Learn Sight Reading Like a Language by Ed Pearlman on SightReadingMastery

When you’re learning a language, the goal is to be able to understand and speak without having to mentally translate the words into your native language.

For example, when you learn the words “buenos días” in Spanish, you want to know the meaning without translating in your mind to “good morning.”  The translation might reassure you that you are correct in using the words, but it also slows you down and keeps you from becoming a fluent speaker.

It’s the same in music.  You want to play directly from sight. (If you’re a singer, please just translate “play” to “sing” throughout this article.) You’ll get bogged down if you try to see the notes on paper, translate them into names and finger numbers, make sure you’ve got it right, and then finally play – you won’t have time to do all this and stay in tempo.  Practicing sight reading helps you learn the language.  It’s amazing, and not a little miraculous, that spending time reading many examples, as on this site, can really build your feel for “speaking the language.”

Below are five approaches to try in your sight reading practice.  They are graded from basic to more advanced.  The idea here is that once you can do Level 1, keep it going as you add Level 2, and so on.  At the end are a few ideas for additional ways to make use of the sight reading exercises.  You may well make up your own approaches, too!

Before we dive in, a couple of tips to keep in mind through all of this:

  • Don’t look at your instrument or anything other than the page.  Part of sight reading is learning to trust yourself to play without looking at your hands, your instrument, or to allow your eyes to be distracted by other sights.  It’s good practice to focus, and helps make sure you don’t lose your place.
  • Accept your pitches and sound quality without wriggling around to fix them.  Timing (Level 1) is the top priority.  Improve your pitches and sound on the next pass through!

Note: The levels below shouldn’t be confused with the grade levels in SightReadingMastery that measure a piece’s difficulty.

Level 1: Rhythms Only

Choose a tempo, and try simply tapping out the rhythm of the passage you’re sight reading.

Your goal is to see the rhythms of each measure, rather than to think about one note at a time.  This is both easier and more important when thinking in rhythms, since rhythms are only meaningful in connection to each other.

Do you know the joke about this?  (Excuse me in advance, violists!)  A violist went up to a violinist and boasted that he could play 64th notes.  The violinist said fine, let’s hear you.  So the violist played him one!

Level 2: Note Profile

Keep the rhythm you did in Level 1, and now try playing or singing the passage purely thinking about which notes are the same, higher, or lower than the others.

Don’t worry about getting the notes right, just make sure you focus on keeping in time, and play the general profile of the notes as they go higher, stay the same, or go lower.  Again, try to see the profile of a whole measure at a time, rather than worry about one note at a time.

Level 3: Focusing the Picture

Before trying this level, take note of the key signature and play a scale in that key.  Make sure you know where the half steps are.  There might be only one or two in the range of the passage you are sight reading.

Now start your sight reading on the correct note, and play as you did in Level 2, with good timing.  Good timing means you will not pause or slow down if you’re not sure of a note – instead, you may need to guess about the notes, though you will not be guessing about the timing or the note profile (higher vs lower).

You may make a note mistake, but don’t allow yourself to make a timing error.  If you find this difficult, try slowing your tempo, or keep the same tempo but play only one or two measures at a time.

Level 4: Seeing Intervals

Now make an effort to see the intervals. Know what a scale looks like – consecutive notes moving from a line note to a space note or vice versa – versus a third – moving from a line note to the next line note up or down, or moving from a space note to the next space note higher or lower.

Jumps that are bigger than a third are a little more difficult to recognize but you will absorb them as you get practice.  For example, a fifth moves from a line note to two lines away, or from a note on a space to two spaces away.

Level 5: Names of Notes

Naming the notes in your mind as you play them.  This is optional in sight reading, because it is not essential to the language of seeing and playing music.  But it is a very useful skill, and by adding this extra layer, you can test your focus on sight reading to see if you can still read the rhythm and note patterns while thinking or even saying the names of the notes.

If you have difficulty with naming the notes, try SightReadingMastery’s Note Recognition feature to practice recognizing notation quickly.

With each progressing level, you build more confidence in your sight reading.

Try these additional ideas to add extra value to your practice, without losing focus on sight reading:

  • Play faster than usual
  • Play deliberately slower than usual
  • Play with beautiful tone
  • Start very quietly, get louder, then end quietly.  Try the reverse!
  • On stringed instrument, try bowing such that every measure starts downbow

Ed Pearlman

Ed Pearlman studied and played classical violin in Chicago and Boston for 25 years, then focused on fiddle styles for the past 35 years, performing and teaching throughout the USA, Canada and Scotland. He teaches private lessons, workshops, and his www.fiddle-online.com site offers live classes, videos, other audio-visual support, and articles about learning music.

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