I have had several requests to write an article on piano sight reading (I love having requested blog topics so please do keep them coming). Sight reading is certainly a hot subject amongst those taking music exams and it simply means the ability to play a piece of music on looking at it for the first time; i.e. reading at sight.
It is the section of music exams that many students find a challenge but it is possible to learn how to do it. I certainly did. I wasn’t the best sight-reader but I found that by working at it diligently everyday, it did eventually improve.
Here are a few points to bear in mind when practising;
1. It’s really important to start off by looking at the piece of music carefully and observe:
i. The key signature (then mentally imagine all the sharps or flats that you will need to play in the extract).
ii. The speed of the piece (look for the metronome mark or speed indication).
iii. The pattern of notes – notice features such as chords, arpeggio figures, scale passages, and then finally features like phrase markings, articulation and dynamics.
2. Once you have spent a good 30 seconds to 1 minute observing you could always play the extract through separate hands first. This isn’t encouraged in an exam (due to time constraints) but it is a good way to start learning how to read and find the notes.
3. Pay special attention to the suggested fingering (what fingers you will use for each note) – you need to have it planned in your head before you start especially when negotiating scale or arpeggio passages and contrapuntal sections.
4. One particularly effective element in piano sight reading is to tap the rhythm of both hands at the same time. The left hand tapping the bass line and the right hand tapping the treble line. I find students respond to this very well and then have a firm grasp of the rhythm before they start.
This also establishes the pulse. You must develop a firm grasp of the pulse or beat so it is embedded in your mind and fingers before you start and this needs to continue whilst you are playing (I clap loudly to keep pupils in time as they play – I must be the most annoying piano teacher ever but all my students pass their sight reading tests!).
5. The crucial factor when learning to sight-read, is to play everything extremely slowly. Painfully slowly in fact, so that you are able to take in all the details and combine both hands together fluently. If you are unable to do this then you are not playing slowly enough.
If you keep playing different extracts through at a snail’s pace – preferably for a few weeks or even months, then you will find your reading eventually improves and you are able to take the tempos faster and faster.
6. The final factor in determining good sight reading is to keep playing whatever. You will not pass the sight reading element of an exam if you stop in the middle of the extract. So you need to develop a feeling for keeping going and ignoring all your mistakes. We all make them especially when sight reading – you just need to forget them and carry on. It’s a good idea to force your eyes to read ahead as this will also continue your momentum and help you to keep going.
There are plenty of excellent sight reading books and study aids on the market today and I will look at what is available in more detail in a future blog post.
The expression Keep calm and carry on does apply to sight reading! Good Luck.
For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.
If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.
The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.
I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.