I have had many requests to write more about sight-reading. It seems to me that talking about this subject is of minimal value because it’s something you’ve just got to do, but here are a few thoughts. I hope they will help motivate those of you who feel you don’t know how to improve your reading, because you absolutely can. The only way to gain sight reading skills is by doing it, constantly! One thing I feel is very important – you will get much more benefit if you throw yourself in at the deep end, where your results are witnessed in a situation where you cannot stop no matter how much you may want to.

Ensemble Playing

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 – find 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.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Don’t look at your hands – keep your eyes firmly fixed on the page and aim to capture the gist of what is going on as best you can.
  • Listen to the other player(s) and train yourself never to stop for any accident or wrong note.
  • Play expressively – respond to the dynamic levels and to the musical meaning of what you’re playing. Believe it or not, this is often much more important than note accuracy. Wrong notes are not nearly as catastrophic as they feel to you when you make them.
  • If you start to get flustered, play only the melody line and make up some sort of LH – take an educated guess at what it might be. Or improvise the notes while keeping a tally of the beats and bar lines as they go by until you can get back on track again.
  • Approach it with gusto, a devil-may-care attitude and smile at your wrong notes.

Sight Reading as Part of the Practice Session

You can of course practise sight reading as part of your regular practice session, and there are many publications that will help you structure this. Paul Harris has written an excellent graded series Improve Your Sight Reading, and there are others by John Kember and Alan Bullard that I can suggest.

The only snag with reading by yourself alone is that if it sounds dreadful, it is human nature to stop and correct yourself no matter how much you plan not to. I do have one tip I would like to pass on if you want a stage between looking the piece over and actually attempting to play it. Before you try the piece at the piano, play it first on a table or the fallboard of  your piano. This may seem a bit crazy, but you can’t play any wrong notes but you will be able to get the rhythmic gist and the general pitch direction (whether the music goes up or down). Try it – it really can help!

In my previous post on this subject (A Prima Vista – Some Thoughts on Sight Reading), I recommended an excellent app developed by Wessar. The best way to use it is on the iPad – download the tests for the grade you are working towards (there are over 1,000 tests available from 6 examination boards), set the speed for the inbuilt metronome and follow the directions on the screen. As you play the test, the score disappears from the screen bar by bar. This forces you to look to the right and there’s no way you can hesitate or go back to correct yourself.

Sight Reading Projects

Rather than dry test pieces, which are often not that inspiring, why not consider making a passing acquaintance with real pieces of music by great composers that were written specifically for educational purposes? Anything with the title “Album for the Young” is worth looking at, since the pieces will be short (and usually very sweet). Composers who wrote albums for the young include Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Cornelius Gurlitt and (for a contemporary twist) Lowell Liebermann (click here).

You might also consider keyboard anthologies of pieces two or three levels below your grade. Perhaps think of spending a week speed learning one or two pieces from an anthology – this is a step beyond sight reading and in addition to aiding and abetting the reading process you end up knowing more music and having more fun in your practice time! Howard Ferguson compiled and edited a graded series for the ABRSM – here is the first series. Nils Franke’s Romantic Piano Anthology would also make an excellent addition to your library. There are loads more, simply search for them online.

You might also have a bit of fun with your iPad sourcing some interesting repertoire from the Petrucci Music Library. Consider purchasing a foot pedal to manage the page turns for you, and you have a virtually limitless supply of music literally at your fingertips.

Young American pianist Joseph Beels impressed me with his dedication to improving his learning and reading skills with a special project, the results of which he posted regularly to social media. Joseph’s YouTube channel shows you his work in progress, and I will hand you over to him to explain what he did:

During January and February of 2014, I decided to start a sight-reading project. During this endeavor, I challenged myself to record myself playing a piece, either learning a new piece from scratch or reviewing a piece I had not played in a long time and record my interpretation of the piece and post it to YouTube each day. During this project I was introduced to two new composers. I picked up their books of etudes at a local music store because I had not heard of them. The first was Jean Louis Gobbaerts, better known by his pseudonym “Streabbog”; I ended up recording his entire Opus 64 titled “Easy and Melodious Studies” in under nine days. The second was Johann Burgmuller, and I managed to learn and record the first two etudes in his “Eighteen Characteristic Studies” Op. 109 during the last five days of the project. To be honest, many days during this project I recorded a more simple piece while I was working on a more difficult one for the next day. That is one way I was able to do it. (Joseph Beels)

Have you embarked on any special sight reading projects? If so, please do send me details and I will add them to this post.

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In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts,  practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

Preview or Buy Practising the Piano Part 3

Click on “Preview” for a free preview or on “Buy” to purchase Part 3 of Practising The Piano now.

Click here for the full series bundle:

For more information, and the catalogue to purchase individual parts, click here.

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As part of my research for Part 4 (on performance), I have devised a short (very short, actually) survey – Performance Anxiety among Pianists, the results of which I will collate and include in the publication. I would be most grateful if you would take two or three minutes to complete the survey. It really is very brief, and you will be completely anonymous. Whether you are a professional pianist, a piano student or play for your own pleasure your opinion and comments count.

Let me thank you very much indeed in advance for your time and input!

Take the survey