15 Tips to Successfully Sight Read

Photo by Horla Varlan

One of the least anticipated elements of an audition is the dreaded task of sight reading. As perfectly as you may have prepared your performance pieces and your scales, all of a sudden a completely foreign piece of music is placed in front of you and—what?—you’re supposed to play this stuff cold?

Horribly fumbling through a passage of music for a panel of judges is not only scary, but potentially embarrassing—especially after so much preparation for an otherwise impressive audition.

But it doesn’t have to go badly, and the prospect of sight reading doesn’t have to fill you with absolute dread. The stage fright that sets in when that piece is placed in front of you can be completely avoided if you approach the task with confidence and a little know-how.

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HOW TO SIGHT READ

Here are 15 tips to successfully sight read. You can do it!

  1. Practice sight reading. Pull out some music you’ve never played before each time you practice, especially in the weeks before an audition. Practice sight reading using the tips below as if you were actually in an audition setting, even in front of family or friends. If you experience stage fright or get anxiety when you audition or play for others, be sure to practice your audition (including sight reading) in front of a “mock” panel of judges.
  2. Take a BRIEF moment to look over the entire passage. Glance over the whole piece to familiarize yourself with any dynamic markings, tempo changes, key changes, articulation markings, and the like. Don’t take too long doing this; you don’t want to keep the judges waiting. Try to look over the following details in less than 60 seconds.
  3. Look at the key signature. First things first. Take note of any sharps or flats. Also glance over the piece and take note of any accidentals.
  4. Identify measures with lots of notes. Look for clusters of notes (or lots of black). These are spots that will most likely be the trickiest.
  5. Identify measures with complex rhythms. Note dotted rhythms or clusters of sixteenth and eight notes. You will base your tempo on how quickly you think you can play the tricky passages.
  6. Look at the tempo marking. If a passage is marked andante, largo, lento, or moderato, do NOT play it faster than it should be. Playing a piece quickly with the intention to show off will not impress the judges. In fact, you’re more likely to trip over challenging passages if you start playing too fast.
  7. Start playing. Again, don’t keep the judges waiting too long. Go for it!
  8. Take your time. Concerning the tempo, it is perfectly okay when sight reading to play the passage a little slower than you might in a real performance.
  9. Keep a steady tempo. Don’t speed up or slow down. One of the most important things you can do is play the passage at a steady, consistent speed. This is something the judges are specifically looking for. Varying your tempo will give the judges the impression that you don’t have a solid sense of rhythm.
  10. Read ahead. Play one measure as you’re look ahead the the next measure(s). “An experiment on sight reading using an eye tracker indicates that highly skilled musicians tend to look ahead further in the music, storing and processing the notes until they are played; this is referred to as the eye–hand span.” [1]
  11. Don’t sweat the bowings. Start with a down bow (unless otherwise marked) and take it as it comes.
  12. Don’t stop or repeat measures if you mess up. This is also something the judges look for specifically as you can’t stop and repeat measure in a real performance, especially with an accompanist or when playing in an orchestra. Forge ahead!
  13. Don’t apologize or say, “Oops!” In fact, don’t say anything. Not even a disclaimer before you begin, like, “Oh, wow. Okay. This is probably going to sound really bad, but here goes!”
  14. Stop playing when instructed. Always stop immediately when the judges say so. Usually they stop you to stay on schedule or because they’ve gotten a good impression of your playing abilities based on what you’ve already done.
  15. And lastly, pat yourself on the back. It’s over! You did it! It’s as simple as that.

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[1] Wikipedia, “Sight reading,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sight_reading#Sight-reading

7 thoughts on “15 Tips to Successfully Sight Read”

  1. I just went through this in an audition. I was too afraid to leave the judges waiting to look over the piece before I started, and I regretted it immediately. The excerpt started with a double whole note, and the half note got the beat, something I didn’t realize until I’d made it into the orchestra and was playing the piece, so I played it much too slow, and my rhythm was a mess. I think it was kind of mean to give that as sight reading though-a double whole note? How often do those come up? And are the judges really going to get a good sense of what I can do under normal circumstances if they only give me weird stuff to sight read?

    1. Those come up every once in a while. Judges are known to throw “curve balls” too. Good sight-reading skills take practice. At least now you know what to look for.

  2. Enjoy your emails. I always find the tips helpful for practice. Would like to see some music theory for beginning adults. Thanks for your help. Jerry Rice

    1. We are glad to hear that you enjoy our tips! Thanks for the suggestion about including music theory. I will be sure to pass that along to the other authors as well.

  3. In response to some comments on violinist.com:

    It seems that reading music and reading prose are so similar. Maybe developing speed reading skills may help; i.e. the ability to absorb information by looking at an entire phrase, sentence, or line rather than by sounding out individual phonetic sounds or words. In music terms, this would mean looking at a musical figure or phrase and knowing what it should sound like rather than by looking at each individual note and piecing the notes together.

    I am also a firm believer in the power of sight singing, or being able to know what the music sounds like by simply looking at it. I agree that skill will definitely help sight reading more than anything.

  4. This is a good article, Liz. Sight reading is the second hardest part of an audition for me (the only harder part being walking onto the stage, picking up the violin and playing the first note!), and this article gave me some very good information on how to tackle it.

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