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           Sight Reading Basics- What you Must Know!!

     -Successful Sight Reading happens in your head

     -95% of what you see in a Sight Reading excerpt is neither difficult nor surprising

-Your BEST Sight Reading practice is done with your instrument in your case!


Your job is to recognize what WILL be difficult or surprising so that it does not catch you off guard. The secret to doing this is to quickly scan the music visually, focusing on several different areas of technique. 


               Let's start with the areas you need to focus on and some tips to help you to nail them…….


                         Keep That Awful Silly Red Dog Back Stage!!*

Key Signature

Do not think about the name of the key…. think about what your left hand (or right) needs to do to play in that key.  This is really important!


Do you need to play low first fingers?  Or high fourth fingers? If you are a string player, can you play all your open strings?  Spend some time going through all the key signatures and learning exactly what you need to do in each.

Example 1- Two flats in the key signature on violin?  Bb and Eb-you cannot play the top open string!  And you must play low first fingers on all the strings except G. 

Example 2- Three sharps on the ‘cello? F#, C#, G# -you need to extend your 4th finger on all of the strings except the A string. You cannot play either of your two bottom open strings.  See how this works? 


Time Signature AND Tempo

All you need to know with the Time Signature is What Gets the Beat.  Is it a quarter note? An eighth note?  Figure that out and then look at the Tempo.  Your job is to get as close to it as possible.  (Go here for extra tips on this)



There are several things that really gain you points on a Sight Reading exercise and accidentals are one of them.  Don’t waste time naming them, think two things….

  • What does my hand need to do to play that note?

  • Where in the excerpt is it? End of line one? Middle of line 3? 

Picture the excerpt in your head and visually ‘place’ it there.  You will do this several times and it will help immensely!



This one is for String Players….  Shifting will gain (or lose) you points faster than you can say "Audition!".  Mentally, you need to look at each shift and answer several questions…

  • What note does it shift from? What finger does it shift from?

  • What note does it shift to? What finger does it shift to?

  • Do I cross a string? Do I have a bowing change at the same time?

  • Where in the excerpt does it happen?

It seems like a lot of time-consuming thought for each shift, but once you practice this approach a few times, it gets easier and faster.



This is where you trust the knowledge that you already have!!  You know the basics…. quarter notes, half notes, etc.  What you are looking for is something that might trip you up, or surprise you.  Dotted rhythms? Triplets? Sixty-fourth notes?

As you practice your Sight Reading skills, you will learn which things tend to be problematic.  If you see something that requires your attention, take a quick moment, and do two things:

  • Count it out.

  • Notice where it is on the page.  This is so important!


There is no easier way to pick up a few extra points on your audition than to nail the dynamics! This shows the judges that you realize there is more to the music than just notes and rhythm. It shows them that you are not so easily distracted while Sight Reading and that you are determined to make music, regardless.

This one is easy…. just skim for them, notice them and note where they are on the page.

Example- a crescendo in the middle of line 2……. a pianissimo at the very beginning...don't forget to visualize where they are.


Bowings/ Breath

Bowings-this is an interesting one.  Many auditions are behind a screen, so when it comes to whether your bow is going in the right direction or not, it might not matter, right?  But it does. We are hard-wired to do the correct bowings, and if we get turned around, it can distract us and cause us to trip up.  Your main job here is to look and see if anything is different, or unique or surprising. 


8 notes in a slur? Three down bows in a row?

Notice them.  And note where they are in the excerpt.

Breath- for our vocal and band Sight Readers…. pay attention.  Note where you need to breath.  If it is straight forward, move on with the rest of your study.  But if the entire excerpt does not have a single place to take a breath?  Figure out a quick game plan before you start. 


Strange Things

This is our favorite because this is where you can gain valuable points in your audition!


What are Strange Things? They are the things that are not notes and rhythms.  The symbols, and changes in the music that might take you by surprise.

Fermatas, repeat signs, D.C al Fine, trills…… you get the idea.

Do not skip these…. notice where they are in the music and make sure you nail them.

Pro tip- If your instrument plays in more than one clef, don't forget to notice clef changes!  This is a great addition to Strange Things to Notice!


Which of these are the most important?  They are ALL important!



Now…. go to our “Step By Step Guide for Practicing  Sight Reading” and let’s practice putting these steps to work.

*-Special thanks to my former 8th grade double bass student, David M., for coming up with a sentence to help us remember all the important stuff!

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