The Online Academy’s collaboration with the Read Ahead team is a very happy one for me, since I can heartily endorse the innovative programme they have created to help pianists develop their sight-reading skills. Today’s post is a guest post by Ken Johansen and Travis Hardaway from Read Ahead, and I shall now pass you over to them.

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Most piano teachers agree that fluent sight-reading is a very important skill, one that ideally all students should develop. Fluent readers are more at ease at the piano, learn music more quickly, have broader musical horizons, make music more often with others, and receive more opportunities to perform. The question is, how do we help our students to develop this fluency?

We can start, first of all, by teaching them the skills that make good sight-reading possible. In reality, sight-reading is not one skill, but a set of several inter-related skills that include: scanning the score intelligently before starting, maintaining a steady pulse, keeping our eyes on the score, hearing the music in our minds, reading in groups of notes, looking ahead as we play, and simplifying the music when necessary. With the exception of the last one, these are all skills that apply not only to sight-reading, but also to learning repertoire. If we bring these elements into play at every lesson, in every piece the student learns, we will be teaching him or her not only the piece, but also the musical skills needed for fluent sight-reading.

Of course, it is not enough to work on these skills solely on repertoire pieces, and only during the weekly lesson. Students must sight-read unfamiliar pieces regularly, not only at lessons, but at home, and not only before exam times, but month after month, year after year. This is the simple key to success in sight-reading – it must become a regular part of every musician’s daily practise regimen. Furthermore, it should not be seen as a duty or drudgery, but as an opportunity to explore. While technique and repertoire need to be repeated daily, sight-reading brings something new and varied to each practise session (See our article on “The Joy of Sight-Reading“).

Since sight-reading needs to be part of every practise day, and because each piece should only be read once or twice, piano teachers need large quantities of music suitable for each student’s sight-reading ability. This is the first major challenge in teaching sight-reading. There are of course several series of graded sight-reading books available, but students go through these short pieces very quickly and need more material before they are ready to go to the next level. Furthermore, these series are often composed according to a rigid pedagogical plan, rendering the pieces less than enticing for many students. To be effective, sight-reading books should also guide the students to look for certain events and patterns before they play. Some series do this quite well, though I suspect that many students don’t bother to read the instructions before playing.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in teaching sight-reading is knowing whether or not our students are practising at home. When we assign repertoire or technical exercises, we can hear from their progress (or lack thereof), whether they have practised since the last lesson. But in sight-reading, it’s hard to tell whether they have practised, since each piece is to be played only once or twice. This is a problem that has not had a good solution, until the advent of modern technology.

It is with all this in mind – the limited amount of time for sight-reading during the lesson, the difficulty of gathering a large quantity of good quality, carefully graded music, and the problem of knowing if our students are practising at home – that we developed Read Ahead. The idea started as we searched for a solution to a well-known difficulty in sight-reading: how to look ahead of where you are playing. The traditional way to teach this – holding a card over the music as the student plays – is clearly impractical for solitary practise at home. We came up with an exercise that can be read on an iPad, in which the music disappears a bar in advance as you play, forcing you to read ahead, and giving us the name of our program. The disappearance in advance is crucial. Another iPad app currently available also features disappearing music, but the measure only disappears once you have already played it, which doesn’t train the eyes and mind in the essential task of looking forward.

Video illustration of a Read Ahead iPad app exercise – further demonstrations are available here.

Expanding our initial idea into a complete sight-reading curriculum, we started to scour the Internet and the library for music that would be suitable for sight-reading at various levels of ability. Our goal from the beginning was to find the best quality music by established, though sometimes little-known, composers, and to put these pieces into an order that was graded and logical, letting the music dictate the flow of the curriculum, rather than writing the music to fit a narrow, pre-determined pedagogical plan.

As we developed this curriculum, we soon realised that a complete approach to the teaching of sight-reading demanded much more than exercises with disappearing music. So we invented new kinds of exercises to foster other important faculties: tapping games that teach students to look for various events in the music before they play, quizzes to test them on how well they observed the score before starting, memory exercises to encourage reading groups of notes in a single snapshot, and a large variety of what we call Touch exercises that help students to learn the geography of the keyboard, work out fingering problems, practise common patterns, and much more. All of these exercises were determined by the issues found in the pieces themselves, creating a constantly changing, pedagogically rich resource of methods and ideas for teaching not only sight-reading, but music generally.

Today, Read Ahead has four levels, from beginning to late intermediate, with over 100 pieces per level, and a Preparatory level to be added soon. It is available on the Apple App Store as an iPad app, and soon on Android tablets as well. For those without tablets, it is also published as a traditional book, eBook and selected content has been adapted for use on the Online Academy. These formats are supported by a phone app (Read Ahead Hybrid, for both Apple and Android phones), which contains metronome settings, quizzes, and memory exercises. All formats have the same pieces and exercises, but only the tablet has the disappearing music (click here to find out more about how the tablet app works and for video demonstrations).

So, to answer the question posed in our title: yes, sight-reading can indeed be taught…with a little help!

Further Reading & Resources

Click here to find out more about Read Ahead on the Online Academy and to view sample content or on the links below for specific resources and formats:

  • Online Academy articles & resources
  • eBooks – Save over 20% on Read Ahead eBooks, each featuring a complete level comprised of 36 days of lessons with numerous sample sigh-reading pieces and exercises:
    • Level 1 eBook (beginner level, approx Associated Board grades 1-2) – click here to purchase for 20% off the standard price of £8.99!
    • Level 2 eBook (late beginner level, approx Associated Board grade 2) – click here to purchase and get 20% off the standard price of £8.99!
    • Level 3 eBook (late intermediate level, Associated Board grades 4-5) – click here to purchase and get 20% off!
    • eBook Bundle (Levels 1 – 3) – click here to purchase an eBook bundle featuring levels 1 – 3 and save a further 20% off the discounted bundle price of £22.99!
  • Eyetrainer ™ – Lightweight device that sits over the piano keys to help you avoid looking at your hands and keep your eyes on the score when sight-reading. Click here for more information.
  • Apps
    • Complete iPad app on Apple iTunes (requires in app purchases) – click here
    • Read Ahead Hybrid companion mobile app for Apple iPhone or Android phones (free complement to Online Academy resources and eBooks).