This week we’ve published the next instalment in Ken Johansen’s Advanced sight-Reading Curriculum on the Online Academy which is dedicated to the subject of rhythm. In this guest blog post, Ken explores how sight-reading can be beneficial for developing good rhythmic habits and useful musical skills.

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It’s a silly question, of course. In music, neither one can exist without the other. But to roam the halls of any conservatory, listening to students practise, is to realise without doubt that their top priority is note accuracy. The slightest wrong note makes them stop immediately and back up, usually only a note or two, to excise the offending blemish. In doing so, they of course add rhythmic inaccuracy to their note inaccuracy, and lose all sense of pulse and phrasing. It seems a heavy price to pay for a wrong note.

Given this compulsion to stop and correct wrong notes, it is not surprising that many piano students, when asked to sight-read something, find it very difficult to keep a regular pulse and play through to the end of a piece without stopping. It is virtually impossible to suddenly abandon a habit that has been reinforced daily in the practice room for years. In addition, most piano students do not have enough experience in ensemble playing, or sufficient training in improvisation, playing by ear, and simplifying challenging passages, to allow them to play in tempo and keep going when sight-reading.

notes or rhythms

Of the many benefits of sight-reading—discovery of new music, faster learning of repertoire, greater access to performance and employment opportunities—one of the most important is the improved feeling of pulse and rhythm that it instills. Being obliged to keep going no matter what happens, as we are in sight-reading and in ensemble playing, leads to the development of a stable inner pulse, which in turn makes it possible to read accurately all the varied rhythmic figures contained within the pulse. Students who have difficulty sight-reading common rhythmic figures are usually the ones who have gotten into the habit of practising out of time, and therefore lack that stable pulse upon which all rhythmic life depends.

Any pianist who has joined another pianist in a duet, or accompanied a singer at sight, knows that being obliged to play in time, come what may, has the secondary effect of forcing them to occasionally leave notes out, simplify challenges, or guess at what is coming. While this may seem like a sacrifice to some (the devil of note accuracy whispering in our ears), being forced to reduce, simplify, improvise, and play by ear encourages the growth of musical skills that are extremely valuable, not only in sight-reading, but in performance and practising.

The good rhythmic habits and useful musical skills that we develop in sight-reading transfer over to our daily practice in many beneficial ways. For one thing, as our reading improves, so does our accuracy, and we may find that we don’t need to stop and correct wrong notes as often as before. Moreover, the imperative that we now feel to keep a steady pulse may lead us to play to the end of the phrase before going back to correct mistakes, giving us a better sense of phrasing. When we do need to repeat a small unit to make it fluent, we may find ways to do this with practice loops that allow us to keep a regular pulse through the repetitions.

The skill we have developed in simplifying and reducing textures may also help us to see more clearly the underlying structure of the pieces we are learning, and to find new ways of practising and memorising them. In performance, our stable inner pulse becomes something we can rely upon, and ride upon, as it carries us through musical time. And should something go awry when playing from memory, our ability to improvise and play by ear will help us to keep the music going.

Returning to our opening question, notes and rhythms are equally important, but notes only have meaning when they are in rhythm.

– Ken Johansen

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The latest instalment of the Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum is available with an Online Academy subscription or for once-off purchase from our store here. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum (General introduction & other parts) – Click here to view a general introduction to the curriculum, click here for more information on Part 1 or here for Part 2.
  • The Joy of Sight-Reading – Click here to read a collection of free articles by Read Ahead developers Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen on the Online Academy
  • Read Ahead – Sight-reading exercises for elementary to intermediate levels on the Online Academy – Click here for level 1, click here for level 2, click here for Level 3 or click here for Level 4 (recently added)

Online Workshop – The Four Skills of Successful Sight-Reading

If you’d like a live, hands-on demonstration of tools and techniques from some of the resources listed above, you might be interested in our online workshop on Friday 25th of June @ 14:00 – 16:00 BST (GMT + 1). In this workshop, Ken Johansen will present his tried and tested approach to developing for essential skills for successful sight reading. He will show you how to plan before you play, keep your eyes on the score, read ahead and keep the rhythm going! Click here for more information.