Piano sight-reading

A Practical Guide to Teaching Sight-Reading

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

My Lessons from Christine Brown on how to teach sight-reading

In memory of Christine Brown, my teacher, mentor and friend – thank you for being so inspiring!  

For a number of years I was privileged to have lessons with the late Christine Brown, teacher, lecturer, editor and regular Music Teacher magazine contributor.  Christine died in September 2009.  In that period I learnt a huge amount about teaching and it was she that encouraged and helped me to start writing.

When tidying my music room I came across a hand out she had written, as part of a lesson I’d received, on how to effectively teach sight-reading. The lesson and the hand out are the basis of the article.

Why teach Sight-Reading?

The ability to read at sight is important because:

1.  It enables pupils to practise properly

2.  It makes learning of new pieces quicker and more enjoyable

3.  It allows pupils to explore music independently

4.  It enables pupils to take part in ensemble music making

5.  It enables pupils to carry on learning new pieces when their lessons cease

The Five Essential Skills

“Sight-reading requires a physical response to a visual symbol – sight-reading is a complicated process.”
Christine Brown

1. Knowledge of notation – Can the student identify all the note names and the different time values?

2. Knowledge of the instrument – Where are the notes located on the instrument?  Can the student find notes quickly and with ease? (piano specific – without necessarily having to look down at their instrument).

3. Technique adequate to the task – Has the student got the technique to play the notes required?  For example:  can they reach chords, and are they able to play semi-quavers evenly?

4. The ability to grasp time patterns within a steady pulse – Students can often play note values correctly but not consistently while the music continues.

“There’s no time for any sums when sight-reading.”
Christine Brown

5. The ability to memorise – There isn’t the time to read every note, and to read well you need to know where you’re heading.  Playing notation you have memorised whilst looking a few beats ahead results in fluent reading.

Strategies to develop the five skills

Notation knowledge

Lines and spaces: An actual ladder provides one of the best ways to explain the use of lines and how they relate to notes.  Christine especially liked the illustration in the Hal Leonard Piano Lessons Book 1, ‘Lines and spaces’ – a ladder with five bars where the child’s head either looks through the space on the bars or the line goes through the middle of the child’s face.  Students firstly need to be able to write or place a note on a staff in a line or on a space.

I once had a transfer student who didn’t realise there were lines and spaces at all – just black lines and white lines.  After physical punching through a ladder the student soon grasped the lines and spaces concept and began to read music.

Intervals: It’s helpful for a student to understand how intervals in music relate to the stave and the instrument.  Carol Barratt talks about this in her Chester music books as steps (notes next to – 2nds), skips (missing a note out, or line and space on the staff – 3rd) and finally Jumps (4ths and 5ths).

Bass clef reading:  I asked Christine specifically about the difficulty of bass-clef reading.  Her solution was the grand staff (for pianists and non-pianists).  Her explanation was that students need to understand how the treble clef related to the bass clef.  As Middle C sits in the middle the note names carry on in sequence (backwards as you go down the staff into the bass clef and forwards as you go up into the treble-clef).

She also said that pianists at the beginning stages don’t get as much practise of bass clef reading.  Her recommendation was Bartók’s Mikrokosmos book 1, which gives the student lots to do in the bass clef within all the compositions.  This is partly why my own books Get Set! Piano start with both staves at the very beginning.

Other useful tips: Use flash cards to check knowledge of notes, play note reading games on a stave on the floor or a large board (spell: egg, cabbage, bag, cab), get students to write notes and compose tunes , be able to say the notes names forward and backwards, drawing the notes on a colour coded staff.

Materials for “Nodders”

A common specific to the young pianist is that of nodding.  As the pianist needs to look down to see their instrument (whereas players of other instruments usually do not) their eyes nod up and down from the music to the keyboard.  Students need to be able to play (without looking at their hands) relying totally on their kinaesthetic sense to find the notes and their visual skills to read the music.

Reading without looking down:  

Place right hand thumb on the key note and play the finger numbers

1   2  /  1  2  /  1  2 /  3  4  /  5  5  / 5 –

Place left hand little finger on the key note

5   4  / 3  – / 4  3  / 2  – / 3  2 /  1 2 / 3 4 / 5 –

By removing the notes and using simple five fingers hand positions and numbers – students practise reading without looking down.  This usually stops the habit, and reading on the stave can then be re-introduced.

Short-term memory

The best sight-readers tend to read a few beats or even bars ahead.  They can do this because of their short term memory – memorising previous bars.  Training for this can include using an envelope with a window.  The window is placed over a bar – the student studies it – and then the window moves on (covering the previous bar).  Students are asked to play the covered bar by memory.  Isolating information like this helps as there’s less information to process.

Rhythm reading

Reading the rhythm at the same time as the notes is very difficult.  It helps students if they have a physical response to the symbols.  Tapping the rhythm on their knees (use both knees for pianists – for RH rhythm and LH rhythm).

  • Use rhythmic flashcards (Alfred, Chester and Hal Leonard all produce them – or you can freely download Andrew’s here) and gradually increasing the difficulty.
  • Try combining rhythm with words: for example: “ted-dy  bear” for quaver-quaver crotchet.
  • Within Christine’s ‘Let’s Read Music’ pack (available from the Christine Brown Trust website) there is a rhythm game and cards including all the different rest values.
  • Christine’s ‘Play at Sight’ (Faber Music, grades 1 to 3 in one book) explains and provides lots of practise for the dotted crotchet, quaver, and rhythm pattern.

Systematic training

An approach to teaching sight-reading must be systematic in order to not miss out any of the stages.  Christine’s own book ‘Play at Sight’ (published by Faber Music) systematically lays out all the stages of sight reading for young pianists.  The book is also very useful for adult beginners where tutor books are very fast moving – the course ensures all the stages are covered – notationally, rhythmically, location (different parts of the instrument) and expression.

Quick studies

If students are studying a piece that takes a long time to learn, they are receiving very little reading practise. Giving a student weekly easy pieces (perhaps a few grades below) for quick study can ensure reading skills continue to grow. It’s best if these are not from sight reading tutors. Perhap give students the experience of styles and composers they have not encountered before.

A recent resource well worth investigating is Paul Harris’s new series ‘A Piece a Week’, reviewed in depth here on Pianodao recently.

Ensemble playing

The other instrumentalists tend to be better readers than the junior pianists.  This is partly because they only have one line to read but also because many have additional practise through ensemble playing.

There is lots of material for all instruments (including the piano) to play in ensemble.  For young pianists Alfred and Hal Leonard provide materials with CD and also up to four parts. With CD backing, instrumentalists and pianists can have instant duet partners or in some cases orchestras to work with.  The great thing about playing in an ensemble is that you have to keep going!  And your sight-reading is trained in the process.

“There are no short cuts to making our pupils good readers, but it must be our aim because in general it is only those pupils who can read with ease who continue to play through teenage years and into adulthood.”
Christine Brown

Karen Marshall

Karen Marshall is the co-writer of Get Set! Piano with Heather Hammond (Bloomsbury), and the compiler of the ABRSM Encore series.

She works as a peripatetic and private piano teacher, a classroom music teacher, and music and dyslexia specialist.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

3 thoughts on “A Practical Guide to Teaching Sight-Reading”

  1. I adored Christine Brown – she was a kindred spirit in the most extreme sense, even though we only spent time together at two conferences (2004 and 2005) and for half an hour one EPTA pedagogy course day (2006). Christine “got” my music, and must surely have been the first teacher to ever have five students as an ensemble performing Peas In A Pod from my Little Peppers series (on the five different keyboard instruments she had in her teaching studio).

    And so, I am unsurprised to read these fabulous notes Christine made on sight reading – we saw the world, children, piano teaching and music education in so very much the same light. “There is no time for sums…” really does sum up a lot of what is wrong with the way so many students approach the reading of rhythm. Christine’s rationale for the inclusion of weekly quick studies for piano students is identical to the intention, aspiration, and even the pacing, of the repertoire-rich approach I’ve advocated since 2001 (now known as The 40 Piece Challenge, or, in some quarters, as The 30 Piece Challenge).

    Karen, thank you so much for taking the time to document Christine’s approach to reading, and sight-reading, and Andrew, thank you for hosting this terribly important post. Long may Christine’s ideas, her vision, her approaches, live on in the teaching of future generations. Christine Brown was an extraordinary human being, and an extraordinary visionary, with an extraordinary legacy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your kind and words Elissa. Christine was truly wonderful and I to this day feel very blessed to have been taught by this remarkable women in the last 5 years of her life. I will continue to spread the message of her piano teaching ethos which was a special mix of love and knowledge of music and teaching but also the love of people. With a questioning sharp mind, forever learning Christine was a majestic teacher who touched my life (and so many others) in an extraordinary way.

      Liked by 2 people

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