Sight reading is included in every graded examination. Few seem to excel at it, and many actively dread it. Even the best players are likely to drop marks in this area, and despite the numerous publications available nowadays to assist the learner, exam candidates are often reluctant to practise this much-needed skill.

Thinking about the long-term benefits of taking piano lessons in childhood, surely an ability to read at sight, and learn a piece reasonably fast are equally if not more important than spending a year on three pieces, cosmetically tweaking and refining them parrot-fashion in order to gain a nice mark (and kudos for the teacher)? I firmly believe we should be teaching musical intelligence and comprehension in addition to technical and interpretative skills. There is nothing that infuriates me more than discovering someone supposedly in the higher grades unable to accompany a simple ensemble piece at sight, or play a solo piece half way through the year when they have forgotten their previous exam pieces and yet aren’t quite ready with the new ones.

Expert sight readers are usually expert musicians, who are able to process the information on the page in their short-term memory and reproduce it instantly. This skill has to do with musical comprehension – scanning the page for key pieces of information and, frankly, making educated guesses as to what might be going on in one hand, and snap decisions as to what to leave out. A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning.

TRIAL BY FIRE

Sight reading was a skill I developed as a postgraduate student in New York when I played for the voice studio of famous Metropolitan Opera tenor Mario Berini. My work there involved not only playing whatever was thrown at me during lessons, but also coaching singers in the interim. When I started, I am sure there were some cack-handed attempts at Zerbinetta’s Aria and other such chromatic minefields from the world of opera, but after a year or so of constantly going through this trial by fire, I got comfortable with pretty much anything put in front of me. My sight reading muscle had been well and truly flexed, and was strong and reliable.

I am convinced that the only way to develop sight reading skills in our students is to have the results witnessed as often as possible. We all know the primary rule is to keep going – never to stop and correct ourselves – and yet it is SO hard to do this, even with the best will in the world, when we are by ourselves.

SOME TIPS

Some sight reading can be done as a natural and integrated part of every lesson, even if it involves reading the first couple of lines of another piece by the same composer whose music the pupil is learning. It doesn’t have to be called sight reading, it is just exploration. Nothing hangs on it, no judgment from the teacher and no comment afterwards is necessary other than what might occur to you to mention regarding the music itself. You can also encourage pupils who are learning a piece from a book to explore some of the other pieces in the book. The brighter ones will do this anyway.

Here is a suggested way of practising sight reading as an exercise for exam preparation:

  • In the few seconds you have to look through the test, try to scan the whole, picking up as much information as possible.
  • If your horror of playing copious wrong notes prevents you from the absolute priority of keeping going regardless, a good interim stage is to play it on the fall board of the piano, or on a table. You won’t play any wrong notes and you’ll be concentrating on rhythm and the general patterns in the music.
  • When playing, keep in mind that an examiner is much more interested in the general gist of the exercise. Getting exactly the right notes at the expense of rhythm and musical meaning will result in a lower mark!
  • Take the bull by the horns and play the test with abandon, aiming to make it sound like music and almost revelling in your wrong notes!
  • Going over the exercise a second time is constructive, but of course you won’t be able to do this in an exam.

QUICK STUDIES

Once the pupil has cleared the nursery slopes it is a GREAT idea to assign them two or three quick studies over the course of a term, whereby they have something a couple of grades below their standard, and only a week or so to do the best they can. Perfection and refinement are not the point here. Incentives such as a mark from you that may count towards a studio prize (or something) can be helpful, if you believe in this sort of thing. In any event, spending a small part of one or two lessons on this before leaving it will encourage speed learning, the skill of absorbing, processing and decoding information from the score. This could also take the form of duets, or even teaming up with an instrumental teacher and having your higher-grade students work with some more elementary string or wind players.

A GREAT NEW APP

Last year I was approached by the developers of a sight reading app for the iPad, asking for my opinions on their product while it was still in the prototype phase. I was very impressed with what I saw, and am happy to say the app, from Wessar, is now available and ready to download from the app store.

The app costs nothing to download and gives one test from each grade so you can test it out for free. You can then purchase the graded tests you require – there are over 1,000 tests available from 6 examination boards and I can see youngsters wanting to use this in their practice. You adjust the speed of the test using the inbuilt metronome, and you can also set the screen to flash. You get 30 seconds preview time after which there is a two-bar countdown. The score disappears from the screen bar by bar as you play, which forces you to look to the right. There’s no way you can stumble or go back, you have to go on! I think it is an excellent idea, and I heartily endorse it. You can view it here.