Sight Reading for Violin
“The ability to sight-read fluently is a most important part of your training as a violinist, whether you intend to play professionally or simply for enjoyment. Yet the study of sight-reading is often badly neglected by young players and is frequently regarded as no more than an unpleasant sideline. If you become a good sight-reader you will be able to learn pieces more quickly and play in ensembles and orchestras with confidence and assurance.” Paul Harris, author of the Improve your sight-reading series.
Sight-reading is a really important skill. We sight-read new pieces in orchestra and duet rehearsals, we get sight-reading tests in exams and auditions; if you can’t sight-read, learning a new piece, or even choosing which piece to learn, is an arduous task. An ability to sight-read well opens up opportunities to enjoy ensemble playing and take charge of your own learning. Good sight-readers are more versatile performers because they are able to assimilate new music and diverse styles very quickly, and to perform with minimal rehearsal time. Learning to sight-read well should be at the top of every violinist’s list of priorities.
The main problem with sight-reading is that we start to see it as separate from our other musical skills and even our basic musicianship. Faced with a piece of sight-reading, we shut down our brain to all of the things we have learned and enjoy about the instrument, and panic.
Fundamentally, sight-reading is the skill of reading music, and how that reading transfers into movement and sound. Sight-reading is a skill, and it is true that the more you do it, the more fluent you will become, but there is no point spending hours trying to improve unless you understand the elements of the skill. It is essentially a mental activity, the message travelling from eyes to brain to fingers, and it is important not to try too hard or you’ll get in your own way! Really successful sight-reading is relaxed, calm and musical.
It is important to practice sight-reading regularly as part of your practice. Once you have grasped the basic concepts, the skill needs constant reinforcement to instil good habits. If you can’t bear to practice on your own every day, arrange to meet friends for ensemble playing and read through new pieces with them.
Start with easy music
Only accessible material enables you to acquire the habits that will lead to fluency. Don’t choose to sight-read complex material, start with really basic music and build up to more complicated pieces gradually. Get as many sight-reading books as you can so you don’t run out of material. Paul Harris’s graded series, Improve Your Sight-reading is excellent, because it starts by breaking down the basic components of pulse, rhythm and melody, and the exam boards have books of specimen tests available. You could even use the pieces or sections of pieces you don’t know in any book you are working from. As a rough guide, it’s an idea to start learning to sight-read using music which is much easier than your current repertoire.
Practice sight-reading slowly; learn the positions of the notes on the stave and how they relate to your left hand finger patterns. Scales are great for learning finger placement. Make sure you know some basic theory concepts such as key and time signatures. Don’t be fazed if you come across something you’ve not seen before. That happens to everyone. Just find out what it is.
Prepare Your Piece in Ten Steps
The first thing to do when faced with a piece of music you haven’t seen before, because that’s all sight-reading is, is to prepare the piece.
- When you are new to sight-reading, start off by looking at the pulse of the piece. Is it in four-time or three-time, or some other time signature?
- Take the rhythm as a separate exercise. Count the pulse internally and clap or sing the rhythm. The greatest number of errors in sight-reading tend to be in the rhythm, so make this your first focus. Notice where the strong beats fall in the rhythmic pattern, and where there might be complicated rhythms. Don’t forget to count the rests. They are just as important as the notes.
- Now you are confident with the rhythm, look at the key signature. Notice which key the piece is in and if there are any sharps or flats you need to observe. Play the scale. Memorise this key signature. You’ll need it for the whole piece or until it changes.
- Look for tempo markings. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the common musical terms, and the Italian terms for tempo and expression. If the tempo marking is Moderato, don’t play it any faster than you have to.
- Now look at the overall structure. Are there any repeats? Where do they go back to?
- Look at the notes. There may be repeating patterns of pitch or rhythm. Can you spot any melodic patterns where fragments of scales or arpeggios occur? Now you’ve sung or clapped the rhythm, can you sing the notes too?
- Are there any accidentals? These are sharps or flats that are not in the key signature which may appear in the music. Remember, if a note is sharpened or flattened, it remains sharp or flat until the next bar line unless it is corrected by another accidental.
- Can you see where the phrases begin and end? As your sight-reading improves and rhythms and notes become more quickly apparent, your ability to see the bigger picture will help you to interpret the music as you play.
- If the piece goes above first position, work out where you might shift and how you will shift in order to reach the notes.
- Take on board whom the composer is and in what period of musical history your piece was written. This will have a bearing on the style you in which you play.
As you become more experienced, this process will speed up and you will be able to gauge most of the information you need by visually scanning the music before you start.
Now we’re going to try and play the piece.
Successful sight-reading is largely a matter of good quality concentration. Your mindset and focus as you look at the page is the most important factor. Notice your eyes. Visual steadiness is crucial. Relax your eyes and don’t let them fidget and flit about, losing connection with what you are doing. Instead of going through the motions of reading, really focus. True concentration is difficult to maintain for long, but you don’t have to work hard, merely practice awareness. The second you notice your concentration has gone, you have already refocused yourself.
Problems generally arise when we are not ready for the notes as they arrive. Your eyes are looking at a note and you are also playing that note, and sometimes it’s happening so fast that your brain can’t process the information. Then you start to feel that blind panic which makes you hate sight-reading. The trick is to continually read ahead. Keep your eyes moving a few beats in front of where you are playing. Sight-reading in this respect is actually the process of visually memorising short snippets of music you are about to play whilst playing something else. This allows the fingers to be ready for the notes as they arrive, and suddenly you are playing fluently.
Reading ahead enables you to look at the music in bigger chunks. Instead of looking at each note as a separate event, you start to see how its rhythm fits into the beat, and melodically where scale and arpeggio patterns appear and how other intervals fit in.
Don’t react to mistakes. As soon as you give too much attention to a mistake, your concentration is no longer on what you are doing, and the chances are you are just about to make another mistake, and another. Decide to play all the way through without stopping. Keep going at a steady tempo and don’t worry about a dropped note. Imagine how quickly an orchestra would fall apart if every player who made a mistake hesitated or went back to correct it. Soon nobody would be in the same place at all. Prioritise. If on your first try you are able to keep the pulse but play all of the wrong notes, that’s a good start.
So as you prepare to play the piece remember:
- Scan the piece to take in any important information such as key
- Concentrate fully
- Keep counting, even through the rests
- Look ahead
- Look at the music in large chunks
- Keep going through mistakes
- Express the music
- Keep breathing and minimise the physical effort you are using. Keep a positive mindset and insist on ease. The more we insist on ease of movement in our practice, the more it becomes our default habit.
Sight-reading is simply the process of playing a piece of music you haven’t seen before. Don’t separate it from your other musical skills in your mind; approach it with enthusiasm, curiosity and confidence. And now you have the tools to learn how to sight-read, never dismiss sight-reading practice as dull and unnecessary. It is one of the most fundamental skills a violinist needs.