Saturday, August 24, 2013


Sight-reading is the act of playing sheet music on an instrument with little or no preparation. It is a skill that many musicians find very difficult to perfect.

How I do it.

The word continuity, as defined by the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, is the state or quality of being continuous; it is a continuous or connected whole.  Using the technique of continuity when practicing helps train the brain not only to learn the music needed for performance but also helps tremendously in the acquisition of sight reading skills.

Before practicing a piece of music I always analyze the music first looking at the meter/rhythms, key signature(s), musical contour (including step-wise versus skipping intervals), passages that are repetitive (musical form), special directions (musical "road signs"), tempo, dynamics, phrasing, etc.

After looking at these elements I determine what parts of the music I know will be problematic for me and analyze further.  I will pull apart the difficult rhythmic sections and determine the strong beats then the counting and practice them separately (without my instrument) to get the rhythm memorized as an automatic reflex so when I play the passage I will not have to think about counting it.

As a violinist it is extremely important to know, before putting any fingers down, where all the half and whole steps are located in the music so I will analyze that by placing in half step symbols into my music where I think I might have intonation problems.  Also I will determine where I need to keep fingers down on the fingerboard ahead of time in preparation of notes to follow.....also very important for speed of fingering, coordination of bowing with fingers, and intonation. Determination of how to finger the music will also have to be planned along side with bowing and bow proportioning.

After preparing the music I will then decide how I want to practice.  I determine how I am going to practice before I pick up my instrument to play.  Sometimes I will start with a metronome at performance tempo and see if I can play through the entire piece without stopping (despite mistakes) using the principle of continuity. Immediately I will know the problematic passages that remain after my initial analysis and that will determine what I will need to practice.

I will choose a problematic passage and determine what the problem of execution is (counting? bowing? intonation? combinations of more than one element? etc.) and will choose a solution to fix it. Then I will practice very slowly to train my muscles to perform the task properly, repeating the motions over and over to develop muscle memory.  I will often use a metronome to help me, first practicing at a slow speed and slightly speed it up, until I have trained my muscles to respond to the passage accurately at a faster speed then asked for in the piece. If you learn a passage faster than you need it, playing the music at tempo will seem slower than it really is and create a sense of calm instead of the anxiety often felt when trying to play at fast tempos. I will then try to connect that passage to the musical phrase before it and after it (using the metronome as I did before) allowing for a smooth transition from passage to passage.

After I think the problematic passage is learned (connected to its neighboring passages) I will again play the entire piece for continuity (playing from beginning to end without stopping and through mistakes) with a metronome and see if the passage I worked on was learned. Since my objective is to perform a certain section accurately I will not be concerned about errors in other passages I have not yet worked on.  In practicing the player must never slow down when approaching a difficult passage as the body will create an automatic reflex and learn the passage that way; once a passage is learned in that manner it is very difficult to correct. The use of practicing for continuity insures this problem does occur. 

Playing through mistakes (continuity) is easy to tell someone to do but is really very difficult to mentally execute.  It takes strong mental focus to continue on through mistakes without stopping.  Often I will circle or color coat certain notes in difficult passages that I will practice and play (leaving the other notes out) in order not to stop when playing for continuity.  After I feel comfortable playing that way I will later then try to add more notes into those difficult passages, passages which I have been practicing technically as separate entities like I would exercises or etudes. 


3 Mistakes You Are Making 
When You Sight Read Sheet Music

Mistake #1 – You Do Not Prepare Before You Sight Read
Preparing yourself and your music before you play a single note is the most common mistake in student musicians. Sight reading requires a lot of mental processes to occur simultaneously. When you couple this with the fact that many beginning, and even intermediate musicians, get very tense when they sight read creating a recipe for sight reading disaster.

To eliminate is problem of incorrect preparation you need to get into the proper state of mind and give yourself every advantage possible from the very start of your sight reading practice time.

To get in the “zone” to sight read you must understand that sight reading is not the same as playing music, which I would classify as performance. Nor is it the same as practicing a piece that you will eventually perform. Sight reading is simply the act of sharpening your music reading reflexes to be able to play the music at the first reading. This is an ongoing skill you will develop and you want to stay focused on strategically progressing bit-by-bit.

When you are ready to sit down and practice sight reading you should dedicate about 15 minutes to playing through your prepared score. By preparing your sheet music ahead of time you are eliminating the obstacles that are preventing you from getting better at sight reading.

Mistake #2 – You Are Reading Note-by-Note.
In the beginning stages of sight reading you will most likely be reading note-by-note. This will prevent you from being able to read ahead, which is critical to improving your sight reading ability. Once you have memorized your note locations on the treble and bass clefs, or alto if you play the viola, you want to begin to read by interval.

Let’s look at a short example of how to read sheet music by interval:
As you read through the example you want to read from note-to-note by the interval, not the note name.

So for example this piece is in D Major. The first note is A. The next note is up 4 notes of the scale, then down 8, then up 3, and then up 2 and so forth.

I have marked the whole score with the generic interval distances. As you read through the piece this way by interval, you are reading the musical contour. Contour reading allows you to see the music in much larger chunks that reading note-by-note.
Reading by interval requires some knowledge of basic music theory. This sight reading technique requires two pieces of information: You need to understand what scale or key the music is in and understand generic intervals.

Additionally, once you understand these two concepts thoroughly you will see that most music will appear on the staff within the key, meaning there is no need to use any accidentals within the music. When this concept sinks in you will be able to read by interval very easily. Further more, once this sight reading technique is combined with the knowledge of chromatic scale degrees you can suddenly see the hidden structure in the sheet music that has been there the entire time.

Mistake #3 – You Are Focused on Perfection, Not Progress.
Improving your sight reading ability will take time. There is no magic pill or trick that will teach you the necessary concepts of basic music theory that are required to sight read sheet music fluently.

With this in mind you must set realistic expectations for each practice session you dedicate to sight reading and reward yourself for following through with your practice plans.

Most importantly remember that if you want to get better you will need to break the task into small manageable bits to make progress.


5 Steps to Sight Reading Sheet Music
 Sight Reading Exercise 1 
Sheet Music Markings

In this first exercise, which you can download here, you should complete the following list of instructions BEFORE you play it or listen to the recording. 

1. Get your materials ready. Print the example out and get a pencil with an eraser and three different colors of highlighters, preferably a blue, a green and a pink.

When you sight read you need be prepared with these materials so you are actively reading the score while at the same time providing yourself with the necessary information to read the music at your own skill level.

When you sight read music you will inevitably make mistakes. Your goal is to catch each mistake the first time you make it and mark your music accordingly. When you misread a pitch, circle it with the pencil.

Marking your score as you read it the very first time will save you an enormous amount of time through out the process and prevent you from repeating mistakes.

2. Highlight all the accidentals. Accidentals are the sharp, natural and flat symbols printed on your score. The key signature for the piece may include some sharps or flats but we are focusing on the extra accidentals printed through out the music.

In this first exercise the music is in the key of C major, which has no sharps or flats in the key signature itself. However, it is rare that a piece of music would only have the pitches from the key signature throughout the entire piece.

To mark your accidentals use the blue highlighter and highlight any flat symbols, then use the green for any natural symbols and the pink for the sharp symbols. You can see in the previous sentence how highlighting attracts your eyes and creates attention quickly. This is why I use highlighters on the accidentals, they are usually the notes you will miss when you sight read. When I do this I may highlight the note itself or the accidental symbol, it all depends on the amount of space on the page there is to mark the music. Some music is printed smaller and it makes highlighting more difficult. In that case I will highlight the notes directly rather than the accidental symbols.

3. Mark the rhythms that seem difficult. Look over the piece and find any rhythms that you think will be difficult to play. If you find any, use the Eastman Counting System to label the counting above the music now. Watch lessons 17 and 18 on the free video lesson page to learn more about this marking system.

By marking the difficult rhythms we will save a lot of time and prevent mistakes in our rhythm reading. Again, this helps us to play the piece correctly and not repeat mistakes over and over again.

4. Scan over the whole piece before you play. Anytime you sight read always take the time to look over the whole piece before you play it. Identify a few features of the score such as key signature, time signature and expression markings that describe what type of sounds you should be making. An example of a common expression is dolce, which means sweetly. Expression markings are usually in italics.

Look for changes of key or modulations. This is usually indicated with a thin double bar between measures and a new key signature or the presence of more accidentals than in other parts of the music.

5. Read the music in your head first. Finally, before you play the piece look at the music and imagine performing it just in your head. Imagine the rhythms and sounds of the notes. You will probably not be able to imagine the pitches correctly yet, but over time you can certainly build 
this skill up with ear training. For now just imagine the contour of the musical lines, or the basic highness or lowness of the notes.

Read though the whole piece this way one time in a steady tempo using a metronome. Try to stay focused and move along in the music the same way you would as if you where playing it. This step is training you to read the score without involving any of the technical difficulties of playing your instrument. This is often called score reading, and it is a vital skill for any musician especially ensemble leaders like conductors.
Compare your work to the recording

After you have completed this exercise and gone through all the steps practice the piece until you feel as though you have played it correctly. Once you are finished go to the One Minute Music Lesson forums to listen to the recording to see how close you are to reading it correctly.

*****If you need to practice reading the notes, write in the pitches for each note before you play. The more you write in the names of the notes, the faster you will get at reading them. This is a vital step in the learning process that too many teachers discourage their students from doing. Here is a sample of what this would look like:
    *****If you need to practice reading rhythm, write in the Eastman counting system above the music before you play the excerpt. Then verbally speak the names of the notes in the rhythm. Then move on to playing the excerpt on your instrument. Here is a sample of what this would look like:


    This is geared toward flute playing but 

    the main principles can be applied to other instruments:

    How to Practice Sight-Reading

    A very important part of playing any instrument is to master sight-reading. Musicians without sight-reading skills are hampered in all they do. Approaching every new work is a hassle. Picking up a piece of pop music is a chore and learning it is equivalent to learning a piece of the standard repertoire. Many entertaining options, such as playing improvised duets with other players or playing “requests” for family members and friends, are not easily accessible.

    That's why all students need to learn to sight-read. As soon as a student discovers it's easier to begin a new piece, he gains appreciation for the importance of good sight-reading. Now, it is true that there are many fine musicians out there who are not good sight-readers. However, these people need to do a lot more “woodshedding” to get ready for rehearsals, whereas good sight-reading abilities can save you a great deal of time.

    But there's more to that. It is a common myth that, apart from convenience, sight-reading offers no real artistic value to a performer. However, a great advantage to a good sight-reader is that the rhythms, the phrases, etc. are all quickly apparent, and this ability to see the “big picture” can actually be very beneficial to musical interpretation.

    Last but not least, let us point out that in a lot of auditions you're actually given a piece to sight-read, and your final grade is based on how well you can do that.

    What Sight-reading is (and what it is not)

    Sight-reading can very simply be defined as the ability to play unfamiliar music from scores. It is very important to understand that the ability to sight-read is not something a player enjoys from birth. There's really nothing magical about it. It is a skill like any other, and virtually anyone can learn how to do it.

    What sight-reading practice does is speed up the message from the page through the brain to the fingers. In a way it is a mechanical skill, not unlike touch-typing which, although less complicated, equally involves getting the message from the written page to your brain to your fingers.

    Although physical agility is required to some extent, sight-reading is primarily a mental activity. An advanced physical facility on an instrument does not guarantee the ability to sight-read. In fact, students who can learn to play difficult literature often cannot sight-read music beyond the most elementary level.

    Of course, a little theory is also a necessary background for effective sight-reading. It is therefore very important that you get familiar with musical notation and that you memorize how the most common rhythmic units should sound. This is simply accomplished by paying careful attention to how they sound in pieces you have already studied.

    How to Prepare for Sight-reading

    A correct practice routine can help you be more successful at sight-reading. Unfortunately, many students adopt a routine that is actually detrimental to the development of this important skill.

    The first thing that can seriously ruin your work is bad tempo. You should practice your etudes and solos patiently, choosing tempos within your reading capability. If you practice at too fast a tempo, you will reinforce bad reading habits and learn pitches and rhythms incorrectly.

    Studies have shown that the overall sight-reading ability is closely linked to the capacity to read rhythms, and that the greatest number of errors occurs in the category of rhythm. Therefore, you should make an exercise out of every rhythmically difficult passage you encounter. Before playing the passage, clap or sing the rhythm while tapping the beat with your foot until you can easily execute the passage. Try to memorize every new rhythmic unit, so that when it will come up again you will know how to handle it.

    Learning to play your scales by memory is another very important element that can greatly improve your sight-reading. Little by little, you should start out with some major scales, then include minor scales (natural, harmonic and melodic forms) as well, without forgetting chromatic scales. You don't need to study the more complex scales at first; instead, focus on scales that have just a few sharps or flats in their key signatures, and strive to learn these perfectly. The next step consists in playing the same scales in thirds and arpeggios; probably the best source for this kind of exercise is Taffanel and Gaubert's book (the title is in French, but English instructions are included!). As you may already have noticed, scales and arpeggios make up much of music, so if you know them in advance everything will just sound better.

    It is also important to know the definitions to the most common musical terms that you may find on a score. Therefore, every time you encounter a direction that you don't know you should look it up on a music glossary.

    Finally, and this applies to everything you do, never lose concentration. Good sight-readers are always sight-reading, even music which is well rehearsed and often performed, because sight-reading every time helps even old warhorses remain fresh.

    Of course, the tips outlined above are not enough by themselves: to become a good sight-reader you need to do some actual sight-reading. For this reason, you should devote a small part of your daily practice routine to sight-reading pieces you have never seen before. This is best done at the end of each practice session, and should not take more than a few minutes a day.

    In fact, when sight-reading it is best to keep going on to new, unfamiliar material, rather than replaying a score to perfect it. In any case, replaying the same piece more than two times can no longer be considered sight-reading.

    What to Do Before Sight-reading

    Unless you are obliged to, you should not just plunge into reading an unfamiliar score. On the contrary, don't be afraid to take some time to look at the music. If you are sight-reading for an audition, take as much time as the judges allow. Spy out the lie of the land, and make sure that everything is within your capabilities to perform. There are many things that you should check before you perform. You won't always have the time to check them all out, but you should really try to get the most information you can about the piece before you start playing it.
    Here are the most important elements you should look for, listed in order of priority.
    1. Key signature. How many sharps or flats are there?
    2. Time signature. This lets you know how many beats there are per measure, and what note value takes the beat. The most common time signature is 4/4, which means there are four beats in a measure, and the quarter note takes the beat. You can find more information about time signatures on our metronome page. Even before you start playing, you should already be “hearing” the meter in your head.
    3. Tempo. How fast should you play? This is usually expressed by one or two words in standard Italian, or in terms of beats per minute (BPM). Feel free to play the piece more slowly if you think that the marked tempo indication wouldn't allow good sight-reading. On the other hand, never play faster than the given tempo, even if you feel that you can do it. Speed is not the important thing!
    4. Overall Structure. Examine the piece and make a mental map of where its different sections start, so that when you get to a repeat bar you know exactly where you have to go. The same applies for other indications like Da Capo (D.C.) and Dal Segno(D.S.). Also look out for changes in key signature, time signature, and tempo.
    5. Repeating patterns. Look out for repeated rhythmic patterns, repeated measures and even repeated lines. Most music has some. Often you may also be able to relate difficult passages to the overall musical context, by finding out for example that a given complex passage is actually an embellishment of an earlier theme that has already appeared in a simpler form.
    6. Complex-looking rhythms. Look ahead in search of rhythmical units that you are not sure how to play. Try to decompose them by expressing them in terms of simpler rhythms. This is usually accomplished by splitting some notes into shorter tied notes, or by temporarily tying some notes to get a more global idea of what's going on, so that you can keep a steady pulse. Ideally, you should be able to hear each rhythm in your head before playing it.
    7. Melodic patterns. Look out for scales, arpeggios and melodic sequences you are already familiar with.
    8. Accidentals. Many students are put off when they run into uncommon notes such as E# or Cb. Don't let them catch you unprepared. Also watch out for those accidentals whose effect applies to multiple notes within the same measure.
    9. Phrasing. Try to spot phrase endings, and make a basic plan of where to breathe. When you see a difficult run coming up, make sure that you have enough breath to make it through that run.
    10. Style. If you know who composed the piece, or what time period the music was written, you can get many important clues to interpretation. For instance, the time period can affect how trills and other ornamentations are to be performed, as well as how articulation is to be interpreted. Also, a piece written by Mozart should generally be played more vivaciously than a piece written by, say, Dvořák. Always try to sense the mood of the piece you are about to perform.
    You may want to feel at home in the key before beginning. Therefore, if you still have time, play the scale of the key, and perhaps improvise a short melody as a preparation.

    Sight-reading Tips

    When you feel ready, reading may commence. You should choose a tempo that is comfortable for reading the music; a tempo at which even the most difficult passage can be played with some accuracy. We really cannot stress this enough. Remember, you arenot performing, you are sight-reading. Play as slowly as you need to incorporate every detail printed on the page. Your main goal should be accuracy, not speed.
    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 any cost. Notes can be sacrificed, 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. At first you may want to use a metronome to help you keep pace, but be aware that you shouldn't become dependent on it. Finally, keep in mind that while it is important to play on beat, you shouldn't be afraid to put a little heart into what you are playing.
    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. Never stop to correct mistakes, and never go backwards. The music must proceed forward in time. Always read as if you were playing in an ensemble and had to keep up with other players. 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. Read ahead. There is no reason to stare at the notes you are already playing. Instead, you should be constantly looking ahead of what is being played. Try to memorize the music in small blocks, playing each block while looking at the next. Please observe that you can't read ahead if you are trying to play too fast.
    4. Breathing. Many students make errors while sight-reading just because they 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. (**What applies to breathing can also be applied to bowing.)
    5. Stay concentrated. Keep your eyes on notation at any time. Never look away from the page. Keep your head and body still.
    6. Play musically. Phrasing, dynamics, intonation, tone quality, and musical expression must never be forgotten. In fact, your sight-reading ability will most often be judged by how well you capture the musical aspects of a piece despite pitch or rhythm errors you might make.
    7. Relax! Tense muscles make the music harder to play, so try to keep your fingers, hands, arms and body as relaxed as possible.

    We know, all these tips may seem too hard to deal with at first. But don't get discouraged. As the celebrated flutist Marcel Moyse said, “It is a question of timepatience and intelligent work!”
    This article is geared toward drum players but I believe is an 
    important concept that I use when sight reading on my violin.

    Viv Firth Educational Article

    There has never been one student of mine that has accepted this concept without resistance. I have students that have been with me for years and still have a problem with it. They just don’t want to do it. What is the reason? After careful examination, I think I have found it. It is just easier not to count. I mean c’mon!!! You have to play with four way independence, establish a groove, play in time, with dynamics, and now count on top of it all?? It’s just too difficult to count. So the reason not to count becomes all the reason in the world why we should!! Let me explain. The reason counting out loud when we practice is so difficult is because it involves a great deal of focus and concentration. These are two key elements to develop if we want to master our instrument. It’s not easy mastering these two elements but lets be rational. I think it’s safe to say that any exercise or concept that has drastically improved your playing skills was probably not easy to do. However, after sticking with it and getting used to it, it has made you a much better player. So let’s count!

    Our single most important role as drummers is to keep great time. Therefore, it is imperative that what we play as a groove or fill falls correctly against the time being stated. Counting out loud when we practice is one of the greatest tools we have to develop our abilities in this area. Before I explain why, I need to touch on my definition of "good time," Having good time is the ability to play a groove feel or pulse (whichever you prefer to call it) that feels good to everyone involved with it while it remains consistent throughout the tune. I hate to view good time as playing perfectly to a metronome. Although I recommend playing to a metronome to my students to start their development of good time, musicality and feel becomes an afterthought if we never stray from this as we progress. I do think it is important to practice to a metronome as long as you realize that it’s not the only step involved with developing good time. It is a great tool for making us aware of how much space is involved between beats at various tempi and to reference your playing to but it does not lend itself to the creation of "life" within the time that is stated for any given piece of music. This is the main reason why the lifeless drum machine never took the place of the drummer like everyone predicted it would when it arrived on the music scene. It can’t breathe. There is a tool however that will help you accomplish both good time and great feel. Your voice!!! Let’s play a groove and count with 16th note subdivision. 1 e an du 2 e an du… etc. You can hear perfectly if your note placement for each instrument being played is off by where it falls against the syllables being counted. The best part is that the time being established is provided by you and only you. Not by a machine. So how do you know what tempo you’re playing at?? Who cares?? The more important issues are: Does it groove? Does it swing? How does it feel? Use your metronome as a reference for your desired tempo. Listen for a few measures then turn it off. Feel what you are playing. Don’t let the machine tell you how to feel the music. If you do, you will end up like the machine. With no life to your "pocket"! I have never listened to a drummer and made a remark like, "Wow!! That guy’s groove at 120 beats per minute is great." Have you? I only ever talk about is pocket (where he feels and puts the groove against the time). How do you know if you’re speeding up or slowing down? The fact of the matter is, if you are playing without a click, your time could fluctuate. But again, who cares as long as it feels good!! Now I don’t mean to imply that if you are playing with a variance of 10 or more beats per minute within an exercise being practiced that this is ok!! It’s not!! But you would obviously recognize this if you were counting out loud by the mere sound of your voice speeding up and work to keep the speed more under control. Let’s put this into perspective. If you listen to a song that starts at 120 BPM and it fluctuates to 123 or 124 BPM, and you can tell the difference, don’t be a drummer!! 

    Can you count to yourself? NO!! You need to have an audible reference for what you are playing so you can hear and notice obvious tempo change easier as well as if your notes are being placed on the right syllables or subdivisions of the beat. Your reference for time must be audible. If you were using a metronome as your reference source, would you set it on your desired tempo and then never turn it on?? No, you have to hear it to play to it!!

    Counting out loud also improves your independence. Now, instead of concentrating on just 4 way independence, we need to concentrate on the voice as well. To get a full understanding of this concept, count quarter notes against a nice anticipated funk or Latin groove and you’ll see what I mean. To take full advantage of this concept, play all of your exercises count in with all the various subdivisions, quarters, 1,2,3,4… Eighths…1+2+3+4+ …and Sixteenths… 1 e an du 2 e an du …etc. Your awareness of the pulse that is the common thread that runs through any song which is usually the quarter note, will reach a new level!! You’ll now understand that it’s not the notes we can play that makes us great, but how these notes we are playing feel and fall against that pulse within the tune.

    I can not stress enough how counting out loud will build you a solid internal time feel. You will establish your own personal consistent groove and feel that will become evident in everything you play. The sooner you utilize this concept, the sooner you’re "pocket" will arrive!! Just count out loud!!!


    1. Before playing, study the music silently, taking special note of the key and time signatures.

    2. Clap the rhythm

    3. For pieces in a distinguishable key (tonal), play the scale in which the piece is written to fix the tonality in your ear.

    4. Keep your eyes on the score at all times.
    5. Look ahead.