Counting, looking ahead, and prioritizing are keys to success
by Robert Battey

Everyone knows that good sight-reading requires the player to always scan ahead; to take in a new measure while still playing the current one. This “double vision,” like anything else, will improve over time with practice. And, of course, the more technique you have, the more difficult music you can handle. But sight-reading can be immediately improved with specialized work, whatever your level.

In a nutshell, successful sight-reading requires three things at all times: (1) counting, (2) looking ahead, and (3) prioritizing. Counting and looking ahead are self-evident; it’s the prioritizing where things get interesting.

To do it right, the hierarchy of tasks (three levels) must be applied in strict order, as follows:

Level I

Keep a steady pulse and maintain your place in the music (visually, if nothing else). Meter, tempo, and pulse are paramount. As Mozart once wrote to his father, “the most necessary, most difficult, and principal thing in music is time.” And your first responsibility is to your colleagues, who are depending on you to play in such a way as to allow them to get through their parts successfully.

So, if you can do nothing else, play just the rhythmic skeleton, keep the basic time, follow your music along visually, and resume full playing as soon as you can without disruption. Whatever you do play must always fit within the pulse of the music. When a storm hits, the bar-lines are your friends; abandon all else and hold onto them!

“Maintaining the pulse” is more subtle and difficult than simply counting. Indeed, if you count without listening you will harm the group. It means integrating others’ playing (which may well be inexact) into your counting. It requires intelligent and interactive listening to what’s going on around you, and assimilation of that rhythmic activity into your internal pulse. Playing in “perfect time” to your own beat without regard to your partners will swiftly lead to a breakdown of the ensemble.

The best way to master this level (and, indeed, music making in general) is to mark the pulse physically, somewhere in your body. My cello teacher, Janos Starker, said that whenever you play anything, some muscle somewhere, however small, between the top of your head and your little toe, must contract in time to the music. Everything you play then “rides” on this internal pulse. (And it must be an internal pulse; no one wants to see or hear you tapping your foot.)

Lastly, be sure you’re clear on “road map” issues in the music, such as repeat signs, 1st and 2nd endings, da capos, and fermatas. Road map mishaps will always lead to a halt in the proceedings, but are easily avoidable with just a cursory scan.

Level II

Play correct rhythms. If the pulse is solid, your next task is to render the rhythms precisely. The more complex the passage, the more important it is that the rhythm be accurate. A wrong (or dropped) note simply means the harmony sounds funny for a moment; it usually won’t affect anyone else’s playing. But a wrong rhythm can derail the entire ensemble even if the underlying pulse is steady.

Typical trouble spots you should look out for before undertaking to sight-read a piece include:

  • Tied notes. A common tendency (even in familiar music) is that the note following a tied-over note is often played too early.
  • Dotted rhythms. The same tendency applies here; the note after the dot often comes too early. Try to feel the subdivision represented by the dot(s), and be sure that you arrive on the next beat on time.
  • Syncopations. Syncopations are, in essence, a series of tied notes and, again, it is vital that you feel all the beats that are elided. Indeed, you must feel them extra strongly since you’re not playing them.
  • Changing divisions. Watch out for “math” problems. Rhythms can often break down at junctures between triple and duple patterns. In complicated licks, make sure you can visually spot where each beat falls in the measure.
  • Rests. This is no time to relax. Count them out as carefully as notes. If a rapid figure begins with a short rest (say, the first of four 16th notes), the note after the rest usually tends to be late.

These issues will usually jump out at you as you scan through a part before playing it, and you should take a moment to sing or tap a tricky rhythm to yourself before starting. If you flip a page and a nasty lick comes at you completely on the fly, you should momentarily retrench back to Level I (play only what you can, while maintaining the pulse and your place).

If the passage is very fast, this might require leaving out one or more notes, repeating a note as a “place holder,” or perhaps just playing an open string. What some call “faking” is a legitimate and even admirable application of the levels in their correct order, with the needs of the ensemble taking precedence over the “needs” of the individual player (who wants to hit all the notes).

A run of steady eighth or 16th notes becomes much harder in an asymmetrical bowing pattern (3+1, two-slurred/two-separate, etc.). But since the Prime Directive is to never lose time, if you need to simplify a bowing pattern to stay on track, don’t hesitate.
Accomplishing Level II requires above all the complete understanding (and practice) of the dictum that correct rhythms take precedence over everything except the basic pulse.

Level III

The notes (finally!). If the passage is one for which the first two levels are not problematic, then you can focus on the pitches. In your initial glance, obviously, look at the key signature, but try also to determine the mode (e.g., D major or B minor). Think through (or even quickly mime) both scale and arpeggio fingerings for that key, especially if it’s one you’re not generally conversant with.

Next, scan for accidentals. If there’s a sudden thicket of them, try to figure out if it’s a chromatic passage or whether the key has simply changed. (In the latter case, the passage could actually be easier than if the key signature was in effect.)

Developing one’s abilities on this level involves an unconscious process of storing and recognizing more and more patterns. Over time, you will develop a “database” of common melodic and accompanimental figures, which you will begin to match to the music in front of you. There is a syntax to the music of each style period, and when you come upon a familiar pattern, you shouldn’t need to read every note. Instead, with practice, you will gradually learn to process notes in clumps rather than one at a time.


This article was originally published in Strings’ July 2011 issue. Products mentioned in this article may no longer be available and/or new products may have since come on to the market. Please help keep this article relevant by commenting below or by contacting us directly.