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3 Important Music Sight Reading Tips to Always Have in Your Pocket

Updated: 6 days ago

I apologize for being MIA for so long. Being a music student, coach, and entrepreneur (plus mom, chef, chauffer, etc...) is hard work! It's the last couple of weeks in the term, and I have been busy preparing for concerts and final exams (eek!). Some repertoire I'm currently working on for my jury next year are:

  1. Tan Dun's Eight Memories in Watercolour

    1. Missing Moon

    2. Staccato Beans

    3. Herdboy's Song

    4. Sunrain

  2. Chopin's Nouvelle Etude no. 1

I'm also working on some Baroque and Classical repertoire; Prelude and Fugue in F# Minor by J.S. Bach, Sonata in Bb Major K333 by WA Mozart, Prelude in D Major by Rachmaninoff, and Le Passe by Cecile Chaminade - hoping to present it well enough to my teacher soon!

I'll usually post video clips (of my imperfect performances) and ahem, hopefully better ones that I do in masterclasses and recitals on my Youtube Channel. Please subscribe to stay updated! Also, I have categorized my sight reading videos in playlists according to the major styles/era as well. Links to the free sheet music are at this page.

Onto important things ...

Must-have Strategies for Sight Reading a New Piece of Music

Today, we will take an excerpt from Cornelius Gurlitt's Scherzo in E Minor, op. 140 as an example. If you are an intermediate piano player, this is a good late-elementary piece to practice sight reading.

There are always the THREE crucial steps to always before you dive into sight reading any new piece of music. Taking the time to analyze patterns before you start playing can make your sight reading practices more enjoyable and approachable.

Tip #1: Clefs, Time Signature, Key Signature

Always, always, always identify these three things first: The Clefs, The Time Signature, The Key Signature.

This is the number one rule in sight reading, so always practice doing this before you play the piece. Knowing the key signature is essential because you will need to know which notes need to have the correct pitches adjusted when you play. For example, there is an F# in the RH in measure 1 (highlighted in orange). Circle the note with a pencil if you must, in time, you can slowly remove the assistance of the pencil and be comfortable just knowing what to do.

Now, in examinations you do have only 20 - 20 seconds to scan the score, but take this as a goal to work towards - remember, it takes practice and consistency and this skill is not acquired overnight. I always tell my students that this is akin to learning basic facts in math, i.e. 8+8 = 16. The answer should come to your mind naturally and fast. That's why the reading of more than three sharps and flats in key signatures are more advanced but it can be done!

Tip#2: Tap/Speak the Rhythm; Identify the Smallest Division of the Base Beat

Next, you'll need to identify the rhythm. Now that you know the time signature, you have the information on the base beats. Then, you will scan the score for the trickiest part, which is usually where smallest divisions of the base beat occurs. In this case, it is the 1/16th note that appears with the dotted 1/8 note in the first few measures.

Now, tap the base beat on your lap with one hand, and use the other to run through the part where you have identified the smallest division of the beat. You can also hum quietly the RH melody if you wish.

As you do this, notice the pattern of the group of notes that are moving in each measure as well (moving up by steps, and in m.3 it is a leap). Identifying intervallic patterns can help you prepare to approach a section with suitable fingering.

Tip#3: Identify Clefs at the Beginning ... and if they Change Mid-Way

Clef changes in the middle of a piece are never easy, so it is always a good thing to mentally prepare for the shift in mindset. When you have identified this, mentally note which fingering you are going to use, especially on the starting pitch.

In this example, at first glance the first phrase are LH chords, starting in the root position (E minor chord). Notice how it is moving, if you can see the bass note stays the same at E and the only fingers you have to move is the upper voices of the chords in measure 2.

Now look, there is a clef change in measure 5! Luckily you have some time to prepare with the 1/8 rest in measure 4, but knowing ahead of time what to do can be of great help.

Now, you are ready to read and play!

Too often we rush into the reading but do not take the time to analyze important patterns before trying to play it.

Remember to always give yourself a count-in of 1-2 measures before you play your first note. This prepares you to start and maintain a comfortable sight reading tempo. Even if you do make mistakes along the way, try to keep the pace going because the goal is very different from perfecting a repertoire for performance with repeating drills again and again. In sight reading (at first pass) the goal is to train the eyes/mind to read what's up ahead - so playing in time is more important at least at the beginning stages, and eventually you will work up to playing pitches correctly on the first try.

You can repeat the sight reading excercise a second time to adjust any corrections you'd like, but don't spend any more time on it after, pick a new sight reading excercise to work on!

If you'd like to join our sight reading community to share your sight reading practice videos (bravely), please visit

I love sight reading new music myself to learn and explore (the repertoire library of the world is immense!), and if you are looking for free lower level repertoire to explore, check out our Free Sheet Music page on this website or our reddit community in the link above.

I'd love to see your practice videos. Happy sight reading!

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