No matter the instrument, many of my pupils would love me to play through their new piece before they learn it so that they know how it goes, using their ears to pick it up. But if I were to do that, I would rob them of developing the skill of sight reading. More on how I help them later.
Sight reading is the ability to play a piece of music previously unseen or heard through skills gained in note and rhythm reading. Sight reading is tested in exams. For some, this is their favourite part of the exam; for others, the most terrifying.
The ability to read a piece of music and perform it with only a minimal look at it first is a highly useful skill for any musician. Today I’m going to give some practical tips for those who find sight reading terrifying, but would like to improve in this area. Some of these are only applicable to keyboard players. Others are generally relevant. Let me know in the comments below what was the most useful to you.
Challenges and Tips
- Note reading is poor. If there is not a clear understanding of the difference between treble and bass notes, it will be difficult to learn any new piece. This principally applies to keyboard pupils, so those on instruments reading only one line of music will find it easier.
Tip: Use note flash cards for beginner learners and frequent practice of individual note recognition at their learning level. Keep working at note reading until there is no confusion between the staves and the note recognition is instant. If you have trouble with a note on its own, it will be much harder in the flow of reading a lot of notes in a short space of time.
- Dependence on finger numbers and hand positions. This is a problem for keyboard beginners who get into an early habit of thinking a particular finger always goes with a certain note.
Tip: Watch out for the learner who is looking for the finger position before identifying the note name. For beginners, it is especially important to have separate exercises to learn note reading independent of finger numbers or a particular hand position.
- Counting skills not developed. If you cannot count as you read the music, it will be harder to work out the rhythms in the flow of the music.
Tip: Counting aloud helps you hear if you are keeping a steady beat at a speed at which you can play accurately. Learn to count the whole piece for the value of the smallest note value. For example, a piece only in crotchets (quarter notes) is counted with 1 beat per crotchet. If the piece also has quavers (eighth notes), then the whole piece should be counted as for quavers (with ‘ands’ inserted as part of the count) not just where the quavers occur. This helps to decode the music to keep up with each beat of the bar and also helps the learner to look ahead to see what is coming in order to put the note into the beat—not the other way around.
- Playing is not regular and often. I noticed when I came back to playing for a choir after the lockdown that I was a bit sloppier than usual when given our first piece to play on the day. It wasn’t hard. I simply had not been playing as much as usual and it showed. If you are only playing at your instrument about once a week (like when you have that quick practice before a lesson!), you simply don’t maintain that instant recognition of notes and rhythms as well.
Tip: The way to deal with this is to play a little and often, establishing where the same notes are in different pieces. Do this work on more than one piece a week, so you learn the notes and rhythm patterns in different contexts. As an advanced musician, my mother was an amazing sight reader. She told me one of the reasons was she became good at it early on was by reading a lot of hymns where 4 notes often change together with each beat. Along with that, she also played music in a range of contexts as a music teacher. You don’t have to be a music teacher, but the habits bring results.
- Limited knowledge and fluency with scales. A thorough grounding in scales is going to help you with fluency, along with key recognition. You are more likely to identify the appropriate sharps and flats needed. Playing the wrong sharps and flats are common mistake areas when sight reading a new piece, and it is easy to lose a sense of the piece’s tonality.
Tip: Have a regular way to practice scales and be particularly aware of the scale that goes with the key of a piece you are learning.
- Only working on one piece a week. This applies mostly to beginners. I have noticed that pupils who only practice one piece a week may learn it quite well, but may also memorise it and play it without reading. They are practicing fluency, which is good, but their ability to read in various contexts may stagnate.
Tip: It is most helpful to develop good reading skills at this early stage if there are 3-4 pieces being practiced each week, so notes are recognised in different contexts.
- Not revising older, easier music. This is similar to the previous point but adds to it.
Tip: Revision of older, easier music is so beneficial to the reading process. It gives a sense of achievement, showing how far learners have come, but it also builds reading confidence as they enjoy playing the easier pieces. In addition, pieces they may have learned by memory need to be read when they later ‘forget’ how to play them. So then, that is more reading practice too.
- Undeveloped ability to read ahead. This is a key aspect of sight reading. Your eyes need to be on the bar ahead, while you are playing the bar before.
Tip: This skill usually happens over time. A careful teacher will monitor it and make sure it is happening. The more you can read notes and rhythms well, the more you can look ahead. Lots of practice playing accurately at the level you are comfortable at, with the difficulty level slowly increasing, is the most ideal.
- Inability to move on without going back to fix mistakes. This challenge crops up for those who are frustrated if the performance isn’t perfect.
Tip: This simply has to be practiced by taking the piece at a speed at which the learner can keep the steady beat and look ahead. To move on without going back to fix mistakes is so important to good sight reading and some notes may have to be missed to keep with the steady beat. In an piano exam situation I have advised pupils to revert to using just one hand if the music gets too difficult. They will at least get marks for keeping the beat and flow of the music going.
These are just a few pointers for a big subject that can’t be covered in one blog. A good sight reader keeps all of these areas in a delicate balance, and if one area doesn’t develop very well, the overall ability to sight read is affected.
Back to what I mentioned at the beginning. When pupils play through their new music with counting and note skills (and separate hands playing as appropriate), it not only helps them develop their own reading skill, it helps me, their teacher, monitor the progress of their reading skill. Sometimes, after working through the selection, they may still not have a sense of how it will sound once practiced, so I may play it through for them so they know what they are aiming for. At that point it is a delight for me to show them what they have already started to achieve, having just put the hard work into reading it for themselves.