Do you have a music exam coming soon? Are you especially worried about the sight-reading test? Then read on to learn how to prepare for the sight-reading test so you can feel more confident on the day of your exam.
If you’ve ever taken a music exam then you know that along with your repertoire pieces, you also have to do a sight-reading test (although this can vary depending on the music examination board or type of exam). To some, the idea of doing such a test is horrifying. Are you amongst these people?
If you’re especially worried about the sight-reading test, it’s probably because it’s not something you practise often or at all. (Am I right?) Unfortunately, many students leave their sight-reading practice until the last minute when there’s not much you can do about it. So if you’re here reading this article several months before your exam, good on you. You’re already on the right track!
In this article, I’ll show you how to prepare for the sight-reading test in the months leading up to your exam. I’ll also answer questions you may have about the test and offer you tips to help you succeed in your sight-reading test.
What to do in your sight-reading test
After you’ve done your pieces, your technical work and your aural test (if applicable), your examiner will come over and give you a short musical excerpt to sight-read. You’ll be given 30 seconds to prepare. What should you do in those 30 seconds?
Use the time you’re given to find all the important information in the score.
The time signature
Look at the top number to determine the number of beats in each bar and the bottom number to tell you the type of beat (to learn more about time signatures, see How to Read Basic Rhythms). For example, 3 / 4 means 3 crotchet beats in a bar. This tells you how to count, in this case, 1, 2, 3.
The key signature
How many sharps or flats are there? Can you name them? What key are you in? Is the piece in a major or minor key? (To learn how to identify key signatures, see How to Sight-Read in Any Key: Part I.) If you have sharps or flats in the key signature, work out what these are and try to visualise your fingers playing these on the black keys (or white keys in the case of some notes).
The tempo marking
What does it say at the top of the score? Allegro, Andante, Moderato? This will determine how fast you should play the piece. Look out for other common Italian words, such as Espressivo or Cantabile or Dolce, or adjectives in English that may give you insights into the character of the piece. If you’re not sure of the Italian meaning, try to take a guess by thinking of a similar word in English or by looking at the music for clues.
To help you, I’ve made a list of common musical terms (and their meaning, of course!) which you’ll need to know in your exam. You can download it for free by filling in the form below:
Watch out for accidentals, that is, notes with a sharp, flat or natural sign in front of them. Make sure that you know which keys these correspond to on the piano. (For more information on accidentals, see How to Read Sheet Music.)
What is the starting dynamic? Where does it change? Are there any crescendos or diminuendos? Try to notice all the dynamic markings.
Are the notes legato or staccato? Are there any slurs? What about accents? Are there any pedal markings? When looking at the articulation, imagine what it will feel like to play both hands together. (For help on how to play both hands together, see How to Sight-Read Both Clefs at the Same Time.)
Anything that looks unusual
Scan the music to check that there aren’t things out of the ordinary or hard to work out on the spot, such as notes with ledger lines, symbols you might not have come across, or tricky rhythms. Try to work these out so you won’t get stuck when you’re sight-reading. If you get the chance, try to go over the tricky rhythms in your head or by tapping it with your hands on your thighs.
See if you notice any rhythmic or melodic patterns. The more patterns you observe, the easy it will be to process the information in the score.
Work out your hand position by either using the fingering provided (if you’re lucky! From (AMEB) Grade 2 onwards, there is a chance that the fingering won’t be provided) or by figuring out the best hand position based on the lowest and highest notes of the passage. The thumb in the RH and the pinky in the LH will generally play the lowest notes while the pinky in the RH and the thumb in the LH will play the highest notes.
Read through from start to finish
Once you’ve gone through all of the things I’ve listed above, try to hear the piece in your head from beginning to end as best as you can.
What to do right before playing
Once the 30 seconds are up, place both hands in the correct position. Count yourself in at the speed you think is appropriate and achievable and play the excerpt until the end without stopping. If you make a mistake, just keep going. The important thing is to keep the rhythm going and keep a steady pulse.
Tip: Use rests and long notes to prepare the following notes.
What are the examiners looking for in the sight-reading test?
The examiners will be looking at how musical you play, at how accurate your performance is, at how fluent your rhythm is and whether you observe all the expressive markings. In other words, the more details you observe in the score and incorporate in your playing, the better you will do. Higher marks will be given if you can also capture the style or character of the piece.
The examiners will grade you based on the following:
- Steady pulse
- Appropriate tempo
- Awareness of the key
- Other details
- Style or character
How difficult is the sight-reading test?
The music will typically be one grade lower than your current grade. So, if you’re sitting for a Grade 2 exam, expect the music to be around Grade 1. The sight-reading excerpt will be between 4 to 16 bars in length depending on the grade.
How to prepare for the sight-reading test
Practise sight-reading daily
Sight-reading is not something you can cram at the last minute. Sight-reading is a skill you have to work on every day in order to improve. If you are not doing it already, dedicate 10 to 15 minutes of your piano practice to sight-reading.
Use sight-reading practice tests
Use sight-reading practice tests (see below) and go through the process I have explained above. Set a timer for 30 seconds, prepare mentally and then once the time is up, start playing and keep going until the end.
After you sight-read each excerpt, ask yourself what you did well and what you didn’t do so well and what you can do next time to improve. If you made one or more mistakes, was it the rhythm or the notes? Did you play all the dynamics? Did you observe the articulation? Determine what went wrong so you can do better next time. And if you notice the same type of mistakes reoccurring, focus on that.
Tip: Record yourself on your smartphone and then listen back while looking at the music. This will help you locate the errors.
Practise several excerpts daily
In your sight-reading practice, aim to do 5 to 10 short excerpts daily. Don’t spend your time trying to perfect one excerpt because the idea is to practise playing something you’ve never seen before at sight as best as you can. This means you’ll need lots of sight-reading material (see below).
LEARN MORE >> How to Practise Sight-Reading & Improve Faster
I recommend you use a mix of sight-reading practice tests and other sight-reading books. If possible, try using the practice tests by the relevant examination board so that you know exactly what to expect in the actual test.
Sight-reading practice tests
Four Star Sight Reading and Ear Tests by the RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music)
Other sight-reading books
Right @ Sight Grades 1 to 8 by Caroline Evans
Improve Your Sight-Reading! Piano Grades 1 to 8 by Paul Harris
Piano Sight-Reading: A Fresh Approach by John Kember
How to Blitz Sight Reading for Beginners, Books 1-3 by Samantha Coates and Michelle Madder
Sight-Reading Exercises Op.45 Books 1-3 by Arnoldo Sartorio
Free Piano Sight-Reading Exercises by Paul Harris
For a detailed review of these books, see The Best Sight-Reading Books for Piano.
I hope this article has offered you some guidance on how to prepare for your sight-reading test and what is expected of you. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out, either in the comments below or on my contact page.
N.B. Please note that although I’ve had some experience with the AMEB system, I’m not affiliated with any of the music examination boards so you will need to contact them directly if you have questions specifically related to the exam.
While the sight-reading test represents only a small part of the music exam, sight-reading is a skill that can have the most impact on your overall learning and musicianship so don’t dismiss it!
I wish you all the best in your sight-reading test. I sincerely hope that the sight-reading practice you adopt leading up to your exam will continue loooooong after your exam!
Good luck and happy sight-reading!
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