Sight Reading: Practical Tips

sight reading

Sight Reading

Sight reading is an important skill but also a very stressful one. It requires one to play a new piece of music with only a few minutes (or sometimes seconds) of preparation time. The unknown part and the fear of getting a wrong note are the two primary reasons why people are intimated by it.  With piano, it adds another level of dimension in terms of difficulty: reading two different clefs at the same time.  Here are a few more tips besides practicing every day religiously.

  1. Set a reasonable tempo.

All performing arts involve timing. The first step to read successfully on spot is to set a reasonable pulse and tempo.   CHECK the tempo marking FIRST before you attempt to scam the notes. There are many elements to consider before you start reading the notes: time signature, clefs, key signature, and even the title of the piece. Of all the elements I would say that tempo is the one  that breaks or make the sight reading smooth.  If the tempo calls for Allegro (fast and lively), match the tempo the best you can and resist the urge to do it fast.   The “correct” tempo is when one has time to play the notes and prepare the next note.


  1. Always prepare ahead and don’t look back

Once you choose the tempo, force yourself not to go back to fix the notes. Your eyes should always stay ahead of the notes you are playing. The idea is to get a general idea of the piece, not to study it in details. Details come later when you decide this is the piece you wish to go in depth.


  1. Read materials that are at least two levels lower than your current repertoire

If your current level is Beethoven Moonlight Sonata 1st movement (the 3rd one will come in a long way), reading Rachmaninoff concerto doesn’t consider sight-reading. It’s HARD WORK!.  To improve your sight-reading ability and success rate, choose repertoire at least two levels lower than your current level.  The advantage on working on harder pieces is it improves your ability to read more difficult pieces next time. However, it’s not sight-reading. Examples of two level lower: if you work hard on pieces that have more than 4 sharps or flats, cut down 2. Choose to read pieces that are 2 or 3 sharps or flat.  Or if you are struggling to play 4 octave scales, cut back to 2 with simpler accompaniments. If you will know it’s too hard when you spend 2 hours on only 2 pages of music and there are 12 more to go. And we all have that moment.


  1. Don’t listen as you do at the practice

I know it sounds strange and against of all the instructions your teacher asked. But sight-reading is about EYE-HAND coordination, not ear-eye-hand coordination.  I noticed that the main reason people go back to fix the notes is the ears. Remember, your brain can only process one type of information at a time. The simpler the task, the easier it is to do.   The more musical the person is, the harder the sight-reading becomes. They instinctively involve ears to shape the phrase or the tone color.  Needlessly to say, those individuals are the ones who don’t mind repeat hours to make the phrase perfect. This commendable virtue becomes a disadvantage when one reads music for the first time. It takes a lot for the brain to convert the notes into sound. When facing a new piece of music, the brain cannot get all the sounds right away. Therefore, the brain will order the hands to start again automatically so the ears can pick up the nuances.  The reaction occurs subconsciously. Many people realize it AFTER the repeat happened.  The only solution is to “turn off” the listening temporarily and focus more on the eye-hand coordination.


  1. Study the theory

So what do the two sharps do at the very beginning of the piece? If you only think about the two sharps, I guarantee you will them from time to time. The two sharps implies D major or B minor, which tied to the technique have you worked on. Concept of D major scale, chords, arpeggios, or their counterparts will help you to navigate the unfamiliar ground with more ease and anticipation. In another words, it helps your “guy feelings.”


  1. Read by patterns and intervals

If you learn piano the old fashion way by identifying the note individually, you are out of luck. Sight-reading is hard on the keyboard instruments in general because one is playing 2 different staffs at the same time (For organists it’s 3). Even the notes fall on the same place, it means different note. Once the hands identify the starting note, one should always rely on reading by groups and patterns. Identify the repetitions and sequences are a good place to start. By overlooking the general feature of the work, you can grasp the big picture better.


  1. Look for surprises during the browse.

Surprises include key signature or time signature change, unexpected sharps or flats, tempo changes, or sometimes even clef changes. Also resist to over anticipation once you know the changes. If one stays in the moments, the higher the success rate will be.


  1. Read the weaker hand first

When I say “weaker hand,” I meant the weaker clef. Most often reading bass clef is the more difficult for most people (and the number one complaint I hear at lesson). Starting with the harder clef helps you to set a reasonable tempo that prevents you from stopping constantly.  Once the reading/playing starts, keep reading the weaker clef at least 1 beat early (2 for faster tempo). When both hands are playing, reading each beat means one is reading at least 2 notes at a time (one for each hand). Many times it’s more when there are harmonies in presence. Your eyes should be zigzagging from one clef to the next constantly.


  1. Keep practicing

It’s a common sense: practice makes perfect.  With more practice, you find out what kind of learner are you as well finding little tricks that fits YOU. Don’t be discouraged when the new piece doesn’t sound good at all. We all sound horrible on the first time.  The more you practice, the more you will be comfortable working in all the details besides note. The most important during the process is to develop your intuition. Learn more about tips and checks at