Sight Reading How to improve the skill of Sight Reading


 Sight reading is a term for musicians/teachers and students alike that can either send shivers down the spine and or an inner cringe or can excite.

Sight reading is the ability to be able to read a piece of music at sight. In other words when I say read a piece of music, I mean for the musician, teacher or student to be able to play or sing it at some level of performance.  It is no longer sight reading if the music is played again since the memory has already started to process some fragments of the music. 

The more skilled the musician is at sight reading the better the sight-read performance will be. That does not necessarily mean however that a skilled musician is by definition an excellent sight reader.



I think that there are a few significant reasons for this that are not related to the skill of sight reading.

Personality:  Some people are organizers, planners and like to know what they are doing ahead of time. They do not like surprises and often adapt to sudden changes in the plan but are not overly enthusiastic when a plan is changed.

When Music comes into the picture, It is this group of people that I believe that the skill of sight reading is their nightmare. They are asked to perform something which they do not by nature like doing not because it is sight reading but because it is a skill they do not see value in or do well in their normal lives outside of the music lesson.

 In my experience as a music teacher, I have often noted that the student who is less organized generally and tends to be a last-minute decision maker may not be the best student in other areas, but when it comes to sight reading, they shine. Why because they are used to doing things off the cuff, on the hop. They have developed a range of skills to accommodate their unpreparedness and these skills kick in when sight reading is required.

 2. Fear: Fear is a big factor in my opinion which can hinder the sight-reading experience for students. Again, those students who like to prepare, who like to get things right, who are capable and able to analyse and who want to do their best often have the most difficulty with sight reading.  Generally, those people who are planners like and are good at detail.  They may see the big picture but they like the detail- the fine print to get them there. No detail or scanty detail is scary for them. 

Addressing those fears is important with the student if they are to overcome them and put sight reading as a pleasurable activity.

For those students who are last minute decision makers, then they have less fear when it comes to sight reading- why because they have less mental baggage.  They can also hide their fear too but they tend to have a different mindset around the topic. It is just another skill to learn on the hop and it is learning on the hop that they have mastered so well in their own lives that they can easily adapt it to sight reading. Generally, the last-minute decision makers are less interested in detail but can take a mental picture of an overall view.

The other major problem with the skill of sight reading is that teachers themselves have their own reaction to it whether it be something they liked themselves or it was their worst fear of the music lesson.

How we feel about it can be communicated to our students by the way we talk about it or by the way we include it easily or awkwardly into the lesson.  Many teachers do not face their own issues around the topic and so continue the cycle of the dreaded sight reading their students.

Fear can also be fear of the unknown or learning something new. Some people do not like the unknown situation or change so without notice they react badly to it. 

Fear also can be related to playing something unprepared in front of another people. Take for example students in a band or even adults in a choir. The director asks the band or choir to sight read the piece of music or asks certain members of the band or choir to play or sing. This fear then is not their ability to play or sing since they have that confidence in their own ability. It is the group problem of ‘what will people think of me or perhaps even the desire to fit in with the group. 

I will never forget an incident I had when I was a young teacher at a school   There was a young student some years ago who was great at sight reading- actually great at many things- he was a good student.  He lacked however many friends because his peers were envious of his abilities.

 I asked him one day at rehearsal to sight read the passage knowing that he had the ability to do it.  What surprised me then was what resulted in the request.  He made a few unusual mistakes which did surprise me but what was even more surprising was the reaction of the other students. They clapped and cheered.  I was horrified at the reaction and thinking that I had put this student in this situation I was determined to make it right.

Fortunately, when I spoke to the student afterwards expecting that the student would be reticent, I encountered him so pleased with me. You have turned my life around Miss- he said- I now have some friends.
So for many people sight reading has the same fear factor of public speaking and for others the longing to belong to be part of a group and not stand out  is so strong that  lowering their own standards to get that fulfilment is much more important.

4 Sight reading is a foreign entity that appears just before exams as teachers thrust it  on the students.. Students are then pressured into learning the skill quickly without developing the skill naturally.

5. Eye sight:  Often the student has difficulty sight reading because they actually have eye sight issues. Ask the parents to get their eyes checked because some students do have eye sight issues and others have the problem of the eye not moving quickly enough. This muscle needs to be trained.

6. Teachers often do not address how their students learn naturally. Are they a visual learner or an aural learner or are they a more tactile in their approach to learning.   The problem in regard to sight reading occurs because either teachers do not address this with their students or assume that if their students are visual learners, they will be good at sight reading.



1. Know your student and their personality- are they a planner, organised, like detail or do they work off the cuff.

2. Change the name: sight reading is not exactly the most exciting name. Why not exploring new music or the like. This can help to alleviate the fear for the organised, detailed student.

3. Explore new music in every lesson from day 1. This is something many teachers fail to do- partly because of their own nightmares around sight reading and partly time factor in the lesson.  However, in my view, if you incorporate sight reading skills into the lesson in an engaging way, the fear, negative mind set and nightmares will not be there. 

4. Depending on the age of the student, use a variety of methods to help the student see the patterns involved.   Card games, memorisation of bars or note values or asking them to tell you 3 things that they noticed about the music are great ways to start to develop the skill.  Like reading itself, sight reading has to be developed. 

It we  think of the process of reading, we first learn the letters and then start to add them together to make words and then over time these words become sentences and paragraphs- and then voila you can read – possible well or not so well but you can read.

The same applies in music. However, I think the major problem is that many teachers do not teach properly music theory especially the notation because they do not spent the time required. If students do not understand the symbol of notation, then it is almost impossible to expect them to play it. It is asking them to read something they have no clue- almost like asking someone to read in a different language which they have never studied.  Yet we expect the same of our students.

 Because I am an organised, detailed person myself I dreaded sight reading when I was young- I feared getting it wrong and could not really understand why it was an important skill.

The change came when as an adult I decided to overcome my fear of sight reading.   I replaced the name sight reading with exploring music in my mind. Then the fear of being wrong disappeared and the dread too.  I gradually over many years practised the skill of sight reading- playing music card games by recognising notes quickly such a flashing a card in front of me and then taking it away quickly and naming it. I did this with note names and then with note values and then gradually added patterns of notes.  This was a great first step to improving sight reading.

The other important step was to practice the skill and play something new every day and look forward to doing it. I did not think of it as developing my sight reading but exploring new music.

It is also important I think to choose music that is so much easier than your ability at first to build up confidence in your ability to sight read. Remember a student who develops an innate sense of his/her ability will be able to draw on it when learning new material.
You might think this a little strange- I did this very thing myself despite being a music teacher for many years. I got out my music books at the beginner stage taking out the fear factor of it will be too hard. Then gradually worked my way through the book. Then moved to more advanced music later of course.

 As a teacher, I ask my students to explore music at every lesson. I teach them gradually the skills required to be a good sight reader but because I no longer fear and dread it, I can empathise with the students who feel that way.  In my opinion, understanding your student’s personality and how they work well is key to unlocking their attitude towards sight reading.