7 Tactics to Develop Sight-Reading

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One skill we all know we need is the ability to sight-read music well. Some people are better than others at this. Traditionally part of the answer to the question of how to help sight reading is it will get better over time, but there is more to it than that.

This is a topic I have been asked about several times this fall semester and is one that it is important to develop tactics to master and to help students master. As it was a topic on my mind I noticed in particular a new post last week on Andrew’s Hitz on the topic of “Sight-Reading: Shifting Priorities.” His brief discussion gets at one first import tactic that it is important to apply, that of finding the groove of the rhythm.

It has been my experience that many musicians and especially students focus on the wrong things when sight-reading a piece of music. The main focus for many, whether intentional or not, is hitting the right notes. But from a purely technical standpoint there is another aspect of the music which is significantly more important than note accuracy and that is the rhythms.

If I could choose to sight-read a piece of music with a musician who either plays all of the right pitches or nails all of the rhythms I would choose the latter every single time. A player who sight-reads with great groove and rhythmic confidence will make everyone around them feel more confident. [Emphasis original.]

Hitz goes on in his article to point out a tactic to build groove, that of playing the work to be sight-read on one note. This may be also done very effectively with wind patterns, air only. The idea is to feel the groove first; it can help a great deal.

This brings up two related tips right away as well–don’t stop and start on the right note! The one, giant pet peeve basically everyone hates is hearing people stop when they miss. Keep that groove going, don’t stop. As to the first note, this is a particular issue for horn players as it is frighteningly easy to start on the wrong harmonic. Develop a tactic to find the first note. This may involve using reference notes such as the concert B-flat tuning note as comparison points. But be sure mentally that you have the pitch of the first note visualized very clearly.

When I talk about sight-reading with students I go back to my own experiences as a student working on sight-reading. I am not a great reader of music and never will be. I really don’t like to sight-read. As a professional there are two types of gigs; ones that need sight-reading skills, and ones that don’t. One thing I really liked about playing full time in the Nashville Symphony was that the contract guaranteed that we would have music available well before the first service. The take away being I basically never needed to sight-read on the job there; I could listen to any new work before the rehearsal if needed and could work on anything that looked tricky before the first rehearsal. But I did need to sight-read when I was called for session work. I always managed then but it was the element I least liked about that type of work and is also part of why I am not a big fan of sitting down and reading horn duos and quartets and such. It is not fun. In any event, while not really a tactic to develop sight-reading, it can be a tactic to develop your career: avoid sight-reading on the job if possible.

It has never been my strength. Early on in my college studies a teacher suggested reading a book on speed reading to develop sight-reading, and one general tactic I picked up there was that of looking for groupings of notes. When you have played horn a while you have played a lot of music, and when you see familiar patterns in music those are headlines to hang on to as you read ahead.

A book I made some use of later as a student was by hornist Nicholas Perrini (but edited for all treble clef brass) Develop Accuracy Through Sightreading. I recently got it back out and was interested to see the tactics he presents. The central one involves scanning in general and more specifically “a triangular motion at the beginning of each etude” where you start a ways in (at the first logical breathing point), then look back to any markings at the top of the beginning of the etude, then down to the bottom of the opening, and finally track back over the music to the first breathing point. With the idea that you study the beginning a bit and skim over the rest of the work looking at:

  1. Key signature(s)
  2. Time signature(s)
  3. Tempo (Phrases)
  4. Breathing places
  5. Dynamics and articulation
  6. Accidentals or other unusual notations

Perrini explains this tactic further in his text, which also contains 39 etudes suited to sight-reading practice. Of course, you can sight read almost anything and that would be the final tactic; in your warm-up or somewhere in your practice make a specific effort to sight read something. I ultimately when I was a student made the most specific use of the Cafarelli trumpet etudes, but that was mostly related to having a copy and it fit the right groove for me in that context.

It is a skill that must be honed. To review, seven tactics to develop sight-reading are

  1. Find the groove
  2. Don’t stop
  3. Start on the right note
  4. Avoid sight-reading on the job
  5. Look for groupings
  6. Scanning and the triangle
  7. Practice sight-reading
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