Sight Reading Tips
Sight reading: one of the most difficult skills to learn as a musician. With multiple sharps and flats, two independent lines of music, two clefs, and two hands to keep track of, it's easy to see why so many pianists hate reading music on the spot. However, sight reading is absolutely essential if you plan to pursue music as a career, especially as an accompanist.
Years of experience accompanying choirs and auditions has taught me to never underestimate the importance of sight reading. I can't tell you just how many times I am asked to play a song as I am handed the sheet music for the first time. At first, I would panic and rush through the song, hoping no one would notice that I played more wrong notes than right ones. Afterwards, I always sighed with relief and prayed that I would get lucky next time. It took countless failed sight readings like these for me to realize that if I wanted to successfully read a piece of music, I had to change my methodology.
It's simply unavoidable, to some degree. Of course, if you're talented at improvisation, you can probably skim by, but in order to become a polished accompanist, you must be able to sight read well. Skilled sight reading also comes in handy if you tend to procrastinate (like me), and you barely have time to look at a piece until the day of the rehearsal. Whatever way you plan to use your sight reading skills, just know that you will need to sight read eventually.
I've greatly improved my sight reading skills over the past years with these key tips:
1. Keep your eyes on the music
A common mistake is to constantly look down at your fingers as you sight read. Having the keys in sight may be reassuring, but in reality, watching your hands is disruptive, unnecessary, and time-consuming. I've found that it's difficult to find my place in the music when I keep looking away. Trust me, your peripheral vision and spatial awareness of the keys are better than you'd expect. Of course, it's fine to look down at the keys occasionally, but for the most part, you should be reading the music. Try to keep your eyes about a measure ahead of what you're playing. You'll be surprised by how much easier it is to sight read when your head isn't bobbing up and down.
2. Before you play, look over the music
Make sure you get to know the general roadmap of the piece before you start to play. This means the key signature, the meter, and the tempo. Sing the theme of the melody in your head. Look for difficult spots with hard rhythms (see #4), and note any repeats or codas that could potentially mean disaster. After doing so, you will have a much better idea of how the music should sound and what lies ahead.
3. Don't stop, even if you make a mistake (it's ok to make mistakes!)
This is the first time you're playing this piece of music; of course you're going to miss a few notes here and there. No one expects you to be perfect! The key thing to remember is that you must keep going, no matter how many wrong notes you've just played. Especially if you're sight reading with others as an accompanist or in a band, you must not interrupt the flow of the music by attempting to correct your mistakes.
4. Familiarize yourself with common rhythms
Get to know the basic rhythms, because they will definitely appear in the pieces you sight read. Learn to recognize dotted eighth notes, triplets, and other irregular rhythms on the spot. Memorize how they fit in with the beat. You won't have time to be counting out the exact rhythm when you're in the midst of playing.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Like any other aspect of music, the only way to get better at sight reading is to practice. Pull out some old music books and start your practice sessions with 5-10 minutes of sight reading. If you do this often enough, you'll see progress in no time.