How to develop sight reading mastery

How to develop sight reading mastery

In this article I’ll cover some tips for developing sight reading mastery. Why would you want to develop sight reading mastery? When giving a workshop to a group of high school students this week about “A Day in the Life of  a Professional Musician” I spoke about the need for versatility, and part of that includes the need to read music!

Tips for developing sight reading mastery
Tips for developing sight reading mastery

If you’re a tab-ace on the guitar, why learn to sight read music notation? Well, it makes you much more versatile a player. You are able to pick up lead for any genre of repertoire. No one says you to be stuck to the page. Often musicians who DON’T read music think classical musicians are incredibly limited, and man, I find this to be so ignorant. Being both a pianist who improvises, chords, and reads music, I know just how much easier it is for a classically trained musician to perform at cross-genres than the other way around. It is nigh impossible for someone who doesn’t read music to work on classical repertoire. It takes them forever to learn new repertoire sometimes. It’s much faster to learn when you can read music, basically. Sight reading mastery is a skill worth developing.

But, sight reading mastery doesn’t just help you with classical repertoire–for example, it lets you read the melody line of standards, too. Notated music helps you share music with a big group pretty quickly, especially if the band comes from different backgrounds. Between the page and an audio recording of the track you’re working on, you will facilitate everyone’s learning. If you want to work as a studio musician, it also helps to read music. You don’t have to be a speed demon reader, just good enough that you can follow a melody to help you stay in time with others.

So, what are some tips for sight reading mastery? Read on, padawans!

Tips for Sight Reading Mastery

  1. Easy material : start with easy music! Doesn’t matter if it’s really simple: find something you can play evenly and in rhythm. If you pick material that’s too hard, you will give up. You must be able to play evenly and without looking at your hands. So start with material that is quite easy, and work yourself up to harder material as you find you can play it evenly.
  2. Practice everyday and DON’T GIVE UP! Short doses: 10 mins of your practice can be devoted to sight-reading. Set a timer to make it easier. This is not a skill that improves quickly; you must practice it every day for a few months to notice significant improvement. So, understand that you’re in this for the long game and don’t give up after the first few weeks.
  3. Patience – just trust the process and grind through your ten minutes with the timer. You must be patient; this is not a skill that develops quickly. Your frustration and self -criticism only slow down the learning.
  4. Scan the music first It’s like preparing to read a poem or speech in front of people. Even if you don’t have much time to practice, you want to have scanned it first to look for structure & surprises. So, what exactly are you looking for? Here’s the formula:
    Time signature – so you understand the rhythm and how it will be subdivided. For example, something in 4/4 needs an accent on the first and third beats; something in 6/8 needs a swing to it; a piece in 3/4 needs a strong first beat accent.
    Key signature – so you know which sharps & flats are there, and also it gives you a basic harmonic skeleton to work with. For example, in the key of C, you’re going to find chords in the root, fourth, fifth, minor sixth, minor third chords; watch for any shift to the relative minor and its I, IV, V, VI and III chords.
    Rhythm surprises: anything tricky that must stop you up? Take a moment to look through those passages more carefully than the easy parts.
    Repeats, dynamics, other messages? Look for directions on how you’re supposed to play the music.
  5. Play slowly – this seems obvious but you’d be surprised how much people love banging their heads against a wall so they can be as self-critical as possible. Keep a tempo that allows you to play even the difficult passages in even rhythm. SO, yes, you’ve gotta do the easy parts slowly so the hard parts can be played correctly. If you pick a tempo that is too brisk, you will simply be too discouraged and frustrated to continue.
  6. Don’t look at your hands! If you’ve been playing most of your life looking at your hands, you need to retrain yourself to play by feel. Even if you screw up, stop and see if you can find the correct note by feel and sound.
    That’s why I’m always HAMMERING my students about spending some of their practice time playing by feel. We must learn to handle our instrument with hands alone. Why? So eyes can be free to do something else. Like, for example, play music you’ve never seen before. Watch your band. Look for cues from other instrumentalists. Spoof and play with your audience.
  7. Correct mistakes AND don’t correct mistakes: do a few lines where you stop to correct mistakes (but not looking at your hands); these moments of FEELING for the right note are very helpful. But don’t correct mistakes in every song; keep going and let the rhythm and tempo be the boss. It’s very important to learn to keep up with the music when you screw up; this is a key skill for working in ensembles. If you lose rhythm and can’t recover each time you screw up your notes, you are not an asset to the group. You need to be able to pick up and keep going.
  8. Crosstrain genres: each genre has conventions for how it is played. Know these conventions, and sight-read many genres to up your skills across a wider variety of music. For example, baroque music quarter notes are often played slightly staccato unless otherwise marked. Pop music cadences often include a suspended fourth, so juicy. Blues phrase turnarounds follow a certain formula. Cross train to develop greater mastery across each.

Sight reading takes a lot of focus and clarity in the brain. If you’re not sleeping enough; if you’re stressed out; if you’re hungover… well, your ten minutes just ain’t gonna go well. Doesn’t matter; do it anyway and take better care of yourself, for Pete’s sake.

I hope this is a helpful article for developing your sight-reading mastery! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Um, I love yammering about music!

Kind regards, Rosanna D’Agnillo
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