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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Practice Sight Reading

I heard it over and over again:  "Everything is great!  But you need to work on your sight reading."  I knew that I was a terrible sight reader.  Given a little time, I could disassemble just about any piece of music into its components, shed the parts, and then put it all back together.  The problem was that I had no idea how to do it on the spot.  I had no real idea how to practice sight reading, other than to practice stumbling through etude books.  The trouble with this is that I wasn't actually practicing anything; I was only enhancing the brain circuits that I was already using.  I had great teachers, but there isn't much methodology out there about how to practice sight reading, and "just keep doing it" wasn't really working for me.

The first bit of useful information came when I was at the University of Massachusetts.  I had a friend that would practice reading Clifford Brown transcriptions while he had someone else cover up the measure that he was playing with an index card.  This meant that he had to quickly memorize the measure, and memorize the next measure while playing the previous one!  I joined in, and we treated it like a competition, to see who could read the furthest ahead.  A good deal of the material was just eighth notes, or rhythmic jazz clichés, so you mainly had to focus on memorizing the pitches quickly.  Intuitively, I developed a few strategies that made it easier.

  1. Read the notes in groups.  Find the starting pitch and look for scale steps, skips, and familiar patterns (such as triads, seventh chords, scales in thirds, etc.).
  2. Think relative to the key.  Learn to hone in on specific notes that you are likely to see, such as the root, fifth, and seventh (the leading tone).
  3. Practice reading small chunks at sight.  Put on the metronome, read a single measure in your mind without playing, then play the measure in time with your eyes closed.  Repeat this process with larger chunks, always with the metronome, always in time.
Once you start to get a handle on grouping notes and seeing pitch patterns quickly, you will be on your way to being a better reader.  But pitches are only part of the problem.  If you can't execute rhythms accurately, you will quickly lose your place.  Stopping and starting is a defining characteristic of poor sight reading!  What to do?  Here are some thoughts.

  1. Visually break the measure into parts.  Most meters can be broken into halves.  4/4 is two chunks of two beats, so always identify beat three with your eyes - in cut time, this is "big beat two."  6/8 is two groups of three eighth notes, so look for the fourth eighth note, again like the second big beat.  9/8 has three big beats, and 12/8 has four.
  2. Use the big beats as landmarks.  Try to notice if you are playing on the big beats, or if you are resting, or sustaining through with long notes or ties.
  3. Tap the subdivisions!  Speak the rhythms while tapping steady subdivisions.  I find it helpful to tap with two hands on my lap, always starting with the right hand, and always alternating hands. For example, when subdividing eighth notes, the downbeats will always be in the right hand, upbeats with the left.  In compound time, I tap the big beats with the right hand (think RIGHT, left, left, RIGHT, left, left).
In general, most music is made up of some core rhythms that you will see over and over again.  Once they are learned, it becomes like recognizing a big word that you once had to sound out.  Take the time to slowly sort out the patterns that you tend to stumble on.  Syncopated clichés, tied rhythms, and staggered groupings are all challenging at first, but they are really not much more than tricky vocabulary words.

What follows is a singularly important technique for good sight reading, used by many of the good readers that I have met over the years.  If you don't practice this, you will never get beyond the stopping and starting.  Please, take what follows very seriously.  I cannot overemphasize the point.


This trick will allow you to make mistakes without getting lost, but you must practice it without your instrument, until the brain circuitry is fully formed.  It takes practice and dedication, but I know of no other way to build metric confidence.  Assuming that we are in 4/4 time, turn on the metronome and speak, loudly and clearly, "one, two, three, four."  Say nothing else, never miss a beat, and stay perfectly with the metronome.  If you have a Dr. Beat, you can even set it to speak the numbers with you.  Even better!  Whatever you do, remember that you must not mumble, you must never miss a beat, and you must stay in time.

To get started, take a simple etude and clap the written rhythm of the music while counting out loud.  Keep your hands close together, and clap lightly, but clearly.  No matter what happens, no matter how badly you bungle a rhythm, keep counting out loud.  The counting must be unwavering.  If you cannot do this, go slower.  Practice it so slowly that you cannot possibly mess it up.  Practice this every day - clap the written rhythms and count out loud.  Do not speak the rhythms you are clapping!

There are numerous variations to this exercise, including speaking the subdivisions.  For example, in 6/8 you could say "ONE-tee-ta, Two-tee-ta."  In a funky, syncopated etude, you could count "ONE-ee-an-da, TWO-ee-an-da."  However you choose the count, make it consistent, and don't stop when you make a clapping error.

In time, you will be able to internalize the counting while playing your instrument.  This is a slow process, and it takes a long time to make progress.  Practice it every day.  I know of no other way to develop the ability to stay in the meter, even when making mistakes.  Don't stop, and if you can't get through it, GO SLOWER.  Slow practice is always best, even if it is frustrating and time consuming.  Don't let Practice Monster get the best of you!  Patience is the key.

Most of what I have outlined can be practiced with nothing more than a metronome and a couple of simple etude books - those old beginner books that you have lying around are perfect to get started.  I also recommend the following to my students:

Pasquale Bona, Complete Method for Rhythmical Articulation

Good luck, and remember to COUNT OUT LOUD!