How To Do Better In Your Sight-Reading Tests (Part II)


You cannot improve your sight-reading skills instantly. But with a more efficient way of reading, and more attention to details, you can sharpen your skills in a relatively short period of time.

One thing about sight-reading that most players neglect is the speed of analyzing the details. YOU MUST TRAIN YOURSELF TO READ FASTER AND TO PROCESS DETAILS IN A VERY SHORT AND LIMITED TIME FRAME. Although the time limit given in any of the graded ABRSM exams (usually 30 seconds in graded exams, up to 5 minutes in the diploma levels) is a of very short time and eventually you do want to train yourself to read quickly in the time given, this is NOT the time limit you want to give yourself when you start training your sight-reading ability.

You must give yourself more time to read the music at the beginning. Say 3 (for lower grades 1-5) to 5 minutes (for upper grades 6-8). Or even a few minutes more. The main point is to try to READ EVERYTHING. It is important to READ FROM THE TOP.

Start with the TITLE (for grades 6-8). The title indicates the character and style of the piece, sometimes even the tempo (for example if it says march, then you would have a general idea of how a march is like).

Then the TEMPO indication. There is an italian term right on top of the beginning of the song and many ignore it. You have to know what the term means and it indicates the general tempo as well. Get a rough idea of how fast/slow the tempo would be.

Next is the CLEFS. Do not take it for granted that they must be treble and bass clefs. Sometimes the song might start with two treble clefs, or more uncommonly but possibly, two bass clefs. So make sure you check the clefs before you start.
Now, it comes to the KEY SIGNATURE. Read how many sharps or flats there, and try to determine what key the piece is in. Think about the major AND relative minor keys of the key signature. Then, check the beginning and the ending of the piece, see what chords or bass notes it starts and finishes at. For example, if the key signature indicates it’s an A major or F# minor, check to see if the piece starts with an A major or a F# minor chord or bass note, and more importantly, if it ENDS with an A major or a F# minor chord or bass note. Whichever chord it ends on must be the tonic of the key (at least for all the graded levels I am mentioning right now). I usually would ask my students to play the scale of that key the music is in in order to get a sense (and sound) of how the key is like.

Next thing is the TIME SIGNATURE. It is of utmost importance that you read the time signature very carefully. It would be easier if it’s in simple time, like 2/4, 3/4, 4/4. Pay extra attention to the bottom number. What is the TIME VALUE OF ONE BEAT? The more common ones after 4 would be 8 (quaver/8th note), or 2 (minim/half note) (of course there are others like 16, or even 32 which is probably not found in graded levels). So be careful of that information there. If it is in a compound time like 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, make sure you know they are the compound 2, 3 and 4, and one beat is a dotted crotchet/quarter, or 3 quavers/8ths. Sometimes for the intermediate levels there are irregular times such as 5/8 or 7/8. Then you have to subdivide them into 2+3/8 or 3+2/8 (for 5/8), or 4+3/8, 3+4/8, 2+2+3/8 or 3+2+2/8 (for 7/8), depending on the groupings of the notes.

Next, determine the PULSE. HOW FAST IS ONE BEAT? It is very important that you establish a very clear pulse right from the start. Try to get the regular pulse from the first two measures of the music. At the beginning of this training, count the beat out loud for two measures. Establish that pulse as is without distractions of the pitch and rhythm is the best way to get a steady pulse right. Then find that same established pulse with the pitch and rhythm elements. Eventually, you would be able to get the pulse immediately in the music. I just cannot emphasize more how important establishing the pulse right from the start is.

(To be continued…)


Teresa Wong

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