By Joseph Neisler, Professor of Horn, Illinois State University

Sight reading is a critical skill for musicians. It demonstrates your ability to read music, count rhythms and hear pitches.
It saves time in learning music and good sightreading skills eliminate wasted trial and error practice. It is a mental skill that is required for all instruments and voices and has little to do with playing notes on an instrument. If you can count the rhythms, hear the notes and finger the pitches, the rest is just playing your horn.

Excellent sightreading skills are requirement for all professional musicians. Many players just try to finger through patterns and use no plan when they sightread.

Below you will find some very effective daily sightreading exercises and a sightreading plan or checklist.
Practice religiously, just like scales and technique, and you will observe great improvement.

Daily Sightreading Practice

  1. Develop a good sense of rhythm and subdivisions. Using a metronome set to a variety of tempos, practice subdividing beats by verbalizing the syllable “tah”. Practice all subdivisions and the ability to switch back and forth between: eighths, triplets, sixteenths, etc.
  2. Practice counting through the rhythms in a new piece, verbally, on the syllable “tah”. It may help to conduct and subdivide rhythms. Substituting smaller divisions for written rhythms or removing ties may help you to understand and execute challenging rhythms. Slow the tempo down if that helps.
  3. Play the 1st pitch and try to sing the piece completely through, all pitches. The instrumental range may not fit your vocal range, so adjust octaves as you feel the need. In order to stay on pitch while singing, you will need to learn intervals, practice singing them often and test notes on your instrument. Practice buzzing the selection on your mouthpiece. Sing the pitches and rhythms in your mind as you buzz. Once you have mastered the ability to sing and hear and identify intervals, sing and buzz through selections from church hymnals and songbooks on a daily basis. This is called ear training, but it is really mind training.
  4. Practice fingering through the selection. Keep your fingers on the valve spatualas (keys), flying fingers slow down the technique.

The following Sightreading Checklist is a strategic plan that will help develop good sightreading. It provides a step by step process that allows you to concentrate and prevent panic.

Sightreading Checklist

Mentally address the following issues before attempting to sightread each new piece.

  1. Look at the meter signature and determine the value of the beat and the number of beats per measure.
  2. Determine the tempo based upon the composer’s written instructions. Be conservative, no faster than you will be able to play the most difficult measure.
  3. Establish a steady beat based upon tempo and meter. Do not stop, rush or drag. It is better to miss a note and keep the tempo. It may help to conduct or pat your foot.
  4. Glance through the music observing the various rhythmic subdivisions of the beat.
  5. Mentally establish all the subdivisions needed, in the tempo you have determined.
  6. Check the key signature and repeat the accidentals to yourself three times.
  7. Look for dynamic changes and plan to exaggerate them. Look for phrasing and breath marks.
  8. Try to identify patterns and intervals: scales, octaves, arpeggios, and intervals. If you have not studied intervals, ask your music teacher and/or enroll in a music theory class and/or choir. As you play, try to hear the pitches as if you were singing.

With a little daily practice, you will be able to go through it quickly and sightreading will become easier and more fun.
Mentally go through the Sightreading Checklist before you read each new piece and sightread at least one new piece each day.

Dr. Joe Neisler is Horn Professor at Illinois State University, Principal Horn, Peoria Symphony and Opera Illinois and an EducationalSpecialist for UMI/Conn.