Sight reading at the piano is the ability to process information from a score and recreate it to the best of one’s ability on the spot. To get a high mark for a sight reading test in an exam, you might be surprised to learn that complete note accuracy is not at the top of the list. Examiners are interested in the following criteria:

  • A performance that captures the musical essence and character of the test, with attributes such as phrasing and dynamics present
  • A performance that flows rhythmically, sticking to the pulse as priority while allowing note errors to go by without faltering or attempting to correct them
  • As many correct notes as possible under the circumstances; approximations, educated guesses and even omissions here and there are acceptable in the interests of unerring rhythmic flow and musical communication

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.

Over the years, I have noticed several attributes of good sight readers.

  • Good sight readers seem to be musically literate, with a solid grasp of theory and harmony.
  • They listen to music regularly, perhaps following along with the score, and are familiar with a lot of the standard orchestral, chamber and vocal repertoire in addition to the piano repertoire.
  • They work with other musicians on a regular basis. Playing for a singer, a choir or an instrumentalist or playing in an ensemble tends to develop the ability to learn new pieces very fast, thereby developing reading skills. Circumstances prevent them from stopping and correcting their mistakes, so they learn to carry on regardless.
  • They have a large repertoire, and have a keen interest in picking up pieces they don’t know and familiarising themselves with them. Sight reading is not a dry, boring activity connected with gaining marks in an exam, but a living, breathing activity that brings them joy and satisfaction.

Exam-based Culture

The enemy of sight reading and pretty much any musical or pianistic progress is the tendency to focus on three exam pieces for the best part of a year, polishing and refining these pieces along with the scales that go with the grade while doing nothing else in lessons or in daily practice. After the first stages of learning a piece you are no longer really reading the notes, but using the printed page as an anchor to remind you what you already know. The trick is to be reading new pieces all the time, to keep your reading muscle flexed.

Quick Studies

We all know the primary rule is to keep going while sight reading (and indeed during a performance of anything) – 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. I am convinced that one of the best ways to develop sight reading skills in piano students who might not be playing too often with other musicians is to assign quick studies throughout the year, and for the teacher to witness the results in lessons. A quick study is just a repertoire piece, it might be a couple of grades below the standard of the student. Perfection and refinement are not the point here, they have to do the best job they can by themselves within the given time limit (a week or two, or even a day or two). Think of it like this – the 30 second time frame they would get to look through their sight reading test in their exam is expanded to whatever time limit the teacher sets. Let’s say this is between weekly lessons. During the week, they may practise the piece in whatever ways they need to learn it, knowing their teacher will hear it in the next lesson. They play from beginning to end, the teacher might then pick up on one or two musical or pianistic matters arising it before signing it off and leaving it. This could also take the form of duets, or teaming up with an instrumental teacher and having your higher-grade students work with some more elementary string or wind players.

Read Ahead

I am very happy to have discovered a new sight reading tool created by Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen, faculty members of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where Travis teaches music theory, and Ken keyboard skills for piano majors. They have been working together on Read Ahead since 2012. Read Ahead is a complete sight-reading curriculum based on high-quality music, carefully graded and supplemented with a wide variety of exercises to help instill the habits essential for fluent reading. The Online Academy will feature the first section (Section A) of each level. For further material, the complete levels (Sections B & C) are available from Amazon as a printed book, the Apple App Store as an iPad app and will also be published in eBook format at the Informance store.

Please click here to find out more and to view the available material on the Online Academy.

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