The skill of reading music at sight relies on your ability to see, understand, and immediately play certain music notes that you have never seen before. This skill is important for an accompanist to acquire for several reasons. The conductor of your ensemble may not choose music in time for you to prepare for rehearsal; you may need to play something during rehearsal for the first time. If you work for a choir that auditions singers, you will be expected to sight read whatever operatic arias are place on the music rack in front of you. Although we should always prepare for rehearsal, sometimes events that are out of our control prohibit us from practicing as much as we need or would like. You may have shown up to rehearsal two hours early for the past seven years and fully expect to have time to practice new music, but one day you get a flat tire. By the time you call a tow truck and catch a Lyft to rehearsal, the warm-ups have finished and the choir is ready to sing through a piece you have never seen before. While sight reading in public should always be a last resort, it is something you should be prepared in case the need arises.
How to Practice Sight Reading
When we learn a new instrument, the process of understanding notation and activating certain muscular patterns that create the sound we want can take a long time. When we are sight reading, this process needs to occur instantly. This is a specific skill that we can acquire through practice.
Acquiring the skill of sight reading is similar to acquiring other musical skills: it takes time, and the patience to start with simple tasks. We already know how to read music and play the organ. The skill we are developing here is the ability to read and understand music quickly. There is no time to write in fingering, label courtesy accidentals, and study phrasing. We need to be able to look at a piece of written music and translate that into aural music almost simultaneously. In order to do that, we need to be able to quickly—as in a fraction of a second—connect neurological pathways in our brain between the visual aspect of reading musical notation and the physical process of playing organ or piano keys.
The best way I know of to practice sight reading is to start simple, assess the piece, keep a steady beat, and look ahead.
Start simple. Begin with music that you stand a decent chance of playing successfully. Don’t start with the chorale preludes of Max Reger. Go to your choir library and find a compilation of simple anthems, like the Morning Star Choir Books, or any number of beginning-to-intermediate level piano instruction methods.
Assess the piece. Before you start playing, look at important features of the piece like the key signature and time signature. Look at the entire piece. Are there any places that look especially dense with lots of black notes? Take a second to make a mental note of where they are, and know that it is okay not to play all of the notes. When you are sight reading, you can let some notes go in order maintain the bigger picture of rhythm, tonality, and phrasing.
Keep a steady beat. How you play when you are alone is your own business, but when you are accompanying an ensemble, you have a responsibility to stay with the conductor and singers. Practice with this rhythmic discipline when you are alone so you will be better prepared when sight-reading during a rehearsal. When practicing, choose a tempo that will allow you to play most of the notes correctly, but one that will also challenge you.
Look ahead. When you are sight reading, if you are looking at the notes you are playing, you have no time to prepare for upcoming notes. Get into the habit of looking at the notes ahead of the ones you are playing presently. A good rule of thumb is to try to keep your eyes one measure ahead of your hands and feet.
Hall, Jonathan B. “Ten Tips on Sight-Reading.” The American Organist (2009). https://www.agohq.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Ten-Tips_Hall.pdf.
Herman, David. “Thoughts on Service Playing, Part III: Helpful Hints for Sight-Reading and Learning New Music.” The Diapason (2017). https://www.thediapason.com/ content/thoughts-service-playing-part-iii-helpful-hints-sight-reading-and-learning-new-music.