Sight-Reading

Poor sight-reading has been identified as one of the reasons students stop lessons. The most effective way to become a successful sight-reader is to practise the skill regularly. Just as with reading a book, in time students will recognise clusters of notes as phrases rather than as individual entities. There is a correlation between proficient sight-reading and time spent practising it. You do not become fluent at reading anything without regular practice. Everyone who can read a book has the intellectual capacity to become an effective sight-reader, but improving sight-reading requires a continual increase in the difficulty of the material.

The beauty of this skill is that it speeds up the learning process and opens up new and wider opportunities for making music with others.

Learning to sight-read involves a different mindset than when one learns for a performance. Maintaining fluency and momentum is paramount. In particular one must not stop to correct mistakes, for in sight-reading mistakes are tolerated. Practising with a metronome, backing tracks, or better still, live ensemble partners, can help to induce this required musical continuity.

When I was learning piano, my sight-reading was comparatively weak. The teacher’s advice was to obtain a stack of suitably difficult music and practise sight-reading every day. My teacher told me that once I had played a piece the sight-playing experience was over, which is why I needed the ready supply of new music. Teachers should include sight-reading in their lessons because students are unlikely to practise this skill at home if they don’t see it to be valued during lessons.

Successful sight-readers keep their eyes on the music more often than poorer sight-readers. This is one of the reasons many pianists struggle with sight-reading, as it is difficult to keep the eyes on the music while making hand movements to the correct keys. Eighteenth-century German musician and composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach once advised, “If you want to improve your sight-reading, practise in the dark.” This can be simulated by closing the eyes during practice. Improving the sense of touch allows the eyes to spend more time on the music on the page, which in turn facilitates better sight-reading.

Sight-reading is a multitasking skill that involves playing the current measure while scanning the next, moving fingers to the keys without looking, using prior musical knowledge to comprehend the music, and relating to the music on an emotional level. Better sight-readers have a greater knowledge of musical styles and repertoire, which provides a database of familiarity for the chunking process. This familiarity enables sight-readers to make educated guesses when necessary to maintain the flow of the music. Effective sight-readers scan the music before a performance, while considering the tempo, the time and key signatures, and possible difficulties. Rhythmic reading is the most important and challenging musical component of sight-reading. One can practise this in isolation, even away from one’s instrument. Rhythmic reading exercises can readily be sourced.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“A must read for all music educators” – Robert Adams, Music Educator, New Haven, USA.

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Guildhall School of Music, UK.

“A deeply impressive work, the breadth of research is fascinating!” Robert Chamberlain, Team of Pianists and Monash University Piano Staff, Victoria Australia.

“I have read your book and it has made an amazing difference in my teaching and in my studio.” Beth Cruickshank, Past President – Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association.

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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12 comments on “Sight-Reading
  1. kristinsmusicstudio says:

    Reblogged this on Small Town Music Lessons and commented:
    Sight Reading has always been my favorite piano activity 🙂 I definitely need to reinforce it more in lessons and in assignments for home practicing.
    But I will often tell my students, “The best way to improve in sight reading is to get your hands on every bit of music you can find.” Just play, play, play. 🙂

  2. UC Music says:

    Reblogged this on UC MUSIC.

  3. I especially am interested in your observation that “better sight-readers have a greater knowledge of musical styles and repertoire.” Such knowledge comes in large part from listening, from which a student gains familiarity with a music idiom. The resulting intuitive understanding of musical grammar combines with the growing skill that comes from practicing to produce the fluency that is the hallmark of good readers.

  4. joi2joi says:

    Reblogged this on Joy2joy Piano Studio and commented:
    Sight reading skills are so important but constantly ignored. I will continue to reinforce this skill in my studio practice.

  5. Will Jaxx says:

    I love this piece! Yes, sight-reading is of the utmost importance, especially in professional circles where time is at a premium. Oftentimes, if you can’t sight-read, you’re off the gig. Sharpening the saw with your sight-reading skills is a definite must!

  6. John Goodman says:

    You are correct, sight reading is a learned skill like any other. You briefly touched on one of the key skills, but I would like to reinforce it..that is reading ahead. A good sight reader is always reading ahead of where they are playing. My father was a studio musician in Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s and that was essentially all they did. They showed up at the studio, the music was put in front of them and they had to perform. He taught me this skill and it has never let me down.

    • mdgriffin63 says:

      Thanks for expanding on this important point, John. I remember reading about Andre Previn during his years in Hollywood. Could he sight read! Your father must have been very capable.

  7. A great big Agree to the principles in this article! Here are some added suggestions to aid you in teaching students to sight read piano scores:

    A constant supply of new music, including pieces at levels both below and at the student’s playing level; pieces or songs written in 4-part vocal harmony, such as the hymns in a hymn book; and accompanying school ensembles and young choirs who are singing mainly simple songs, or young singers.

    Accompaniment is a great way to learn sight-reading, as the constant supply of new music scores really pushes the accompanist to learn quickly. You need a simple, young group to accompany, not a more advanced group who perform complex pieces. As the accompanist progresses in sight-reading ability, there will be opportunities to accompany at a higher level.

    If a student does not have the opportunity to accompany, the student should be asked frequently to select 8-12 bars at a time from a suitable piece of music, observe it for time signature, keys and key changes, changes of “hand position”, rhythms, and dynamics; the same piece of music may be used several times by selecting different sections each time.

    I also strongly discourage my piano students from looking at their hands while playing. They can be trained to feel their hand positions by feeing for the two and three black key groups and by working through the scales and principal chords in all keys.

  8. Excellent remarks, all! Especially your statement that sight-readers have a greater knowledge and better understanding of music styles sounds familiar. I encourage my pupils to sight read in the lesson when I give them their homework. Not by playing immediately but by analyzing the score first, pointing out where to pay attention and why, showing how a melody is started and continued etc It has never occurred to me, that I should encourage them to practice sight reading at home, but I am definitely going to do so right away! Thanks for your insights.

  9. Karl Wentzel says:

    The most important sentence: “There is a correlation between proficient sight-reading and time spent practising it.” – just do it!

  10. Great post! Interesting to see the extra benefits of being a good sight reader!

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