the fly.
Granted you probably wouldn’t have to be sight-reading these pieces, but the principle of how music is constructed, and how you can use that knowledge in your sight-reading, holds. In a band situation, knowing your E major/B major arpeggio patterns inside out is immensely helpful for being able to sightread the first clarinet part of Nigel Hess’s Thames Journey, for example, should you be called upon to do that… and I say that largely because most of us who have have messed it up at some point!
For a more in-depth look at this point and how it’s applied Crusell's Menuetto and Trio in C Minor, read Scales And Why We Should Love Them
2. Appraise the piece first
Taking a few seconds or minutes to look through a piece before you attempt it still counts as “sight reading”, and there are very few real-world situations where you won’t get a chance to do this. In a band rehearsal when a new piece comes out there is usually time when parts are being handed out to the players, and even the sight-reading tests in Graded exams allow you 30 seconds to look over your piece before performing it. You can use this time wisely by knowing the five important things to look for:
Key. Key, key, key, key, key. Identify your key signature - and if you don’t know them by heart, start now by using the Circle of Fifths to memorise them. Run through its scale/arpeggio if you can to get you in the frame of mind for it (note: quietly, if you’re with other musicians!) and try to pick out obvious scale or arpeggio patterns in the music. Look for accidentals that might trip you up, and run through the fingering patterns around them before attempting them; saying the note names out loud while you do this can help. Also, look for key changes: does it stay the same all the way through the piece, or not? Special note for clarinettists: If you’re in any sharp key of E major/C# minor or above, or flat key of Eb major/C minor or above, look for second line D sharps/top space E flats respectively. Know where they are, because this will inform the direction you need to take going over the break on the approach to them. Work backwards from these notes (and forwards, although this should be a little more automatic anyway) to find your L/R pinky key fingerings, and mark it up with a pencil if you have time so you don’t need to think about it on the fly. Make sure you regularly practice studies in these keys.
Pulse & Rhythm. Make sure you understand the time signature. How many beats in the bar? What type of beat are we counting? (Remember any time signature that has 8 as the bottom number means we’re essentially counting in quavers, so a crotchet will be felt and counted as 2 beats; this often trips people up). Count two bars in your head before beginning to set a pulse. Look for tied notes, especially those across bar lines, and work out their value. If you get stuck on this, try playing it without the tie first to more easily feel where all the notes sit in the bar.
Performance directions. These terms at the top of the piece, which tell us how to play it, are also important: is there a metronome marking? A tempo direction? Or an instruction on what character to give it - dolce, agitato, legato, giocoso? Which brings us to another point: know what the (mostly Italian) terms mean. If you’re not sure, look them up rather than guessing. The articulation will help inform the character of the piece too, so make sure you check it out - is it mostly tongued or slurred? Smooth or detached?
Dynamics. How loud is it? Does the volume change, and where? Are the changes sudden, or gradual? Make sure you know where this happens, so that you’re not belting out a fortissimo when everyone else has switched to pianissimo, like when the jukebox breaks down and leaves some pour soul shouting into a suddenly silent pub.
Geography. Know where the piece goes. Are there repeat signs? Where do the repeats go back to? Is there a DC at the end of the piece (da capo - back to the beginning) or a DS (dal segno - go back to the sign: a squiggly S shape with dots either side of it). And if there is, where is the sign? Is there a coda - which if there’s a DC or a DS, there probably will be - and where’s the coda sign, telling you when to jump to it? Does going back to the start or the sign cause a key change? Nine times out of ten, sight-reading in a band situation falls over because people don’t know the geography of the piece and find themselves frantically looking for these things when they realise too late that they need to. Know your geography first!
If this sounds like a lot to remember, that’s because it is. But the key is to practice these things diligently in your every day work when you’re not having to sight-read, so that looking for them in a sight-reading situation also becomes second nature. In short: Gather as much information about the different ingredients of the piece as you can before you start.
3. Play something new every day
Or if not every day, at least every time you practice. Get yourself a study book, such as More Graded Studies for Clarinet, Sixty for Sax, or any of the James Rae study books, and try to play a short, unfamiliar piece every time you practice. You can also use the sight-reading examples in the ABRSM Exam Packs or the Sight Reading Specimen Tests books for Grades 6-8, although this is more useful in preparing for the tests than applying in any real-world situation.
A good rule of thumb is to pick something a grade or two lower than the one you’re currently working on as this is how the exam sight reading tests tend to work, so if you’re working on Grade 3 pieces, pick something near the start of the book; if you’re working on Grade 5, go for something just before the middle. In terms of tempo, make sure you only go at the speed at which you can comfortably play the fastest notes (smallest note values, usually quavers or semiquavers). Most importantly: if you make a mistake, keep going. The goal of sight-reading practice is to get from the start to the end and include as much musical detail as possible, without stopping to make corrections. Make sure you assess the piece before you begin, as above, and when you finish, think about what went well, make some notes about what you could have done better, and then try to incorporate those things into your practice routine. Doing this regularly will help to build up that repository of patterns that we talked about earlier.
4. Learn to read ahead
A common mistake made by novice musicians is staring at the note they’re playing for the entire time they’re playing it, when what they really need to do to ensure smooth reading is to learn to read ahead a bit, just as you would do if you were reading out loud from a book. Some of this is down to note recognition, but once you can reliably identify notes at speed, learning to look a couple of notes ahead as soon as you’ve started playing the current one is a good thing.
A good way to practice this in your lessons is to have your teacher cover the note you’re currently playing with a piece of paper, to force you to look ahead. At home you don’t have a hand free to do this, so you can start with long notes: if you’re playing a semibreve or a minim, do you really need to be looking at it for its entire note value? No - and the length of the note gives you plenty of time to look at the next one. This is especially important at the end of a line, and learning to bring your line of sight down to the next one ahead of the beat is really useful. Again, try it first on long notes, or try to memorise the last few notes of a line so you can look at the next one.
Stopping at bar lines is another common habit that people get into. You can begin to counteract this in your every-day practice: try to think in phrases rather than bars, and always work on connecting bars together by carrying on to the first few notes of the next bar when practicing things in the previous one. Bar lines are really important to help us count rhythm, but we do need to learn to “read through them” and to some extent, pretend they’re not there.
Finally, learn to read above and below the stave rather than just looking at the lines and dots. Much of the musical detail you need to incorporate in your sight-reading, for example, dynamics or articulation markings, is to be found there.
5. Join A Band
The number one way to get better at sight-reading is to put yourself in a position where you’re regularly forced to do it, and joining a band or orchestra is a great way to do this. I’ve always maintained that sitting next to someone who’s a lot better than you currently are is one of the most important things you can do in your musical journey; you’ll be amazed at what sinks in to your own playing purely by osmosis, and you’ll also be exposed to a lot of different types of music on a regular basis. Also, you can’t go back to correct a mistake, since the rest of the band won’t wait for you, which makes you really good at having to keep up.
Putting yourself out there like that can be scary if it’s your first time, so look for a friendly community band or orchestra that doesn’t audition and welcomes players of all abilities.
Being a good sight-reader is all about employing these techniques in your daily practice, when you’re not under pressure to get it right first time, so that you know how to use them when you are. Start by picking one of these tips and incorporating it as much as you can, until it becomes automatic to you to do it. If you want to see a fantastic sight-reader in action, check out US-based pianist Erica Sipes’ “Sightreading Maverick” show on YouTube: each week Erica takes submissions from the audience, and sight-reads them while live streaming it. No pressure, then!