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3 Tips To Improve Your Rhythmic Sight-Reading Skills

Rhythmic accuracy when reading is highly important. You might get your pitches right but if they are out of tempo or off the rhythm, they become meaningless. One of the hardest parts of being a good sight reader is to be able to nail the rhythmic component of music. As a music educator, I have found that most of the young aspiring musicians struggle with rhythms and how to sight read them precisely.

One of the hardest parts of being a good sight reader is to be able to nail the rhythmic component of music. As a music educator, I have found that many aspiring musicians struggle with rhythms and how to sight read them accurately.

Disclaimer: Mastering the ability to sight read rhythms is not easy. There are no shortcuts or magic tricks. It is a long process to which you have to commit and dedicate, if possible, a portion of your practice routine every day.

In my experience teaching myself and others how to read rhythms, I’ve found that the process is very similar to learning how to read English or any other language. (I personally went through it twice when learning Spanish and English). So, I kind of know the process.

If you remember when you were a kid, first you learned your ABC’s, consonants, and vowels. Then, when you master that, you start combining them to form syllables. You learn by ear what those syllables sound like. Then you combine syllables to form words, then start combining words to form sentences and so on.

It is a long process that takes years. If you think about it, maybe only when you were 13 or 14 years old was when you really felt comfortable reading English out loud in front of an audience and gave the reading the right intonation.

My purpose of saying this is that you shouldn’t feel discouraged if you have been playing for a few years and you still feel you’re not a good reader. It does take time. Years!

You need to work on the main two components of sight-reading:

1. Learning Your Theory: Know well your notes and rules of the music language.  

2. Making sight-reading a habit: You have to do it every day.

That being said, I’ll share with you some of the things I do on a daily basis to help myself to improve my reading skills:

1. Learn your ABC’s

As I said before, in any language, we need to learn our letters and rules, recognize the symbols, and combine them with other letters. We need to know the theory behind the language so we can read and give it the right interpretation.

Music being a language is not the exception. You have to know your notes and the theory. You have to familiarize yourself with all the possibilities notes have by combining them with rests and other notes. You need to know your subdivisions and rules.

Check out this chart with all the different possible subdivision we can obtain by combining 8th notes, 8th notes triplets and 16th notes with rests, which are the most used notes and subdivisions in western music.

Ex. 1

Practice them one by one and spend time on them. Practice each possibility for long periods of time at different tempos. Narrow your focus on learning the sound, the feel, and the duration of the notes. Then you can combine them and start forming phrases. but make sure you spend a good amount of time on each individual figure. Don’t rush it. The hard work always pays off.

In addition, if you don’t have a strong background in music theory, I’d recommend you to get a teacher and start working on building your music theory knowledge.

You’ll see after doing this for a while, The ability to read rhythmic lines and music, in general, is going to become second nature. You’ll see that you’ll recognize the symbols and what they sound like even before attempting to play them. Just like you can recognize the words in this article and read them without having to practice it several times in order to vocalize it out or understand the meaning.

2. Sing Rhythms

This one is a game changer, I can’t recommend this more.

Old music traditions, like Hindu music, don’t even let the young students put one hand on their instruments before they learn and are able to sing the rhythms and rudiments of the music.

That’s why all tabla players are great at playing tabla and signing the rhythms at the same time. It is a requirement if they really want to become a tabla player.

In my experience, I’ve found that singing the rhythms and music I want to learn helps me a great deal to internalize it and translate it to the instrument. Remember the old saying, “if you can sing it, you can play it”. It does really help you to translate whatever is in your mind easily onto your instrument.

So, go back to tip # 1 and sing those subdivisions. You really want to internalize and memorize them. One at the time. Use different tempos. You can use different syllables like Ta (for short sounds) and Taah (for long sounds)

Get any rhythm book, there are plenty in the market. One I like to use is Syncopation For The Modern Drummer. Also, you can just get any chart and sing the rhythms out. Get enough material so you have plenty to work on every day.

There are several things I love about practicing singing rhythms. One, you can do it anywhere at any time. Two, they just add more reading time to your daily practice routine which is important. Three, singing, at least for me, is the most efficient way to internalize and learn anything I want.

3. Build a Habit

As I said before, If you want to be a good sight-reading, you have to do it on a daily basis. I designed two easy routines which I do every day to keep my reading chops up to level. They’ll take only 20 minutes of your time.

Routine #1: Work on notes (subdivision) and theory

I work on combining notes in different forms. I make sure I internalize more and more the way notes sound in different tempos and contexts. I do this because when I find them in a piece of music I’m trying to sight-read, I already am familiarized and comfortable playing them. So the more I try different possibilities and expose myself to them, The greater the chance I’ll perform them accurately when I find them on a chart I’m sight-reading.

I also pay close attention to notation. I look at different ways to notate the same rhythm and make sure I can interpret other notated symbols like dynamics, expressions, repetition indications, etc.

Routine #2: ABC Training

In short, The first routine I do is all about learning my ABC. Notes and rules of the music language. I do this on my instrument and/or away from it by singing the material, I’m working on.

The other thing I do on a daily basis is sight-read. I’ll put a chart in front of me and read it from top to bottom without stopping. Once I’m done I won’t look at it again. I’ll read something else and maybe I’ll come back to it in a few weeks or months. The idea is not to learn or memorize it, just to sight-read it. I force myself to read something from beginning to end just like I’m performing it.

I hope this was helpful, remember to build your knowledge in music theory and rhythms and make reading a daily habit.

If you guys have any questions or just want to add something to the conversation make sure to leave a comment or hit me up on my social media (Instagram or Facebook)

See you in the next one.

Diego Maldonado
Diego Maldonado
Diego is a professional jazz drummer, composer, and educator. He is originally from Venezuela and currently living in New York City. He attended The Collective School of Music and The City College of New York where he earned, with honors, a Bachelor degree in Jazz Performance.Diego has become an active member of the exciting city’s jazz scene, both as a performer and educator, playing with artists such as Will Vinson, Doug Weiss, Kenny Werner, Tim Hagans, Mike Holober, Mimi Jones, Lukas Gabric, Josiah Boornazian, Antonio Mazzei, Brent Vaartstra, Coyote Anderson, among many others.Diego is an Agean Cymbals and Vater Percussion Artist.

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