Cello sight reading – how to improve this important skill

For some cello students, sight reading is the dreaded part of the exam. I always encourage my students to sight read as much as possible and make it a part of their daily practice. Cello sight reading doesn’t need to be scary – it’s an important skill that it’s worth taking the time to develop, and can make learning new pieces much easier.

Below are some tips I give to my students for

  • How to approach the sight reading part of their ABRSM exam
  • Different ways to improve their cello sight reading

How to use the 30-second preparation time in an exam

Before the examiner asks you to play the piece, they will give you 30 seconds preparation time. It’s very important to use this time wisely, not just to play through from the beginning as there may not be time to play it all. I usually recommend the following sequence:

  • Check the time signature, decide on a tempo. Make sure you have the rhythm of at least the first couple of bars in your head – keeping a steady pulse is a big part of getting a good grade in this part of the exam.
  • Check the key signature, make sure you know which key it is in. Also look ahead in case there are any other accidentals.
  • Look ahead to see if there are any tricky spots, and try them if you have time.

And most importantly – when you are playing the piece of music, whatever happens don’t stop – just keep going!

Sight read every day

Music is a language – and just like learning to read, the more you play/read new things, the more fluent you will become. My students do a little sight reading every lesson, and I encourage them to make it a part of their daily practice. I ask them to try to find music that is a grade or 2 below their standard – but if it’s easier that’s OK too. The main thing is that they are playing something new on a regular basis. I often lend books out, or ask them to play through pieces in books they have used before – but there is also a whole range of music available for free online (try musescore.com and imslp.org) – it doesn’t have to be music that is written specifically for the cello

The advice I give when playing something new is:

  • Look at the key signature. Play the scale and arpeggio of that key – this will make sure that your left hand knows where extensions/shifts etc are, and it will give you a sense of the tonality before you begin to play.
  • Play with a metronome – this will help you to keep a steady beat, and also make sure that you keep going, whatever happens!
  • Read ahead – reading music is just like reading a book, so the way to become fluent is to always look ahead.


Join an orchestra/group

Playing in an orchestra or other kind of ensemble is great for sight reading, as it means students are regularly playing a wide range of new music. They are playing with others, so have to stay in time – which greatly improves rhythm and sense of pulse. Not to mention that the social side of it can help to keep it fun!

Many schools have an orchestra, and there are lots of local music centres that are well worth being a part of. But also be on the lookout for opportunities for students to play duets/trios etc together, as this can be a lot of fun and there is an added layer of responsibility as they are the only one playing their part.

Don’t shy away from it!

In conclusion – while sight reading can be very daunting at first, especially if a student hasn’t had much practice at it previously – it is a very important skill to develop. Don’t let them see it as just one part of the exam – there are so many benefits to being able to read confidently, so providing lots of encouragement and opportunities to improve this skill will definitely help them to become a better musician.


If you’d like to discuss this article or have any questions/suggestions, please leave a comment below.


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