Sight-reading is a word that can induce discomfort in even the most upbeat young pianist.
This is a shame but should not necessarily be a surprise. In learnt pieces accuracy plays a huge part; mistakes are corrected as soon as possible, and great consideration goes into detail and interpretation. To be asked to do this on the spot can be daunting.
Unless specifically instructed, many students will approach playing by sight as a sort of on-the-spot version of their usual piece learning process. In fact, there needs to be a change of mindset to embrace the sight-reading process.
To help students switch into sight-reading mode, I teach them to lock into the music.
It is a bit like unearthing a fossil. You don’t know exactly what you will find at the start but there are clues which lead to expectations, and soon you know you will reveal at least part of a particular species which will imply the whole.
In music it is the same, we absorb and interpret our clues, develop expectations, spot the central features and although we might not read note perfectly we capture the character and flavour of the piece.
There is nearly endless material on how to practise pieces well and comparatively little on how to practise sight-reading well. Unfortunately, it is possible to practise sight-reading in an inefficient manner.
With the right approach and necessary time, you can be sure that musical sight-reading will develop.
Without it, sight-reading will improve but will be unlikely to ever become musically fluent or confident. In sight-reading, musical fluency is the ultimate prize. Once this is developing students have a framework upon which to build greater accuracy and other subtleties.
This is a common approach to a piece of sight-reading.
When locking into the music we take the same clues, but we use them to build a coherent picture of the piece, making associations along the way and tapping into the student’s individual musical experiences. The starting point is always pulse and rhythm.
When learning to sight-read there should be no rush to start playing.
There is a process to follow and as it becomes familiar it will take less time. There is nothing more disruptive to the learning process than rushing it (as in preparation for an exam situation).
For this example, I use Bach’s Minuet in G, BWV Anh114. You can open a Bing image of the score here.
As well as noting the facts from the score, students are taught to build associations from them. Here is an example using leading questions and locking into the music.
What is the title of the piece? Minuet
How will you make it dance-like without going faster than is comfortable? Leading strongly into the first beat of each bar.
Let’s set our pulse then together. 1 2 3 1 2 3.
Count in for some time allowing eyes to track the music as you count.
It so happens that this title tells us all about the pulse so now we can move on to key.
What is the key of this piece? G major
Oh, what a nice key. What was the last piece you played in that key? Can you remember any of it?
Let’s set your hand to G major. Play the scale but be creative, don’t play it predictably, that never happens in music. Rather play patterns like 3 notes from G, then from A, then from B.
(You could increase this to 5 notes or invite the student to pick a pattern. Why not try degrees 1, 3, 4, 2, and repeat that as a sequence on each note of G major. The left hand can also get involved playing chords or single notes.)
This is a perfect time to teach basic keyboard harmony skills. I often say things like, I don’t care what notes you choose to end on as long as they are the key notes. In fact, this shows a deeper understanding than a fumble as students try to coordinate the last chord.
Read the music rhythmically and with expression, teach your student to keep the pulse as they do this. If an unfamiliar or tricky rhythm pattern threatens to upset the flow teach your student how to fill the gap and reconnect at the next downbeat.
The tricky rhythm can be revised at a later stage.
Here is an audio example of locking into the music by speaking the rhythm. The process can be repeated until the student is confident. I would follow this example with another encouraging the student to experiment with a greater dynamic range.
Here we come back to the idea that the most important skills to develop in sight reading are adherence to a steady pulse and exclusions. (That’s what the best sight-readers do, they get very good at knowing what to leave out).
With this in mind, we teach in a way that supports our message. Ask your students to count and play only the notes on beat one of every bar, using any fingering and dynamics marked.
You might argue that this is note recognition, not pattern reading. You are right of course and pattern reading comes later, what students learn in this process is more fundamental. They are learning to work to a pulse, choose which notes they want to play and coordinate their playing with the pulse.
This is a comprehensive piano sight-reading work out. Listen to this example outlining the framework of the piece.
The next step in this piece is to build up the framework that has just been played. Easy places to start are bars 8 and 16 where the left hand notes can be added while the right hand has very little to do. Now we encourage pattern recognition, interval reading and filling the bar up to the next down beat.
Next, students might fill in the right hand where the left hand is only playing a dotted minim. At any point they can fall back on just playing the first beat of the bar on time if things go off track.
We begin to see how this method allows reading to develop in the controlled framework of pulse. There is always an option to do less and, when they are ready, to do more.
By taking a totally new, pulse-based approach we ensure musical sight-reading skills are developed and with less pressure on the student to get to the end correctly they begin to feel in control!
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Yes, I do ask this negative question, and it is because students are able to give a very comprehensive response! Once the scary bits are identified we go about finding fixes. In this piece I think students will be daunted by:
For sight-reading the ornament in bar 3 an acciaccatura would be an easy substitution. It would fall nicely under the fingers from the E, crushed D, to C. The same solution will work in bar 11 and I would leave the others. Two bars will provide enough of the flavour. You can always add more or build them into the full lower mordent later.
For the bars where the left hand is busy I would suggest simply playing only the first note of the bar. Once this is comfortable students can play the rhythm of beats 2 and 3 but without changing the pitch of the note they are on. This would work acceptably in bars 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16. There are 3 places it wont work that well, and it is nice for the student to understand why. So, go ahead and let them play it and discover why.
Continue building up the piece adding another layer of complexity as confidence grows. Praise the student for effort in fluent, pulse centred playing. Celebrate as you hear the character of the piece emerge, especially when students achieve this with fewer notes than on the score!
Now it is time to stop playing and to simply read the score while hearing the piece in your head.
These steps can be sped up or taken over time depending on the level of the student. It is creative, enjoyable and playful. It also removes a lot of stress meaning students are in a frame of mind to learn. The opposite is all too common in sight-reading; feeling tested in something the student knows is an under developed skill.
Some students feel overwhelmed and helpless when it comes to reading at sight. This understandably puts them off practising the skill. I think all students benefit from being reminded of these facts.
There are many other ways of developing sight-reading skills.
These can be presented as games and students won’t even know they are doing sight-reading. You probably already use the most common; pitch and rhythm flash cards, apps and games, duet playing, quick learn pieces, keyboard orientation exercises, playing cadences, improvising, pattern recognition, interval recognition. I would like to focus on some less common ones.
Watch your student next time they are sight-reading, if they look like a rabbit in the headlights you can be sure that nothing is being learnt.
No one learns in this mode.
From then on start stripping back your requirements until the student is able to engage in the task.
I think a lot of stress comes from exam expectations and I think this does more harm than good for a large number of students. Many students spend their whole time of study feeling inadequate in this department.
By following this musical, pulse centred approach and controlling the level of challenge to suit the individual you can build skills and confidence. Identify the level the student feels comfortable and from this confident point, skills will develop.
Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that exam sight-reading happens.
However, it is less of a stress if the student has confidence at a certain level, even if that is not quite at the level of the exam. I think sight-reading takes longer to develop in many students.
In a few cases I have encouraged a very slow pulse in exams. (It is not as easy as it sounds to keep a slow beat steady).
This is, of course, a personal choice, but it has never led to unexpectedly poor results and has on occasion led to unexpectedly good ones!
Read more: Why working to exams could be anti-piano
Ignore external expectations, start at the level you are at.
Work from the outside in. Not the inside out. Put the pulse first, then add what you can manage within that framework, bit by bit, until you have all you need. Not all that is on the score but all you need to make the piece work as music.
Learn your individual strengths and weaknesses, (give me chords over counterpoint any day). Develop your weaknesses.
Put the music first – make music!
I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well. JS Bach
I am a piano teacher, mentor and writer based in Surrey, UK. I am also author of the "highly recommended" Music, Me, Piano Practice Resources. My students cover a wide range of ages and abilities; there is something new to be learnt from each of them. I love finding unique ways of inspiring each musician I meet and sharing ideas with others. You can visit me at my website by clicking here.