No matter what instrument you play, sight-reading can be a daunting task for us musicians. Most of the time, sight-reading will happen alone in your practice room as you try out a new piece for the first time. But often enough, there will be times where you're handed music you've never seen before and you have to play it as accurately as possible in a pretty high-stress situation like an audition or even just a band rehearsal.
So, how can we approach this scary task without faltering or becoming overly anxious? I've got just the framework for you.
Caitlin's List of Priorities for Sight-Reading
[Disclaimer: this is just one way to approach sight-reading, not the way. You might be taught a different framework and that's totally fine. This is a subjective matter.]
Let's assume you're trying to get better at sight-reading for the purposes of the following situations: exams, auditions, chamber ensemble rehearsals, or any other context where you can't or don't want to keep stopping and starting playing a new piece, especially if your part is exposed.
Since there are so many things we have to consider when we play music (notes, rhythms, register, tone quality, dynamics, fingerings, etc. etc. etc.), we will become easily and quickly overwhelmed if we try to think of all these things at once while sight-reading.
So, I propose a system of priorities that we stick to for this exercise. I'm not suggesting that some aspects of music playing are not important. Rather, I'm suggesting that there is a hierarchy of importance that will allow us to more easily keep playing without freaking out!
At the end of the day, sight-reading is just another skill or muscle we need to work on as musicians. It's the same one that comes in handy when we perform. Yes, we want to play the music in front of us as accurately as possible on the first try, but what's more important is sticking to a flow and bouncing back from errors.
With that in mind, before we even think about playing the sight-reading material, we have to commit to our absolute #1 priority/goal:
Just 👏 Keep 👏 Going 👏
When you sight-read with the intention of not stopping and not working on anything yet, the most important note becomes the next one, NOT the one you're on. This means that not only should you avoid stopping while playing, you should especially avoid redoing any notes. Music moves forward, so once the note in front of you has been spoken into existence through your instrument, you must look to your next note no matter how that last one came out.
This is one of the only chances we get as musicians to not have to fix anything! I tell my students to view this positively, so that if any errors occur but they were able to stay in time and keep playing, they've completed a successful sight-reading challenge.
I completely understand that gnawing feeling in our brain telling us to go back and right our wrongs, and that's a very noble thing to want to do. However, it's more about time and place; sight-reading is not the time and place to work on the music. It's the time and place to attempt to play it straight through, following what's on the page as much as possible, and then depending on the situation, we can work on the music properly later on.
So, being able to keep going is our overall goal. But how do we deal with all the markings on the page in front of us? We make a list of musical priorities.
Musical Priority #1: Rhythm & Counting
Sight-reading is about asking ourselves, what would cause me to have to stop playing with others? Even if you are playing alone, perhaps during an exam, you can still imagine other people playing with you to make this concept more concrete.
The reason I rank rhythm and counting as our top priority is because this is precisely what allows musicians to play together without having to stop and fix things right away. If you make a mistake with the note names, articulations, or dynamics, you could still feasibly keep playing because you will still be in time with others. Whereas if your counting, tempo, note lengths are incorrect, you will be off track and it will cause a disturbance in the together-ness of the group.
Before you start your sight-reading exercise, ask yourself these 3 questions which will help you stay in time as you play:
What is my smallest note value?
What value would I like to count in?
How fast will my tempo be?
We have to ensure that the fastest notes of the music can be played comfortably. We also have to know exactly what our beat is, and how fast that beat should go by to allow us enough reaction time.
My rule is: once you've answered those questions and you've chosen your tempo, slow it down a notch or two further. Underestimate your comfort level so that if your nerves creep in or the music is harder than you realized, you won't spin out of control at a too-fast tempo. It will be easier to play accurately when you play really slowly, and then if the people assessing you think it was too slow, well at least you will have played the music itself correctly, which is a huge win!
Musical Priority #2: Notes/Fingerings
Once we have a game plan for how we're going to stay in time as we play, we can start considering other musical factors. The notes themselves are important because they were chosen for specific reasons by the composer. They might affect the harmony being created by other instruments, for example, and we do want to follow what the composer had in mind when they wrote the piece.
Here are some questions to reflect on before you begin sight-reading to ensure maximum note accuracy:
What key am I in? / What is my key signature?
Should I use my B-flat thumb key? (for flutists)
Are there any accidentals and if so, do I know the fingerings for them?
What are my highest and lowest notes in this passage?
Is the passage mostly step-wise or leaping around?
Remember: in this context, playing a note we didn't intend to play is not the end of the world! Try your best and then focus on playing the next note in the piece. We do not have to correct anything in this moment.
Musical Priority #3: Articulations
So, you feel confident about your rhythms and notes. Do you have to care about anything else?
Yes! However, not playing articulations or dynamics perfectly on your first try will not affect group playing all that much. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try to be accurate, though! It's just so that we take a load of pressure off our shoulders.
Here are some questions to reflect on before you begin sight-reading to ensure maximum articulation accuracy:
Do I know what all of the markings on top of the notes mean? (if the answer is no, then just stick to tonguing or slurring those notes depending on context clues ... and then look them up later!!!)
Is there a lot of diversity of articulations inside each bar or do I have time to change gears?
Remember: the articulations should not interfere with your counting. This happens sometimes when we get an idea of how we think something should sound based on how the articulations and rhythms go together, so just be aware if you have this tendency!
Musical Priority #4: Dynamics
We've come to our last priority on this list. Are dynamics unimportant? Not at all! They are just as integral to music playing as anything else. However, in the context of sight-reading, if we nail the rhythms, notes, and articulations, but our dynamic level stays at a mezzo forte the whole time, I don't see this as a huge deal.
Dynamics are challenging to produce, especially if you haven't worked on them yet, so while they should ideally be respected as you play, they should not take precedence over our other priorities.
Here are some questions to reflect on before you begin sight-reading to ensure maximum dynamic accuracy:
Do I know all of the dynamic markings in the passage? (if the answer is no, simply ignore them ... and then look them up later!!!)
Do the written dynamics create a challenge for my instrument? (example on flute: playing softly in the high register) (if the answer is yes, bump the level up or down a notch to simplify the task)
Remember: dynamics are closely linked to expression and musicality, which we'll talk about below. This is very hard to attempt on a whim, so focus first on the other musical aspects and take time to hone your dynamic skills during your practice sessions. In the future, it will become easier to incorporate them when you sight-read.
Final Thoughts / Other Things to Consider
Whew, being a musician is challenging!!! Take a second to digest all of the above information and remind yourself you're doing a great job.
I would be remiss not to address the matter of musicality in this post. Of course, in an ideal sight-reading scenario, we want to sound musical and convey a character or emotion to the listeners, and that will become easier as your skills improve over time. But certainly when you're still in the beginner and intermediate stages of learning, my suggestion remains to aim for accuracy first.
The reality is, it may not be obvious, just at a glance, what character you'd like to convey for music you haven't even heard yet! So unless you're really confident you can ace the basic aspects of the music in front of you, please don't worry about the more abstract parts of music playing during a sight-reading situation.
Something else to consider is that this is the same list of priorities for when we perform music we've worked on, except in that situation, the even more over-arching goal is musicality. You've put in the work to iron out the basics, so now you should focus on emoting and finding joy while performing. But in terms of holding on and being able to keep going should something unintentional happen, we're using the same muscle as when we sight-read.
Reminder: sight-reading happens in many different contexts, so please take everything I've written with a grain of salt!
Suggestion: go to the website Flute Tunes and click on "Random Tune" on the lefthand menu. This is my #1 favourite way of sight-reading on a whim! I use this with my students as well as when I warm up before lessons. Even if the piece that appears looks unplayable, try even just one bar of it to see how you go through the steps/priorities listed in this post. You may be surprised to realize you can actually play things that seem impossible :)
Until next time,
Don't hesitate to comment below with questions or to share your experiences with sight-reading!
[Disclaimer: my studio isn't always accepting new students so if there are no dates available, this means I'm currently full up.]