Announcing our latest discussion event for Pianodao Members, I asked the following questions about sight reading:
- Do you find it easy or difficult to play at sight?
- What approaches have helped you to improve?
- Do you have advice that might help others develop their sight-reading fluency?
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion which followed, which offer a wealth advice both for piano players and teachers…
From Dislike to Enjoyment
Unsurprisingly, several members commented on their dislike for sight reading when learning as children:
Garreth Brooke writes:
“I hated sight reading growing up – it always felt like something I had to do to pass my ABRSM exams, but I never really saw the purpose of it.
Most of my students who are taking the exams have openly said at one point that they hate sight reading. I’ve thought a lot about how I present it to them and experimented with several different approaches.
Paul Harris’s Improve Your Sight Reading books are really helpful for giving students a sense of progression and for breaking down the process into clear stages, but in my experience that is generally not enough to make them actually *enjoy* it.”
Ruth Alberici agrees:
“My sight reading only really improved at around G5 level as a child when I wanted to learn music I enjoyed. Before then it had just been a horrid part of the exam that wasn’t really covered in lessons. As I wanted to learn certain pieces for myself, the intrinsic motivation increased.”
And Garreth Brooke also picks up the point that sight reading needs to be enjoyable, with obvious musical benefits:
“The most enjoyable sight reading experience for most of my students actually seems to be when I give them the score for a piece or more often a pop song that they already know and guide them through the process of figuring it out using Paul Harris’s stages.
I think this connects with what Andrew says about “sound before symbol” – they already know how it sounds, so it’s much easier for them to identify when it’s wrong, plus they’re motivated by the relevance of what they’re sight reading.”
Several members mention that as children they were only taught to sight read as an exam requirement, with little real guidance.
Louise Baulch shares:
“As a child I was not taught to sight read and was only aware of sight reading six weeks before an exam when a sight-reading test was put in front of me. I failed my sight-reading in piano at grades 1-6.
A change of teacher at around grade 5 made all the difference. I would do a piece of sight-reading in each lesson and she would send me home with a book too. This resulted in my passing my sight-reading in grades 7-8.“
Beth Bee explains how this approach hindered her, too:
“Like a lot of others, my old piano teacher never focused on sight reading and we only had it a few weeks before exams in lessons only, and only example sight reading tests.
I was never taught how to do it – so I always associated it with blind panic – and to be honest, I often find that blind panic returning when sight-reading myself.”
For Beth, the solution in later life has been to take a more systematic approach:
“It was from teaching that I discovered Paul Harris’s books which illuminated and revolutionised my approach and I use them with as many students who will do them.”
And Beth explains that the principles used in those Improve Your Sight Reading books can be applied in popular music too, echoing Garreth and Ruth’s points about musical engagement:
“With those who want more interesting sight reading I pick up easy to play pop songs / songs of interest to the student then slyly and cunningly do all of Paul Harris’s techniques without telling them ha ha! So they all learn. I find if I am enthusiastic teaching it, then they pick up on that & it rubs off.”
Nina Hodgson observes:
“I’m ok at sight reading but would like to be better. I’m trying to sightread every day and focus on patterns and flow.
I’m also trying to take the time to read the music away from the keyboard first instead of just plunging in which is a very bad habit of mine!”
Louise Baulch also advocates regularity:
“I want to be a better sight-reader so I try to play something unseen at around grade 5 / 6 level several times a week.
I try to take in as much information as I can before playing it and try to make it sound “musical” rather than to play every note correctly. My sight-reading is getting better and I believe it’s like anything: the more you do, the better you get!”
Simply getting on and doing it can make all the difference, as Garreth Brooke reflects:
“Becoming a piano teacher is the thing that has most improved my sight reading, simply because I had to learn a whole load of new music.”
Dawn Wakefield adds:
“I realise this sounds obvious but just doing lots of reading new material, or playing things you have not practised thoroughly just gives you lots of experience and so improves your skills.”
And sight reading is for the whole of our life at the piano.
Frances Wilson notes:
“I’m fortunate that I’ve always been a proficient sight-reader but I still practice it regularly, usually by downloading new music randomly opening a book of music from my bookcase.”
Develop an Overview
Frances continues her advice:
“Rather than examine the music bar-by-bar I try to see the overall picture/architecture of the music and focus on playing through to get a sense of its stuffed, shape etc. This is also one of my first activities when learning new music.
When teaching efficient sight-reading, I encourage students to do the same – to gain an impression of the overall shape of the music. I ask them to look at the whole page of music rather than examine bar by bar and to be efficient about taking in details such as time and key signatures etc. I also encourage them to observe dynamic and expression markings and not to worry too much about errors but rather to concentrate on keeping going“
These are points which Louise Baulch echoes:
“With my own pupils I teach them sight reading from very early on. I try to emphasise to them about keeping the beat going and making it sound musical rather than going back to correct a note.
We look at the music before they start and look at some “key notes”. We also look out for patterns. Forgetting the key signature seems to be a big issue with some pupils.”
Observing patterns and shapes can also be important, as Ruth Alberici points out:
“I think being taught to note read not rote learn as a child helped, although I am very focussed on teaching patterns to my own pupils and not just individual notes, which can be a big hindrance at times, as it prevents you from seeing the bigger picture.”
Beth Bee agrees,
“I also find it easier to try and read music by recognising intervals and often work out one note, then use the intervals between notes or in chords to keep going.”
Maintain the Pulse & Keep Going
“One thing I’ve noticed is that most of my students will, if left to their own devices, focus on what notes to play, often leading to a rhythmless mess. I therefore always emphasise the importance of getting the rhythm correct right at the start of the process.”
One popular strategy for fostering this sense of pulse and continuity is to sight read duets together. It’s an approach that Dawn Wakefield especially advocates:
“At even a basic level in lessons making sight reading a fun activity by focussing on duet playing enforces good rhythm skills and it is then seen as an end of lesson treat rather than a test…
I find sight reading duets or doing some accompanying of another instrument are great ways to encourage the idea of ‘keeping going’ above all without obsessive focus on correct notes – it is more about getting the gist and keeping going, and if you are playing with someone else, that helps keep the focus on rhythm and the general enjoyment of exploring music rather than obsessing about detail – which exam training can end up leading to.
More accuracy will come along wth more experience, but at first being ‘ perfect’ is definitely not what it is about – rather the ability to grasp the general idea and keep going…”
Beth Bee takes up the point…
“I often find the piano can be such a lonely instrument. When learning orchestral instruments learners are often plonked into a group of other instrumentalists and you HAVE to keep up or you’ll get left behind. That focuses the player on looking ahead and keeping the rhythm.”
The Perfection Trap
Many of these points are summarised by Rhonda Rizzo, who says:
“I’m a born sight reader, but as a teacher I’ve worked with many students who struggle with this. If there was one characteristic that connected students who struggled with sight reading, it was perfectionism.
Here’s what I found helped them the most:
1. Accept that you’ll make mistakes. Sight reading is about getting most of the notes right, not necessarily all of them…
2. If you have to choose between getting a note right or keeping the rhythm steady, choose the rhythm. Don’t stop.
3. Take a moment before you play to study the first four to eight measures of the piece. “Hear” it in your mind. Look patterns and similarities.
4. Practise sight reading every day.”
The idea that our playing needs to be perfect can be debilitating throughout our piano journey, and never more-so than when playing at sight.
It’s a point highlighted in this heartening story from Garreth Brooke, which we’ll close with:
“I recently had a real breakthrough with a ABRSM Grade 2 student who repeatedly told me that she hated sight reading in the lessons and whose mother reported that she was often crying during practice sessions and really wanted to quit the exam.
Although this student still wouldn’t say she loves it, the sight reading part of the lesson has definitely become less of a moment of dread, and I actually think she will have done quite well at sight reading in the exam.
The difference was when I explained to her that her job was NOT to play it perfectly, but just to show that she understood some of what was going on.
I emphasised that it was very different to performing repertoire (I used the analogy that sight reading is like being given a passage of a book to read on sight in English class, whereas repertoire is like preparing a presentation for class). I also told her that if she literally just tapped out the rhythm she’d get some marks, because that was part of what was being tested.
Honestly the before/after difference was extraordinary.”
Being equipped and confident at sight reading has huge benefits. Hopefully these tips from the Tea Room community will help you.
And if you would like to join in future discussions, come along and join. Here’s details of how to become a member: