When I was young, my family couldn't afford a piano teacher, so I picked up many bad habits. The worst part of not having a teacher was that I didn’t have anyone to teach me the value of sight-reading while I was young. My motivation to learn piano was that I wanted to play songs that impressed my friends.
I hid the fact that I was a poor sight-reader through college. It was embarrassing for me to admit my inability to sight-read, so I decided to work on my reading skills one day systematically. It was not natural for me, and I had to do a lot of work and research. As my sight-reading improved, I found great pleasure in playing more music with less effort.
Having struggled with sight-reading helps me relate to others that struggle with reading. As a piano teacher, I make sure that my students work on their sight-reading regularly. I also picked up a few tricks along the way that help people become better sight-readers. I would like to share the top 3 things that helped me learn to sight-read better.
It seems the best sight-readers almost always tell stories of having accompanied a choir, church congregation, small ensemble group, or various opportunities that forced them to read a lot of music in front of an audience.
I remember when I was asked to be the church organist for a congregation. I was terrified at first because my sight-reading was not adequate for the position. At first, I practiced all week long, learning the hymns required to play on Sunday. At the time, I was very busy with a teaching position at an elementary school music position and teaching piano lessons after school, so I did not have a lot of time to practice. I realized that I needed to get better at sight-reading to save myself. Because I was in a position that held me accountable for practicing reading music, I quickly learned some survival skills.
If you can’t find an accompanying position, however, don’t give up. There are other ways to develop sight-reading. In the end, you just need to find a way to read a lot of music in a way that mimics the accompanying experience, which brings us to the next tip.
The best way to learn to read is simply to read, read, read. What should you read? Unfortunately, not everybody has a collection of thousands of pieces of sheet music assorted in a logical progression for sight-reading growth. Fortunately, there are collections online designed to give you thousands of scores to sight-read at your level that progress logically and systematically with varying genres and styles.
The SASR (Standard Assessment of Sight Reading) and Sight-Reading Samurai are two such collections.
The SASR will tell you the level you are sight-reading and give you new music to read at your level for practice. It is a great way to track your growth with concrete sight-reading scores.
The Sight-Reading Samurai is a graded course of over 3,000 sight-reading excerpts from beginning through professional. Start at a level that is easy for you. The more you read at an easy level, the better it will be for developing good sight-reading habits that will allow you to advance to higher levels faster.
If you develop good sight-reading habits you will be able to advance to higher levels more quickly. What level of music should you start sight-reading? It is very tempting to skip to a level that is challenging for you, but you can think of it as building a solid foundation. If you want to excel, build a strong foundation that will support the highest level of sight-reading.
I can’t stress enough the importance of reading a lot beneath your level. You want to allow your brain to focus on specific skills, and if you are reading music that is difficult for you, your attention will be stretched too thin to focus on good habits. There are four habits that will help you build a solid sight-reading foundation.
I remember learning to type. I first learned to type with two fingers, watching my hands. When I finally decided to learn correctly, it seemed like I was taking a step backward. I was so much faster when I could look at my hands. I didn’t use the correct fingering, and I was still typing more quickly than my friends. However, my friends who slowed down and learned the correct fingering, and forced themselves to type without looking at their hands, eventually caught up to me with speed and then surpassed me. I realized that I took a shortcut and built my typing skills on a shaky foundation. I had to destroy that foundation and start from scratch if I ever wanted to reach a higher typing level.
Unfortunately, I did the same thing for piano. Instead of forcing myself to feel for the notes and find them without looking, I constantly glanced down to ensure I was playing the right note. How much time do you lose looking away from the music to your hands and then back to the music to find your place again? Maybe you have experienced this same phenomenon when typing a passage from which you are reading. Looking back and forth from the passage to your hands wastes valuable time. It is the same phenomenon with reading piano music. Take the time to learn how to find the notes without looking and your hands.
Here are some tips when you first start to learn this skill.
Have you ever noticed that it is easier to sight-read a familiar tune than one you have never heard before? The reason is simple. You can anticipate the rhythm and melody before you play, making it so much easier. People who can see a sheet of music and hear it in their head have that advantage even with music they have never heard before. You can start to develop this skill.
Take a moment before you start playing to see if you can hear the rhythmic pattern in your head. Do the same thing with the melodic pattern. Then see if you can hear the harmonic structure as well. At first, this will feel like an impossible task, but the more your practice this skill and the more music you play, the better you will get.
This is a tough skill to pick up, so don’t beat yourself up if it feels like you are not getting it. Even though it may not be perceptible to you, It is working. You are slowly building this skill that will give you a huge advantage if you are persistent.
Looking ahead to see what is coming next will give you a foundational skill that makes sight-reading easier. It is tempting to stay focused on the notes you are playing instead of the patterns coming next. It may feel at first that your attention is split between what you're doing now and what you will be doing in the future. That is okay; your brain can handle it.
I discovered that I am more relaxed when I am looking forward because I know what is coming next. I can hear the tune in my head before I ever play it. When I am relaxed, it tends to feel easier to look further ahead. On the other hand, when I get stuck looking where I am currently, a panicked chain reaction occurs where I barely read the notes on time. It is a disaster waiting to happen as soon as I find something too difficult for me to read, and then even the easy stuff that follows feels like catch-up time.
When developing this skill, you will notice that your eyes will constantly be scanning forward and backward. This is normal for good sight-readers. Just because you are looking forward does not mean that your eyes can’t come back to where you are currently.
Lastly, when I focus on playing musically, everything sounds better and feels easier to read. I have yet to develop a theory as to why that is, but I have heard the same thing from other pianists. Give it a try and see if you find that it helps you too.