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Improving Sight Reading as a Beginner Musician

April 14, 2014

Sight readingWhen it comes to reading music quickly and effectively, your ability to sight read is fundamental.  Think about it like learning to read a book as a child.  It may have been difficult at first, but eventually, you learned how to quickly recognize letters, sounds and words.  Similarly, reading music is something that needs continual practice – especially when you also have dynamics and tempo changes to keep in mind!

Last week we discussed some advice for singers on interpreting music with things like enunciation, attitude and internalizing the lyrics.  But where do other instrumentalists fit in?  To get you started, you’ll always want to begin by scanning the piece of music and taking note of the key signature, time signature, tempo, melodic patterns and overall structure.  Look ahead for any complex rhythms or accidentals, so they don’t catch you off guard.  If this seems too overwhelming at first, don’t worry!  As an absolute beginner, simply sight reading the rhythm and notes is a great place to start.  Eventually, you’ll work your way up to recognizing the smaller details in the song.

As you go along, here are some great tips to keep in mind when you practice sight reading, courtesy of

1. Keep a steady tempo.
Make sure that you are always counting, even when you have a rest. You must know where you are in the piece at any given time. While you can’t expect to play with 100% pitch accuracy, tempo and rhythm should be maintained at all costs. Notes can be sacrificed, but time cannot. While practicing, students often “woodshed” the notes first and then strive for correct rhythm. This can prove very harmful in the long run, because rhythmic accuracy should always take precedence over pitch. This is a great time to practice with a metronome.  

2. Making errors.
Right before you start playing, you should promise yourself that you are going to get to the end of the piece without ever stopping. People like sight-reading to be done without interruptions, even if it goes a little bit wrong in the middle. So if you make a mistake, just keep going, as if you were playing in an orchestra. Serious students tend to strive for perfection and feel dissatisfied if they cannot play a passage free from errors. For effective sight-reading, however, we must temporarily set aside our goal of perfection and accept the likelihood that errors will occur.

3. Breathing.
For wind and brass players, it’s easy to make errors while sight-reading just because you may run out of air in the middle of a phrase. Since you cannot plan breathing in advance, you must learn to spot phrase endings while playing them for the first time, and to breathe without breaking the musical continuity.

4. Stay concentrated.
Keep your eyes on the notation at all times. Never look away from the page. Keep your head and body still.

5. Relax!
Tense muscles make the music harder to play, so try to keep your fingers, hands, arms and body as relaxed as possible.



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Photo by racheocity.


Suzy S.