I get a lot of questions about how to improve sight reading. Teachers don’t seem to find the time to cover it in lessons, meaning students have little incentive to practise it at home. And yet the ability to read and process information readily from the printed score is surely one of the most important skills they should be acquiring?
Players with weak reading skills often have good muscle memory, they are able to look away from the printed page quite early on in the note learning process – little wonder their reading skills suffer when their eyes are permanently focussed on the fingers. Sight reading involves assimilating information from the page and decoding it on the spot. The ability to do this presupposes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge (another area that is sorely neglected), but the single most important factor in getting good at it is to be doing it regularly.
With Other Musicians
Sitting at home ploughing through dreary sight reading tests just doesn’t seem to cut it. Even though you know you’re not supposed to stop for mistakes, you just hate getting it wrong. You’re not inspired and you can’t wait to move on to more interesting things – such as your pieces.
A great way to develop sight reading skills is to play with other musicians. Duets or music for two pianos, collaborating with singers, instrumentalists or choirs – I suggest finding any situation where you cannot stop under any circumstances (or you’ll be letting the side down). Singing teachers, instrumental teachers and choir directors who don’t have a pianist would be grateful for your efforts, no matter how rudimentary they may be to begin with. You will get better as you go on, I promise, but at the start you will play many more wrong notes than right ones. Swallow your pride, laugh it off and just get in there and do it.
One of my diploma candidates, an advanced player with a high level of pianistic aplomb and polish, produced Tchaikovky’s January (from The Seasons) in her last lesson as a quick study. The plan is to bring one piece per month from the set, which will certainly beef up reading and comprehension skills by forcing the eye onto the printed page.
A quick study is a proper piece of music a couple of grades lower than the level of the player, assigned with no prior instruction and to be played in full at a predetermined date. If you are a teacher who gives out regular assignments through the year, you might consider a quick study once a month – your student will know when you expect to hear it, and their results can even be marked (if you’re into that sort of thing). Perfection and refinement are not priorities here, they get through the piece as best they can by themselves with no help from you. You might choose to spend a small part of that week’s lesson on one or two matters arising from the piece before signing it off and moving on to other things. In addition to helping the reading your student will build up a repertoire of worthwhile music that is always being added to.
It adds value to have the results of your labour witnessed. After the allotted time, no matter what shape the piece is in, either play it for your teacher, at a piano group or record it for yourself. You might even think of your recordings as first drafts, laying down the foundations for future study when you might polish and finesse what you started.
List of Suitable Pieces
With the help of my friends on social media (thanks everyone!), I have compiled a list of pieces as a starting point. I have included slightly unusual works that are manageable for this purpose that you might not immediately think of. Of course, advanced players can take a book of Bach’s 48 and learn one or two Preludes a month (perhaps leaving out the Fugues). The same applies to the Shostakovich. How about taking a Mendelssohn Song without Words per month until you have built up a repertoire?
I will add to this list regularly, so please do send me your suggestions. I have tried to keep it to compilations of twelve (for those who want just one a month), but this is not so important.
Tchaikovksy: The Seasons
Fanny Mendelssohn: Das Jahr
Ginastera: Twelve American Preludes
MacDowell: 12 Etudes, op. 39
Granados: 12 Spanish Dances
Henselt: 12 Etudes Caractéristiques, op. 2
Szymanowski: 12 Etudes, op. 33
Liszt: Christmas Tree Suite
Bizet: Jeux d’enfants (four hands)
Sibelius: 10 Pieces for Piano, op. 58
Beethoven: 12 German Dances (very short!)
Schubert: 12 German Dances, D.790
Schubert: 12 German Dances, D.420
Schubert: 12 Grazer Waltzes, D.924
Tchaikovsky: 12 Pieces, op.40
Arensky: 12 Pieces, op. 66 (four hands)
Barbara Arens: Rendezvous with Midnight
Alan Hovhanes: Twelve Armenian Folk Songs, op.43
Rami Bar-Niv: Traditional Hebrew Songs
Adrian Vernon Fish: O’Donoghue’s Dozen (contact the composer via his site)
Richard Rodney Bennett: Partridge Pie
Sibelius: 10 Pieces for Piano, op. 24
Sibelius: 13 Pieces for Piano, op. 76
Gurlitt: Little Flowers, op. 205
Prokoviev: Music for Children, op. 65
Mozart: 12 Little Pieces (Book 1)
Mozart: 12 Little Pieces (Book 2)