Love at First Sight-Reading

by Sean on December 11, 2011

5 Practical Tips on How to Improve Your Sight-Reading

Just Have Fun and Play

One of the greatest ways to enjoy music is to just sit down at the piano and play it. Whether there’s a piece you’ve heard for a while and finally found the sheet music for it, or you have a friend who wants to sing or play an unfamiliar piece with you, sight-reading music can be a rewarding experience. By practicing the following tips, you too can do this with ease and enjoyment.

Many of you are probably thinking something like, “but wait, sight-reading music is not easy!” No matter what level difficulty piece you can play, the pieces that you can sight-read are always going to need to be a little (if not much) easier. I can count on one hand the number of people I have known whose reading was equal to their playing ability.

Why is Reading Music So Difficult?

Nearly every piano student, including myself, has felt the agony of defeat when faced with a sheet of music which may as well be a inkblot test. Even a student of 2 or 3 years can feel that their reading does not improve much. There are two main reasons for this: 

    1.  Simply put, there is just not enough frequent exposure to reading music. When you learn to read your first language, you are exposed to it daily. Even if you wanted, you could not go through a day without seeing written language somewhere. With music, the average student spends anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour each day looking at sheet music. The difference is enormous.
    2.  Most importantly, it is the way in which we learn to read music that holds us back. You could spend 4 hours every day reading music, and yes, it would get better, but still not to its full potential. Besides, who has 4 hours a day to spend reading music?

So, what can you do? Try a little reading every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. The key is frequency, not overall quantity. And above all, make sure you are not just struggling your way through the music, measure by measure, line by line. Make every minute of your sight-reading practice count by using the following effective techniques to take you from “sounding out words” to fluency faster than you ever thought possible.

Tell Me the Tips Already!

  1. Flashcards – These tips assume that you already know the basics of reading: note names, time values, key signatures, etc. But if you are just starting out, flashcards are a great way to start. They can be found at many local music stores. However, even for flashcards, I have a tip! Do not fall into the habit of seeing the card, naming the note, then moving on to the next card. This works for math, but music must be taken a step further to truly register. Look at the flashcard, and if possible, do not think of the note name. Simply try to recognize it as the note on the piano, and play the note – no more, no less. The more you verbalize what you see, your brain needs to travel more pathways and therefore takes longer to process what it sees. This will take a little time and patience, but you must fight the urge to say the note name. You will be able to do it after some time, just stick with it.
  2. Patterns – It will never be possible to read many notes while keeping a steady beat if you are looking only at each individual note as you come to it. There are many patterns in music that reoccur all the time, and if you can recognize them quickly, you can instantly play a group of 4 or 5 notes without even thinking about them. Some common patterns are:
  •  Scale-type patterns. If you see that you have just steps going up or down, you need to look only at the first and last notes to know where to begin and where to end. Sometimes there will be the occasional skip or repeated note, so be careful, but still try to see everything as a group, not individual notes.
  •  Skips – As with flashcards, begin to drill yourself by recognizing different intervals up to the octave. Be sure to practice harmonic and melodic intervals.
  • Chords – This is just taking skipping patterns to the next level by recognizing many skips within a single chord. For starters, practicing reading chord inversions including V7 chords. This will cover the majority of the chords you’re ever going to see in standard music.
  • Specific patterns – There is no way to cover every pattern that is going to come up in piano music. You simply need to try it out as it comes. However, certain technique books like Hanon and some Czerny are very pattern oriented. If you are using these books for daily technique practice, be sure to actively read everything you play, even if it is the 147th time you are playing that exercise. Every bit of reinforcement you can do for your reading helps it.
    3. Look ahead – Pianists have it tough. There is just so much to look at: chords, fast notes, right hand, left hand, so many notes all at the same time. To make your way through a piece, it’s best to look at the simplest part first. So, when you are playing a measure of music, look ahead to the next measure to see the simpler part (usually left hand, but not always.) Then, you’ll already know it, and you can focus on the difficult, more “notey” part.

***To really challenge yourself, (you may need someone to help you with this,) look at the first measure of a piece before you play, memorize it, and then have someone cover the first measure with an index card. After you finish playing the first measure, have the person cover the next measure. You will need to have already memorized the second measure by now. When you finish the second measure, have the person cover the third measure, and so on. By instantly memorizing each measure, you can be playing that measure while looking at what’s coming. Sight-reading is essentially a constant juggling act between looking ahead, memorizing, playing, looking ahead, memorizing, playing… al fine.***

4.  Play just the downbeats – This is a shortcut to help you start looking ahead more comfortably. It’s easy to say “you must look ahead. No, you’re not looking ahead, keep reading ahead.” And many teachers find themselves frustrated, and the students find themselves disappointed because they can’t keep up. However, it’s no one’s fault. It’s good advice, but you need to build that skill just like any other.

The best and fastest way to building this skill is playing only the downbeats, in tempo. In other words, play only the first notes (or chords) of each measure, no more than that. Go through the whole piece like this until you can do it comfortably. It’s a good idea to count the beats when you do this too. Then, go through the piece again playing only the 1st and 3rd beats in tempo. If you can do this comfortably, add the second beat. So now, you are playing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd beats of each measure. If the piece is in 3 / 4 then you are essentially playing the whole piece. If it’s in 4 /4, there’s still one more beat to go. Finally, try all of the notes for the whole piece, and see if you are moving across the page any more easily. Some may notice a difference instantly. For others, you may just need to do this with a few more pieces, but the results will be amazing.

5. I’ve Got Rhythm – Finally, the last tip I have for you will take you out of your comfort zone, but this is a good thing! It may be very surprising, but trust me on this; it is the only way to break free of feeling like you can’t keep up with the page. You can do this with a piece that is already somewhat familiar to you, or with a completely new piece within moderate difficulty (not too difficult though.)

Make your #1 priority the rhythm and nothing else. If you come to a group of 8 sixteenth notes that you just cannot take in all at once, play 8 notes in time, no matter what they are. Try to get the general shape of the pattern (if it goes up, go up, for example,) but do not concern yourself with playing the correct notes. The perfectionists in us cringe when we play wrong notes, but what about wrong rhythm? Why is it permissible to us to play all of the notes correctly with absolutely no rhythm? Why do we never try the opposite? Are both things not equally important?

The reason I stress the importance of keeping up with the rhythm ties into the logic behind tips #3 and #4. Your eyes must always be moving across the page at the right speed. If you drop a few notes here and there, sure, maybe people will hear that. But if you stop to look at what is happening, figure it out, and then move on, everyone will always hear that. A wrong (stopped) rhythm is 10 times more noticeable than a wrong note.

The first few times you try this, you may play every note wrong, it may sound terrible, but do not feel bad about it. Laugh at the wrong notes, it’s hilarious! Joke that you’re playing modern music. My point is, it’s not a big deal, especially because this is not a performance. This is one of the many paths to learning something new, and playing all of the notes is not your main focus.

To sum up this point and consequently all of the other tips here, let me just put this in bold, italic, underlined letters: sight-reading is a DIFFERENT skill from performing, or scales, or musical phrasing, etc. All of these things will make their way into your reading as you get more comfortable with the complexities of making your way through a new piece. But you can’t be musical if you can’t get through the piece. Your only goal is to get through a piece with most of the right notes, or in the beginning, even 25% of the right notes is a good goal. Your reading will always have mistakes. As I said, I’ve known only a handful of people who could sight-read well enough to perform a piece on the first reading. However, if you try these tips and try some sight-reading of both new and familiar pieces even just 15 minutes per day, within a month, you will be a different pianist.

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