In this week’s guest post, Lona Kozik shares her story of how she went from being hopeless at sight reading to earning a living as an accompanist and working in theatre. Lona discovered that it is possible to learn to be a good sight reader and has packaged what she learnt on her journey as a unique, mini-course which is now available on the Online Academy.
I was 11 when I started piano lessons. I loved learning the piano, and I practised a LOT! But I wasn’t a very good sight reader.
My mother, on the other hand, was an excellent sight reader. If she heard me struggling to learn a new piece, she would come to the piano and sight read it with total ease. She did this to help me, but I was usually totally crushed. I thought – there are some people who can sight read, like my mother, and there are some who just can’t, like me.
It turns out this isn’t true. When I studied piano at university, I found you can actually learn to be a good sight reader. And I made this discovery moments before an important piano exam. I was about to take my fourth piano exam at university, the result of which would determine whether or not I could continue with my programme of study. If the jury failed me on any aspect, I was out.
I had a new piano teacher that semester, and I had learnt a great deal from him. I had really improved my playing, and I was eager to show the examiners my progress. But I hadn’t really had time to work on my sight reading.
Just before the exam, my teacher gave me a quick piece of advice, which I’ll never forget – “If you play all the rhythms correctly without stopping, you will pass the sight reading. Even if every single pitch is incorrect, if you play the rhythm correctly and do not stop, you will pass.”
He was right! I played the rhythm correctly, and I didn’t stop. I’ll never forget it was a piece by Schubert, and my sight reading rendition sounded more like Schoenberg. But I passed!
Having discovered that I CAN learn to be a good sight reader – that there are skills I could build to make sight reading accessible to me, I jumped in with abandon. I had help from my piano teacher, who picked up from our first sight reading lesson – play the right rhythm and never stop! I had help from my pedagogy teacher, who exposed me to different methodologies for learning to read music. I was taking a lot of music theory and ear training classes. I was learning to sight sing. I was learning about voice-leading and how harmony works.
One day, I was in a practice room, looking at a Beethoven sonata I was assigned to learn. All of the theory studies and sight singing practice and pedagogy studies suddenly flipped a switch. It was like someone had turned the lights on. Instead of seeing one note after another, I could see patterns! I could see landmarks! I could see musical structures jumping off the page – like musical architecture! I had learned this harmonic language so well that I could even predict where and what the next cadence would be.
I learned that sonata in one week.
I graduated with dual degrees in piano performance and music theory. I’d passed four more piano juries, all of them with a sight reading component. I had slain the sight reading dragon!
For me this was just the beginning. I took a job in graduate school as an accompanist in an opera studio. I stepped in at the last minute to deputise for a staff accompanist for college auditions. I began to teach sight reading. A friend of mine, an amateur singer who owned a local pub, got me to play the piano parts for the whole of Schubert’s Winterreise after hours in the pub. This time, my Schubert sounded just like Schubert! And we had immense fun playing through Winterreise! Yes – FUN sight reading! My 11-year old self would have never believed it.
I’ve taken all of the lessons and tips I picked up along my way and put them into my mini-course, Music at Sight. Becoming a good sight reader is a process of layering technical skills and theoretical knowledge. If you struggle with sight reading – if it takes you a long time to learn a new piece of music – or if you feel held back by being a slow reader, then Music at Sight is for you!
The Music as Sight mini course is available with an Online Academy subscription as part of our library of 1000+ articles and videos on piano playing. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the course introduction if you are already a subscriber.