My latest article for Pianist Magazine’s New Year’s newsletter focuses on sight-reading. I’ve written about this subject many times, but it’s an important topic for pianists, and is often ignored or sidestepped in piano lessons until absolutely necessary i.e. just prior to an exam or audition, when testing is unavoidable. Few pianists are keen sight-readers, many believing a specific talent is required to read quickly. Aptitude is helpful of course, but there are copious ways to improve reading. For those who feel their skills would benefit from an over-haul, here are a few suggestions.
1. Sight-reading is all about the preparation. On first glance, check the score for the key signature (noting the major and relative minor of that written). Note the time signature (particularly if it changes during the piece), obvious note patterns such as scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves and the like (aim to decipher fingerings for such figurations before you play).
2. Separate the rhythm from the notes. Focus on the general pulse; always start with very slow speeds when learning to read (perhaps a third of the intended tempo). Then tap the rhythm of the treble clef in the right hand, and the rhythm of the bass clef, with the left hand (at the same time), keeping in mind the slow pulse you have already set.
3. Now play through the left hand alone (without adhering to any pulse), locating note patterns, hand positions changes and fingering (and remembering the key!). Then do this with the right hand. If you’re preparing for an exam, you will probably have just enough time to run through each hand separately in the 20 or 30 seconds allocated inspection time beforehand.
4. Decide how you will keep time during the exercise. A metronome may be helpful (for ‘sitting’ on the pulse), but counting out loud along to your playing is also a reliable method (providing your count is rhythmical!). Try to sub-divide the beat (that is, if crotchets are the main beat, count in quavers). Counting a bar’s rest at the beginning can be useful too (for setting a firm tempo).
5. Play your chosen exercise very slowly, reading ahead all the time, whilst aiming to play through your mistakes (it’s tempting to stop and correct errors, but by playing slowly, you will eventually be able to resist this urge).
When reading, keep in mind the overall rhythmic structure and play the notes to the pulse as opposed to the other way around. This preparation will become gradually quicker over time, as will your reading. If you can spend 10-15 minutes sight-reading at every practice session, you’ll be amazed at what can be achieved.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.