Don’t be so hard on yourself!

One of the biggest problems with teaching sight-reading is how annoyed and disappointed people get with themselves when they get a single note wrong.

But actually, sometimes when we make a mistake reading its because there is a musical surprise. And that’s one of the best things about Music - some sections are predictable, and others are unexpected. This is actually the aspect of music that makes it memorable: this interplay of tension and release, of going in unexpected directions and then returning home again.

When we use so much energy being annoyed with ourselves for an error… we lose a great way to figure out what the composer was doing. Where we make a mistake might be a place the composer has set the listener up to *expect* what comes next… and then made a surprise detour on purpose! By being annoyed, and dreading those “difficult” sections, we accidentally lose track of the best bits.

It’s completely ok to realise that sections of music are likely to need learning more carefully even when your sight-reading is very good. These places are probably places the audience will also be surprised - and then delighted - as the music detours… …and eventually finds its way home again.

Notice your gradual improvement

Sight-reading is about improving your percentages. You might not get all the notes right on the first shot, but if there are at least some notes you can recognise reliably, your hit-rate should improve. If you can avoid giving up and going back to the beginning every time you get one note wrong, you can learn how to get back on track after a mistake by looking for the next landmark . As your general awareness of a few dependable notes increases, you will also need difficult passages repeated fewer times to get them into your ears, as you start to recognise what might be going on in the music. This may not yet be the same as reading straight off the page, but it is still a strong marker of progress.

Music reading is often taught like math, with “rhythm” and “accidentals” and “key signatures”, and “intervals” that are supposed to be named by number. Actually it turns out that learning to sight-sing is much more like learning a language. And your ear knows quite a lot of that language already - that’s why you often guess the right note in a section where the music doesn’t have too many surprises. It’s just a case of connecting that knowledge to the symbols on the page.

Someone once likened sight-reading to getting used to recognising a countable number of people in a bunch of different outfits. Once you can recognise “Do” in various keys and in two different moods - major and minor chords, for instance, suddenly there will be at least one note in every piece that you can always find. Without the piano :-)


Try to become curious about how your reading is progressing. Celebrate every note you get right, and use every note you get wrong as a magic tool to find the interesting bits.

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