ArticlesFeaturedIssuesJuly 2024

Practicing the Unknown: A Method to Improve Sight-Reading

by Dr. James Brinkmann

Sight-reading is a common part of playing music in the 21st century. Though normal, people seem to have a strong love or hate relationship with it. We understand doing it regularly helps us improve yet few people want to do it. When trying to improve sight-reading, the typical discourse is to use certain standard approaches: look at the key signature, set a good tempo, scan for spots that might trip you up, and look ahead. While these are important steps to successful sight-reading, my experiences as a teacher and performer have shown me additional elements that make the practice of sight-reading even more effective. In this article, I share my thoughts and practice method to treat sight-reading like any other skill that we can improve with intentional and effective practice.


It is helpful to start with how we perceive ourselves as sight-readers. I observe people of all ages and skill levels identifying as either a “good” or “bad” sight-reader. When we see it as a fixed ability, that self-perception can become ingrained even as our flute skills improve. However, like all musical skills, sight-reading can be developed through thoughtful and effective practice. First, start cultivating a belief that we can improve our sight-reading abilities.

Reflect: How do you view yourself as a sight-reader? If you have a negative self-perception, do you believe you can change your skills and or that perception? If not, why? Are you willing to explore and consider the idea that you can improve your sight-reading ability?

Sight-Reading Intentions

Knowing our intentions for sight-reading depending on the situation provides clarity for our mindsets and different experiences. The most common intention I hear is “playing music perfectly or 99% correct the first time.” I strongly caution against this unrealistic intention that can cause additional stress. Here are some of my intentions for sight-reading depending on the situation.

  • Explore new music for fun.
  • Get an idea of a piece I might study. Make mistakes the first time through and identify practice spots if I decide to learn the music. 
  • Identify strong fundamentals and fundamentals that I need to work on more.
  • Play music with other people! I love sight-reading chamber music. We're not trying to see who's the best sight-reader. We are there to enjoy playing together.

Reflect: What situations do you sight-read and what are your intentions when sight-reading? What is/are your reason(s) for wanting to improve it?

Consistent Practice

Since sight-reading is a skill, incorporate it into your practice routine for 5-10 minutes each day depending on your goals. For instance, if your goal is to explore new music, select one section, one movement, or one piece a day to read through. If you have decided that improving your sight-reading is your main goal, identify the challenging aspects so you can improve those specific skills. 

Reflect: How much time will you invest in practicing your sight-reading skills? Start with a manageable goal, and plan on how you will increase the frequency. What is your goal for this week?

Sight-reading Practice Method

  1. Select One Goal

Make a list of specific aspects of sight-reading that are strengths and challenging for you. “Everything” is not a helpful answer in the “challenging” category. Be honest in your reflection about what seems to work and not work for you when sight-reading. Remember that exaggeration is not helpful or accurate. You can be strong with some aspects and struggle with others. Some common elements that people struggle with are:

  • maintaining a consistent sound
  • fast technical passages
  • selecting appropriate tempos
  • playing correct articulations
  • rhythm
  • changing meters
  • maintaining a pulse
  • mental focus, especially after making a mistake
  • continuing to play after making a mistake
  • high register note-reading
  • key signatures and remembering accidentals

Select one challenge as a goal that seems achievable. It's important to identify one goal for now so you can put your intentional practice into that skill. If you're trying to improve everything simultaneously, it can be overwhelming. For example, if you struggle playing fast technical passages in the high register and reading high register notes, then I advise choosing “reading high register notes” as your first goal. Once you are more comfortable sight-reading notes in the high register with longer rhythms and slower tempos, you can start working on sight-reading faster technical passages in the high register. If you are not sure what your challenge with sight-reading is, talk with your teacher or sight-read a few etudes to see what happens.  

Reflect: what skill are you choosing to work on? What is your strongest sight-reading skill?

  1. Selecting Music

I often find people choosing music that is too hard. Even though it may be music that they can perform after practicing it, this repertoire may not be appropriate to practice sight-reading. To rephrase, it is important to have separate music to practice sight-reading. 

Appropriate music for sight-reading might be “easier” than your performance music because it allows you to practice a specific sight-reading skill. I recommend choosing music that you can play with 85%+ accuracy without stopping, which does require smart tempo choices. Selecting appropriate music may take a little time, but it also builds confidence in people’s sight-reading abilities. Here are a few of the many options of music that you could consider.

For advanced players, some of these are not the most challenging pieces, but they allow you to focus on the specific skill that you are developing. There is no shame in sight-reading ‘easy’ pieces. Consider that you are taking an honest step to use music that can be helpful for you in this learning process. If you think you are too good for these “easy pieces,” I encourage you to remember that basics are important. We practice long tones, scales, and basic flexibility exercises, so why not practice “easier” sight-reading music? Explore your perceptions of what it means to practice sight-reading and what you can learn from a piece. Overtime, you will increase the difficulty of repertoire or change the repertoire to match your new goal.

Anecdote: I taught a professional who wanted to improve their confidence when sight-reading and be more consistent with technical accuracy. I had them play through 40 Little Pieces and an etude book by Gariboldi to identify and work on a specific aspect of sight-reading. Though the music is easy technically, their sight-reading abilities, confidence, and trust in themselves improved significantly in five weeks. Once they achieved their goal, we moved on to sight-reading Andersen etudes to further build confidence and work toward a different goal. It was important that we started with simpler music because of what their specific goal was.

Reflect: what repertoire do you normally sight-read? What repertoire will match your goals? Do you need to find pieces with a slow tempo, technical patterns, faster rhythms, slower rhythms, etudes, melodies, high register, middle register, low register, etc.? Cater it to your needs.

  1. Preparing to Sight-Read

There are a few steps to do right before you sight-read including some familiar tips. It takes less than a minute to do these five steps once you are familiar with them.

  1. Review the key signature.
  2. Review the time signature and tempo marking. Decide a comfortable tempo. Count the subdivision in your head and possibly your tap toe.
  3. Look for anything that you want to briefly work through mentally. Do not finger 

through as that becomes your sightreading.

4. Encourage yourself to keep going until the end. You can only sightread once.

5. Remind yourself of the element that you are working on and how you are going to 

focus on that. Example: 

“My goal is to subdivide throughout the piece. Tap my toe and count the 

subdivision before starting. Choose a tempo that is slow enough so I can maintain the subdivision. Keep counting.”

  1. Play!

Play and keep going! It doesn't matter if you make a mistake. Get through it as best as you can in that moment. Important note: Making a mistake is not a habit. A habit requires repetition. We choose to make it bad habit if we heard the mistake while sight-reading and continue to play it that way. This is a very important difference. Therefore, it is fine to make mistakes during sight-reading. It is also fine to make mistakes in practice sessions and performances. 

  1. Reflect and Be Resilient

This step is extremely important and often neglected. After sight-reading, people often say, “that was terrible!” even if they make only a few mistakes. We need to be kind and realistic with ourselves. Remember, sight-reading is not about perfect run-through. A beneficial reflection includes what went well, what mindsets were helpful, what was challenging, how you did with your goal, and what you will try to do similarly and differently next time.

If you sight-read and make mistakes (because that's what happens), that does not mean that your approach was bad. Do not expect that you're going to suddenly become a masterful sight reader because you have changed your mindset one time for one piece. Like other fundamentals, it takes time to develop your sightreading skills. It takes time to figure out the helpful method and mindset. Reflection helps you to see if you are on a helpful path.

Reflect: How did you focus on your goal when sight-reading? Did you achieve your goal? If yes, what helped you? If no, what made it challenging? Were there any mindsets or preparation that you want to do the next time you sight-read and why? Is there anything you want to do differently and why?

  1. Do It Again  

You sight-read and reflected. Excellent! Now go back to Step 1.

Embrace the Long-Term Process

Improving sight-reading takes time, patience, thoughtfulness, and in my experience as a teacher, 5-10 minutes of daily practice to improve. Some days will be easy. Others hard. Sometimes we accidentally choose too hard of music or too fast of tempos. Keep going with thoughtfulness and intention, and you will be on the path to improve your sight-reading skills. It is a courageous step to be honest with the challenge that is ahead. Embrace your courage, curiosity, patience, and discipline. If you are committed to improving your sight-reading, it is well worth it.

My Sight-Reading Journey

When I reflect on how I developed a positive relationship with sight-reading, I realize it was a consistent practice and most music was an appropriate level. My nurturing teacher Lisa Byrnes and I sight-read duets about every week, and she encouraged me to sight-read outside of lessons. Every week, I read through hymns with the church choir. In addition, I found music that I wanted to play. When financially feasible, I bought new pieces and collections of music so I could explore new melodies. In high school, my friends and I played duets for fun. In college, I sight-read chamber music and more etudes. As a professional, I co-founded a flute quartet and while we did perform, we also enjoyed having dinner and reading music for fun. I connected with wonderful musicians who played other instruments and were interested in playing duets. 

Sight-reading has been a significant part of my musical life, and I have intentionally continued to make it a part of my life. I recently finished sight-reading Andersen’s Op. 60 (one etude a day) and played my students’ piano accompaniment on flute (treble and bass clef). While I consider myself a highly skilled sight-reader, I was not born that way. I practiced it and continue to practice specific elements of it. I still make mistakes when I sight-read and normalize those moments. More importantly, I have developed confidence in my abilities and look forward to the fun moment of reading music that is new to me. 

My Hope For You

And that is what I hope for you. I hope that you will dedicate a little time every day so you can get to a place where you trust your skills and look forward to sight-reading. It's a wonderful way to engage with new music and it is a special experience because you can only do it once with any piece. Once you've sight-read a piece of music, that's it - you now have a reading experience with it. From that point on you're either playing it or practicing it, but you are no longer sight-reading it. Take the opportunity to practice sight-reading so that maybe, you’ll find a little joy and curiosity in those moments when reading a piece for the first time. Though uncertain and sometimes daunting, meeting unknown music can be exciting and fun too. Happy sight-reading!

Prize-winning flutist Dr. James Brinkmann leads a diverse career as a performer, educator, and researcher to foster people’s curiosity, creativity, and sense of belonging within Western classical music and other music communities. He maintains a full private studio in McKinney, TX and regularly presents workshops about flute pedagogy and student-belonging to international, national, and local communities. A versatile performer, he played Principal Flute on the national orchestra tour of Netflix’s “Our Planet Live in Concert” and creates interactive performances that encourage listeners to be aware of their reactions with music and share them in fun and meaningful ways.

IG: @innovativeflutist

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