Tips for Improving Your Sight Reading

sight reading music

Photo Credit: canoe too on Flickr

Many times we are held back by our inability to read new material quickly and accurately. This weakness can surface while playing in a band, on a gig, or in a recording session. Some players seem to be able to read anything placed on their stand while others fumble with even the simplest passages. Teachers many times will explain to their students that the only way to improve their sight reading skills is to do more reading. While this is true, it doesn’t address the basic problems facing the student. I have learned that “just reading more new music” is not a time and energy efficient approach to solving this situation. I will try to break this weakness down into three basic areas and suggest activities which should improve a players ability to sight-read more quickly and accurately.

Don’t Avoid it, Do it

From my experience, I have found that those with less than acceptable sight-reading skills usually are the ones who spend little if any time reading new material. This observation seems pretty basic and for that reason, the first thing you need to do is set aside time in your daily practice for reading new music. Just five minutes a day will make a big improvement in your reading skills. The difficulty of the new material should not exceed your comfort zone so when you begin to add to your practice sessions, do not load up on something as difficult as Charlier 36 Transcendental Etudes Pour Trumpet. A much more productive book would be something like the First Book of Practical Studies: Cornet and Trumpet by Robert W. Getchell followed by his second book. Reading this material for the first time should be a pleasurable, not a nerve wracking experience. As you read each simple exercise, you need to strive for perfection not just to bolster your ego. Keep it simple and play without errors. Get in the habit of playing it correctly the first time. Once you have completed book one and two, and you feel confident with this level of music, it would be time to begin your real assignment.

Our ability to sight read fluently is sometimes hampered by our natural tendency to slow down on the difficult passages of music and rush on the easy passages. Practicing with a metronome will help to control this urge but a more productive way is to practice with someone else. Playing duets with another player has many advantages such as keeping you consistent, pushing you harder and forcing you to play at the best of your ability. If you have no friends to help you, try recording yourself while playing with a metronome. A “click track” is essential when trying to play duets with yourself. It is also helpful for keeping a steady tempo. The best collection of duets I have found is the Amsden’s Celebrated Practice Duets written by Arthur Amsden and published by C.L. Barnhouse Music Publishers. There are more than enough duets in this collection to keep you and a friend busy for a long time.

What Makes Sight Reading Difficult?

Answer, Rhythms!

One of the most difficult issues when sight reading is not the inability to read the notes, it is the inability to read the rhythms. I have a fellow trumpet player from the Les Brown Band that is kind enough to visit me each week to play duets. We have been doing this for several months and I have enjoyed the company as well as the chance to benefit from his experience as a working musician. While playing through the Amsden duet book, we both suddenly stopped playing and looked at each other in disbelief. We both realized that each part had missing beats. The feeling we both felt when trying to play that measure was comical. It felt like someone pulled the plug on our brains. We looked at each other and began laughing. Previously while playing together, we were able to miss a note or two (or one-hundred) and continue without missing a beat but when we tried to play a measure with the incorrect number of beats, we both froze and could not go on. When sight reading, most of the time our fingers react quickly to the pitch of every note but when our eyes come across a rhythm that is new to us, we go blank. We know how to finger every note on our instrument but when faced with an unfamiliar rhythm, it stops us from continuing. This is the reason why many people cannot sight read quickly. It’s not the notes; it’s the unfamiliar rhythms that slows them down. One area you will need to improve in your sight reading will be the ability to recognize unusual rhythms. We are slowed down in our sight-reading more from the inability to recognize rhythms than not being able to play the notes.

I have searched the internet for a simple, beginners level rhythmic etude book which would address this issue. Unfortunately I have not been able to find one that I thought was worth the cost. That is the reason I have decided to write one which would address this area in a way which would be both educational as well as interesting for the student. The collection of rhythmic studies will be completed and available by the first of November. In addition to the etudes, you will have the option of purchasing a CD which gives the student the opportunity to play along with a click track as well as listening to a professional trumpet player playing the exercises. This will accelerate the students reading ability and they will also find it fun to practice.

In conclusion I have listed my suggestions on how to become a better sight reader. I hope you gain from these suggestions and please feel free to submit any comments or questions you may have on this topic.

Suggestions for Improving Your Sight Reading Skills

  • Set aside time each day (10-15 minutes) for reading new music (keep it simple).
  • Once or twice a week play duets with a friend or with a recording of yourself.
  • Practice a little every day in rhythmic study book

What are some of the ways you have discovered that help you with your sight reading?  Add your comments below.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.

11 thoughts on “Tips for Improving Your Sight Reading

  1. Phil Landsberg

    Point out to the student that all music is composed of:
    arrpeggios (broken chords)
    and misc. jumps, which is the hardest part to improve.
    There is a book by Charles Colin that just offers odd
    interval jumps. Not big jumps, just not based on an
    obvious scale or arrpeggio (chord)
    They’re like nonsense syllables but in music.
    Some practice in that will push one along toward your goal.

  2. Bruce Chidester

    Very go ideas. Thanks for sharing them with us.
    Another cheaper way to do the same thing is read your etudes backwards. You end up with the same effect but it costs nothing.


  3. Henry White

    I recently joined a church orchestra. Some of the arrangements for church orchestras are filled with difficult and awkward rythms. It seems to me the arrangers go out of their way to make the rythms unpredictable. It will sure improve your reading. The best part is it’s free. The important thing is to find a church with the best arrangements. Hope this is helpful.

    • Bruce Chidester

      In my opinion, best part of playing in church orchestras is the fact that you are playing for a wonderful cause.

      Your reference to difficult rhythms goes along with the more recent Rock and Pop rhythmic subdivisions. During the Swing period, we seldom had any rhythmic patterns more complicated than a dotted eighth and a sixteenth. Once Funk and Progressive Rock came on the scene, the rhythmic subdivisions became more difficult. Additionally, the horn parts written by contemporary Christian composers seem to be written from the standpoint of piano and guitar playing composers.

      If you want to improve your sight reading of intervals, try playing out of easy clarinet etude books. Getting from one range to another on a clarinet takes only the depressing or releasing the clarinets octave key. Some of the most challenging etudes I have played were written for clarinet. They are also good for upper range playing, but don’t think you can play one etude after another without resting in between for the clarinet can out last a trumpet any day.

      Your comment about good Church charts reminded me of some that I was playing at our church. I enjoyed these very much and you can find them at…

    • Betty Visocan

      You are right! Awkward – that sums it up.The toughest things I play are the trumpet I parts that go with choir arrangements, or a descant part in conjunction with a cantor. And I don’t get to practice together with them as much as I would like – given that we do new music each week. No wonder we rarely have instrumentalists willing to add to our church music. You have to really want to contribute to get through these pieces. Hang in there. I have started to use a digital recorder at choir practice, then slow down and speed up the piece to practice at a variety of speeds because you never know what is going to happen when you perform. I use a “Silent Brass practice mute” to warm up a bit during the verses while the choir sings before I reach the fanfare-like notes I will add (always in the high end of my range and at pianissimo) only in the last verse and chorus of the song. It is hard to stay warmed-up in the church service, (it is chilly in the outer edges of our Montana church). Still, I relish the chance to serve. My small additions seem to motivate the choir. I hope it adds to the service for the parishoners. I can’t switch churches to find the one with the best music program, but I do play at other churches – and some are musician-friendly. It is a pleasure to play there. Thanks for your note, I thought I was the only one who thought the arrangers of our church music hated trumpeters and wanted to torture them. We foil them by playing with love.

      • Bruce Chidester

        Thanks again.

        I have been lucky enough to have played in many different styles of music from symphonies to car shows, from recording studios to International programs, from Dixieland to rodeos and the only time I truly feel like I’m contributing to positive music is when I’m playing to praise God.

        Have a great Easter and lift your bell to Him as I will Sunday.

  4. Xyz

    Have you seen the book Rhythmic Training?

    • Bruce Chidester

      No I haven’t.
      I will get a copy and look at it.

      What do you think of it?

      • Xyz

        I think it is good. My band director really likes it too — she had all of us get it.

  5. Betty Visocan

    You are so right. Reading is mostly about the rhythms. I am a comeback player only swimming in intermediate waters, but I wanted to mention that the use of SmartMusic has been a big help. At first my ability to read music outdid my ability to play it on my horn, but as I regained playing skills, I found that my ability to read highly syncopated music, like jazz and pop, also need work. I think I had mastered those same rhythms 40 years ago, but I really needed a refresher. That is where SmartMusic came in. I could play a little something new each day, at an appropriate level for me. I could choose to be guided through the rhythms with a play-a-long melody for my part, or do without it and test myself. I could add a metronome click to the exersise or song to help me define the rhythms and prevent that “slow-down” you mentioned. In any case, SmartMusic “asseses” my performance and lets me know when I missed the rhythm, came in late, missed the accidental, etc. It displays a red-marked sheet of music at the end to show you what you played, what you left out and where you missed the pitch or rhythm. It keeps me honest. It was fun to play those swing tunes from the big band era, improvise solos with Jamey Aebersold volumes with rhythm tracks, or pretend I am Rocky on the steps in Philadephia playing “Gotta Fly Now” with the back up of a great orchestra! It made sightreading fun! It is a bit like candy; I can overdo it and neglect my scales and etudes. I think 36 some dollars for an annual subscription is a great price. You need a computer and nice speakers help.I bought the instrument mic but I don’t use it. My computer mic is great. SmartMusic comes with a metronome and tuner. It won’t help much if you are truly an advanced player. SmartMusic has advanced material, in solos, jazz ensembles, concert band and orchestra forms, but not that much. I do spend a lot of time in Rubank Method Advanced Volumes I and II which are available in the “Method Book” area. In SmartMusic, for the masochist amoung us you can speed up the playing tempo and make those Rubank studies very challenging. It is a great way to try out more advanced solos without relying on an accompanist for practice sessions. All of these activities lead to more sight-reading and improved reading. Yes. playing duets with a practice partner was a help too. Playing with an ensemble and reading lots of tunes together before we settled on a performance list helped. But day in and out it was SmartMusic that kept me interested in trying new music and made it a positive experience. Did I mention that SmartMusic records your performance as you play? I don’t recommend spending too much time agonizing over how you sound, but a reality check is needed now and again when you are having so much fun reading new tunes with back-up tracks. Thanks for a great article. You always share such wonderful advice. Hope to visit Branson and see you perform some day. There is so much joy in making music, thanks for encouraging all of us through your website and Facebook page.

    • Bruce Chidester

      Thank you so much for your information and our readers should read your comments completely. You have covered a large amount of helpful information and one point you made was very interesting.

      I have been working with my own prerecorded tapes for practicing for many years and have also found that playing along with recordings is a very easy way to get your playing in without getting bored.

      To be completely honest, I hate to practice but I hate even more to sound bad and the recorded exercises have always kept me going.

      Thanks again for your thought provoking comments and please come back.


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