• Ellen Allen

Sight-Reading 101

Do you like to sight-read?

LOL, right?

Well, some people do. *Meekly raises hand*

Why do so many singers dread sight-reading? Oh, so many reasons. Fear of the unknown. Fear of making a mistake. Feeling like they're on-the-spot. They don't feel like they're good at it. It's hard. The list could go on.

So, I'm here to help take some of the fear, dread, and mystery out of sight-reading!

Now, I'm going to offer you lots of tips in this post, based on years of sight-reading experience in all kinds of musical settings. My hope is that they will help you to prioritize what's important in a sight-reading situation, and help you not to get bogged down by what isn't.

However, know that sight-reading takes practice. Just reading about it is not going make you better. You have to do it. I'll offer some tips for that too. But, just so we're crystal clear on that. No magic bullet and all that.

What Is Sight-Reading?

Sight-reading is when you are handed a piece of music and immediately asked to sing or play it, without taking any time to learn it. You're usually given a few minutes to look it over silently, and work out a handful of crucial details, but not much more.

Why Is Sight-Reading Important?

Musical ensembles expect their members to be able to sight-read, to one degree or another. It helps a great deal in those first few rehearsals if the ensemble can muddle its collective way through something without it completely falling apart.

You may hear the argument that singers who mainly do stage productions or recitals don't need to be good sight-readers, because their work mostly involves preparing music well in advance. That might be true, but being able to sight-read is part of being a well-rounded musician. Instrumentalists are trained to be excellent sight-readers, even if they're primarily concert soloists. So why should singers be any different?

The Nuts And Bolts

When you're in a sight-reading situation, the first thing you need to do is remind yourself of the following things:

  • You will make mistakes

  • It's okay if you make mistakes

When you're handed a piece of music to sight-read, you should immediately look at

the following things:

  • The time signature

  • The tempo marking, if any is given

  • The key signature

Then, glance through the piece to get a general sense of what it's about. What's the style? Are there lots of moving notes, or sustained notes? Lots of rests? If so, what's happening during those rests that you can listen for when the time comes? Are there lots of accidentals (sharps/flats/naturals that aren't indigenous to the home key)? Do the key, tempo, and/or meter ever change? Are there any fancy repeats? If so, figure out where they go ahead of time.

Notice I mention NOTHING about the text. We singers are a word-centered people, and this is hard for some of us to grasp, but the text is not a priority when sight-reading. Sure, look at it if you have time; note what language it's in, etc. But keep in mind that you've got bigger fish to fry. After all, what's more important: keeping up with the rest of the ensemble, or dwelling on whether you pronounced "excelsis" correctly six measures ago? Exactly. Just sing whatever words come out of your mouth. No one is going to care that first time through - I promise you.

Your Three Main Goals:

  • KEEP UP.

  • Don't dwell on your mistakes in the moment.

  • KEEP UP.

The Main Musical Priorities, In Order:

  • Accurate rhythm. If this is your main goal, you'll have a better chance of starting and finishing sections at the right time, and focusing on cut-offs, tempo changes, and cues.

  • Anticipating the next thing. If you're thinking a couple beats ahead, there's less of a chance of getting left behind.

  • Accurate pitches. Even shooting just for general pitch direction is fine for the first time through.

If you're in a choral rehearsal and will probably sing that piece 50 more times before the night is out, have your pencil at the ready so you can circle any spots you missed the first time. Then you'll know to give extra focus to those passages during subsequent run-throughs.

Just A Heads Up:

  • Sight-reading can be mentally tiring. It's a lot of brain multi-tasking.

  • Sight-reading can be vocally tiring. When you're focused on keeping up, technique often gets put on the back burner. It's just what happens. Do what you can, obviously, but don't be surprised if you leave your rehearsal feeling vocally fatigued.

How Do I Practice Sight-Reading?

Sight-reading is hard, and the only way to get better at it is to do it more. There are tons of sight-reading methods, books, and apps that can help you work on rhythmic and pitch accuracy. As with anything, consistency is key. Do a little bit each day.

Once you feel somewhat comfortable, try sight-reading anything you can get your hands on. It doesn't even have to be a vocal piece. Give yourself 20-30 seconds to look it over, and try to go straight through without stopping. Then give yourself a little break, look it over again, and see if your accuracy improves with a second run-through.

Just remember: it takes time to get good at this. Everyone makes mistakes. And mistakes, if we have the right mindset about them, can be beautiful little pieces of information that we learn from for the next time.

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