Some Tips On Sight Reading

Sight-reading (i.e. sitting down and playing straight off a piece of printed music you've never seen before) is the bane of most music students' lives. But the fact is that in the highly competitive world of professional music, very few pianists will survive without being able to play almost anything at sight. And the best pianists can do it in any style you care to name - jazz, rock, classical, whatever. So it's really crucial that you get your sight-reading up to scratch.

How? Practise, practise, practise, and then some more. You've just got to put in those finger miles. There are no shortcuts. If you feel you're not getting anywhere, don't despair. The pay-off often comes much later, when you discover you really can play off the dots something you were never able to before. Some people find they can do it quite quickly; others have to work hard at it for years. And it's like any physical skill; if you stop reading for a while, you'll lose the knack very quickly.

The big secret about sight-reading is that you don't read the notes but you read the shapes. Think of it like reading language. Young beginners often 'spell out' the letters of a word they don't understand, that's reading the notes. After a while you begin to recognise the shape of whole words and even phrases so that after just a brief glance you know what the entire sentence is. That's the level you need to reach in music reading also: glance at the page and you can immediately hear it all in your head.

Here's how to go about improving your reading skills:
Memorise (yes, memorise) a lot of tunes, phrases, licks, vamps, etc. Ninety-nice percent of music comprises bits and pieces of stuff you probably already know. Once your fingers have learned a mass of material, they'll immediately 'kick in' when your eye spots a particular phrase, riff or chord shape.
 

Scales, arpeggios, chord shapes: make sure you're totally fluent in all of these in all keys. Same reason: As soon as your eye recognises a particular scale pattern in a piece, your fingers will lock onto it without you having to think any further.


Play through masses of music - anything you can lay your hands on (not just jazz). Notice how repetitive most music is. Single line busking books are good sources. Also Bach two and three-part inventions, hymn tunes, pop sheet music.


Use play-along tracks from jazz tutors. They force you to keep going whatever happens.
Try silent reading i.e. take a piece of music and sit with it away from the piano, 'read' it through and try to hear everything in your head as you go through. You should know what it sounds like without ever making a sound!


When you listen to music on CD or radio, try to visualise the dots on the page as you're listening. Imagine a sort of music score scrolling past in your mind's eye as you hear the sounds. This is really difficult to do to begin with, but if you keep at it you'll be amazed at what you can 'see'.

Do a mixture of all these activities every day. And don't believe that most jazz musicians can't read very well, only the not very good ones can't read! Reading well also helps a lot with improvising, because your fingers learn lots of new patterns.

10 Tips For Sight Reading

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