Improve Your Sight-reading – by Paul Harris

You don’t have to be good at sight-reading of course! But let’s think about all the advantages if you are.

It will take you less time to learn new pieces, you’ll be able to play in ensembles with confidence, you’ll get more marks in exams and, most important, you’ll be able to learn new music on your own which means you’ve become an independent musician who can always enjoy music-making any time, any place. Also your teacher will be able to devote more lesson time to important musical and technical points rather than have to teach how pieces ‘go’. They would be very pleased about that!

So what’s the secret? It’s all about understanding. Read the next sentence:

Ysae si gnidear-thgis!

Doesn’t make too much sense! An obscure foreign language? Actually it just says ‘Sight-reading is easy!’- but backwards!

Reading ‘Sight-reading is easy!’ (the right way around) is easy because you’ve probably seen the words before and because you understand the meaning. Fluent and efficient reading comes from instantly recognising familiar groups of letters and words – the more familiar, the more fluent your reading will be.

But before we look at sight-reading music, let’s briefly think about how you read. Your reading skills depend on a combined effort of your mind and your eye. The eye itself is a complicated and magnificent piece of equipment! It works rather like a camera, taking a ‘snapshot’ of what it sees, sending the information to your brain, where it is processed and understood, and then moving on to take the next snap.

So how can this help us when it comes to sight-reading music? Have a look at the pieces you are currently learning and see how many familiar patterns you can find – part of a scale or arpeggio, a whole scale or arpeggio, a leap of a fifth or an octave for example. These patterns are just like familiar words. Knowing your scales helps considerably in sight-reading! It is a good idea to practise scales, reading the notes from the music – this will really help you to recognise these patterns quickly. What actually happens when you sight-read is that you take a ‘snapshot’ of a bar or part of a bar, memorise it and while you’re playing it, you look ahead to see what’s coming – and it’s actually much easier to do this than you might think!

Have you ever thought why reading words seems to be so much easier than reading music? There are two reasons: we actually get a lot of practice reading words – cereal packets, newspapers and magazines, books, instructions for your latest computer game (the list is endless) and of course we don’t have to read words in time. It was to help overcome both these problems that I devised the Improve Your Sight-reading! series a few years ago; it’s a fun and very progressive way to get better. As an examiner poor rhythm is usually the main problem I notice in the sight-reading test – the notes are often correct. That’s why each section in Improve Your Sight-reading! begins with rhythm exercises. Do practise these, or similar exercises and make sure that you really do understand how to count them and how the rhythmic patterns fit into the pulse. Always clap the rhythm of your pieces (and any other music you can get your hands on!) Your teacher will be pleased to spend as much time as necessary with you on this subject! There is enough material in Improve Your Sight-reading! to allow some sight-reading practice every day!

When doing the sight-reading test in exams always remember two golden rules – ALWAYS COUNT and DON’T STOP once you’ve begun. In the exam you should be given about half a minute to look through the piece before you have to play it. You can learn to make very good use of this time. What you must do is skim your eyes over the whole piece, trying to get a sense of what the piece is about. How well could you hear it in your head? Take in as much as you can as you skim through it. especially notice familiar patterns – melodic and rhythmic ones. Your eyes will soon learn to spot tricky notes (an E sharp or G flat for example) or a tricky rhythm and you can linger for a little longer on these. You can actually improve your ability to take all this in when you’re practising your sight-reading: give yourself say 10 seconds to look at a short piece and then get someone to test you on what you can remember. In time you’ll learn how to spot all the important features very quickly indeed!

If you really know and understand rhythms and can instantly ‘process’ the fingering of any note, then nothing should stop you from developing really fluent and accurate sight-reading.

So with practice, and as you build up confidence, you should become as fluent in reading music as you are in reading this article!

Paul Harris has an international reputation as one of the UKs leading educationalists. His ‘Improve Your Sight-reading’ series is published by Faber.

©Paul Harris 2012  /