Sight-reading is a skill that can be developed through regular practice. It isn’t an essential skill in order to be able to play an instrument, and many musicians can’t read music or can only read a little. However, being able to read opens up many more work and gig opportunities, as well as being able to access a vast range of material for practice.
Beginning to read music at sight can seem daunting, but if you start simply and at a speed that’s achievable you will soon see improvement. Input from a teacher can also be valuable.
A few pointers for reading one-line rhythms on a practice pad or snare drum before you play a note:
- Check basic information – time signature, tempo, are rhythms to be played straight or swung and the feel or style.
- Look for any form markings – repeated bars or passages, D.C or D.S. markings, signs or codas so that you have a sense of the ‘road map’.
- If you have time, look over the passage or piece to be read and identify figures and rhythms that you know as well as trying to analyse any tricky bars or passages.
- Try to make sure that you don’t become tense and breathe normally, both as you prepare and as you play.
- Focus, breathe again, count yourself in and begin to play.
- As you play through the piece, don’t stop. Try to keep the tempo consistent, unless it is meant to vary or change. Play as much as you can and keep going even when things aren’t quite correct.
You can always go back and look at any tricky bars or phrases once you have finished the piece or exercise.
If you are preparing a piece to be performed on a gig or in a concert you might want to do the following as well:
- Mark as many points as you can with a pencil. These should include anything that isn’t obvious but that you have been told. Form, tempo changes, feel changes and so on. Try not to have to commit too much to memory unless you really have to.
- If playing with a click, you may also want to note down count-ins, where the click changes or subdivides or ends early and so on. This will stop you losing focus and becoming distracted as you perform.
- Play as much as you can that is written on the chart, but also listen to the musicians around you. It’s also important to perform as an ensemble and to give a coherent interpretation of the piece of music.
- Don’t worry if you miss some figures or rhythms. Try to stay ‘in the now’, focus and keep playing.
Finally, try to practice some reading every day as part of your routine so that you are always prepared.