Piano Sight Reading: A Progressive Method

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Few professional musicians would question the value and usefulness of sight reading, meaning that skill which allows us to play music that we’ve never heard, just from the notation, and without preparation.

As a teacher who allows my students considerable freedom to choose the music they want to learn and bring along to the lesson, I find myself relying on this skill very regularly. And yet some teachers and students treat the development of sight reading as an afterthought, and a rather dull one at that. Compounding the problem, while sight reading has traditionally been an element of public grade exams, it is decreasingly so.

Trinity College London include sight reading as an optional test in their piano grade exams, but some teachers choose only to introduce it with “serious students” after intermediate level, and on the basis that players will at that point miraculously “get it”.

Perhaps this lack of enthusiasm will change with the launch of Trinity’s excellent new series, Sight Reading: A Progressive Method, a suite of three books offering a clear route for teaching sight reading skills from the get-go.

In common with most sight reading resources the series is linked to the grade exams, but happily it goes far beyond specimen tests and basic exam cramming, and can be used as a powerful resource to actually teach and develop sight reading ability.

As Trinity explain,

So let’s take a look and see how the series can support teachers and students in those aims…

The Author and Publications

Before digging into the content itself, just a few words about the presentation.

Series author James Treweek has a distinguished CV as a professional player who has performed in the West End, has worked with artists including David Benoit, the Sugarbabes, David Gray, and has composed for TV and media. He has also taught piano for nearly 25 years, currently at Sevenoaks School.

The three books in the series have attractive covers containing 76, 88 and 128 pages respectively, printed on white paper. Spot colour is used throughout, not merely to add to the books’ aesthetic appeal but also to enhance effective learning, highlighting important points for the student to notice along the way.

Those used to ABRSM exams, in which fingering is included up until Grade 5, my find it surprising to notice that here it is almost totally absent, even in the earliest grades. Intelligent preparation is clearly a requirement that students must be taught from the start!

Intelligent Design

It is immediately clear that with this series Trinity (and Treweek) have hit upon an intelligent design in which each step of learning to sight read gently builds upon the last.

Closer inspection reveals that this is significantly due to the logical design embedded in Trinity’s piano syllabus. Page 19 of their current piano syllabus presents their sight reading criteria in a single table, from which it is clear that keys are introduced steadily, and only after the scale and suitable repertoire in the key have already been mastered.

But be aware that some boards have a less educative approach; these books can’t easily be used in conjunction with ABRSM exams, for example, in which (rather bizarrely) sight reading is sometimes expected in a key before the scale or repertoire have even been introduced. Some would say this makes Trinity’s tests easier; I say it makes them more sensible and educationally appropriate.

Treweek’s three new books thus build on Trinity’s well-designed structure, and mirror its pedagogic logic across three balanced volumes which cover respectively:

  1. Initial – Grade 2
  2. Grades 3-5
  3. Grades 6-8

For each of the three grades in each book, there are ten “Lessons”. Each of these has a clear pedagogic focus, which is outlined in an attractively presented (with spot colour) box at the start of the lesson.

Following this, we find four or five preparatory exercises leading to a duet, included to encourage the development of ensemble sight reading skills (not required in Trinity grades, but oh so useful for real-world music-making).

Another coloured box offers the player a checklist of points to consider and remember when playing at sight. These are an excellent and supportive addition.

The duet piece that concludes each Lesson builds on the same musical ideas as the preceding exercises, consolidating the learning and building confidence, rhythmic security and fluency.

Across the whole series, the duets are presented in full score format, with the student’s part shaded with spot colour to help them develop hand/eye coordination.

Each grade section concludes with a selection of practice exam tests, taken from Trinity’s previous series of Sound at Sight Piano (original series) books. In the earlier grades there are more than twenty practice tests per grade, which could be used in the run up to the exam. At Grade 8 there are ten.

For those wanting more practice, Trinity also produce a second series of Sound at Sight Piano books offering additional specimen exam material.

Exploring the Materials

As mentioned, each Lesson has a clear focus. To illustrate the point, here are the Lesson topics for the sections covering Grades 2 and 7:

Grade 2

  • Practise reading rhythmic ties
  • Practice reading the rhythm dotted minim
  • Practice reading 3/4 time
  • Practise A minor with G#
  • Practise extended hand positions
  • Practise reading tempo marking Allegretto
  • Practise larger intervals in C major
  • Practise awkward fingering in G major
  • Practise awkward fingering in A minor
  • Practise the new elements (Grade 2)

Grade 7

  • Practise the compound time signature 9/8
  • Learn to read changes of clef
  • Practise the key of A flat major
  • Revise pedalling
  • Learn common terms for tempo
  • Practise the key of E major
  • Revise articulations, such as accents, staccato and legato
  • Practising reading trills and ornaments
  • Practise reading accidentals (such as B sharp and C flat)
  • Revise recently learnt elements

For the avoidance of doubt, every lesson includes consolidation material for all that has gone before, albeit not in a contrived or unmusical way.

From the two grade examples given, it is hopefully already clear that what we have here is a superbly straight-forward and eminently useful approach that gently builds understanding, confidence and fluency.

Using the Method

The author and publisher leave it to the teacher and player to decide between them how best to use this resource. It seems to me there are two obvious ways:

Firstly, such is the brevity and logic of this concise, no-fuss approach that it could be used by the teacher within lessons. I would estimate that the initial explanations, working through the four or so practice exercises, and then playing the duet would take about 10 minutes in a lesson at most.

For the student who is investing in adequate lesson time at their level, these books could provide a superb introduction to sight reading (and more) over the course of the ten lessons of one term. The practice tests could then be used in lessons the following term, if an exam is to be taken, or else the teacher could move onto the next grade section in the book.

Secondly, for students working more independently, or where lesson time isn’t sufficient for teacher-guided use of the material, the books could be used for home learning and practice. This might be less effective (and note there is no supporting audio, video or interactive self-assessment content), but could I believe still provide an effective learning pathway.

As a personal aside, I have long observed with students of all ages that longer fortnightly lessons tend to have a higher impact than short weekly ones. The potential benefits of directed use of materials such as these books in the lesson underline the point.

Closing Thoughts

Having looked at more than a few sight reading resources over recent years, I find this series especially appealing. As my studio reopens in the coming weeks I’m really looking forward to using the books, and particularly the carefully tailored duets.

A set of sight reading books may not be the sexiest purchase, but this set could really help a lot of players overcome the difficulties and roadblocks commonly associated with developing fluent music reading. I feel that they cover the foundations brilliantly, offering a steady, thorough and foolproof approach.

In my view then, the series easily deserves a Distinction!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.