Why Learn to Sight Read?

by Sean Slade - 08/12/2014
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As I attend numerous conferences around the country, I am amazed at the level of proficiency of students. It is not uncommon to see a 13 year old sit down and play a Rachmaninoff prelude or a Beethoven sonata with amazing beauty and precision. I always wonder, though, if the church pianist choked on her green eggs and ham that morning, could this student step in and play a basic hymn to keep the services going? What if a friend put ‘The Piano Man’ in front of him at a party? Could he make it through the song while his friends are trying to sing along?

Why Learn to Read Music?

Three scenarios:

  1. 1. Eliza is just doing music for fun. She either ends up only being able to play one song well for the rest of her life, or has developed the confidence to be able to play for her family when they are gathered around the piano at Christmas time.

  2. 2. Anna is going into general music education, and plans on teaching. Her main instrument is trombone, but in order to get the job at JFK High she needs to be able to play the piano for the choir as well as play the parts for the other instruments in her band, or the other guy will get the job!

  3. 3. Gabe is going to be a concert pianist. Intentions are high that he will live in the lap of luxury sitting by the pool in between concerts. Maybe he should have a backup plan to be an accompanist, many times at a moments notice, in order to pay the bills on a slow year. Sight reading is a must to be able to play the new song his student is trying to learn.

The obstacles that keep us from reading well are, first, we don’t have time in our 45 minute lesson to learn sight reading after we spend time on technique, theory, repertoire perfection, history, etc. Second, there are no systematic approaches to learning sight reading like there are in some of the other areas or learning. Third, it is difficult to keep focused on our goal to improve our reading if we can’t quantify or assess at what level we currently read.

Here are a few things I have done in my studio to help my students become amazing sight readers:

  1. 1. Consistency: If we spend 5-10 minutes each day just practicing sight reading, over a short period of time we and our students could become master sight readers. Set a goal now for how much time you will sight read each day! Create the habit!

  2. 2. Have lots of enjoyable music available to read. There are several online locations from which to download music. If you have the music available that is exciting to play, that will assist you and your students in creating that habit, it’s like going treasure hunting when you find an amazing piece of music! For free downloads try www.imslp.org which has tons of music or www.pianomarvel.com that has easy access at the stroke of a key.

  3. 3. Assess and track! Great quote by Thomas Monson: “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates!” How do we set goals to improve our sight reading if we don’t know what level we or our students currently read? I think one of the most important breakthroughs in piano educational tools is the SASR (Standard Assessment of Sight Reading). I use this with my students monthly to track exactly at what level they are Sight Reading, and I also have them take the test a few times a week at home to practice their reading. It only takes them a few minutes per sitting and anyone can take the test for free at www.sightreadingtest.com

So, to summarize, the foundation of sight reading success basics are:
Read something new daily! Keep new music close at hand in case you are ever tempted...kind of like chocolate! And assess and track your progress monthly......and we’ll be asking YOU to sit down at the piano at the next party!

Update 12/16/2014

The Standard Assessment of Sight Reading has recently been updated with thousands of pieces as well as an improved guidance system to make the sight reading test much more user friendly for beginners, intermediate and advanced players! It is by far the best sight reading test (and practice tool) for the piano every created. Login at www.pianomarvel.com/app to try it out.

Sean Slade has been teaching and engaged in the music industry for 30 years. He studied piano performance and pedagogy for 6 years with Paul Pollei, founder of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. He has also privately studied with Jeff Shumway and Douglas Humphreys, also at BYU. He studied conducting with Clyn Barrus and Mack Wilberg, current conductor of Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He currently consults and trains teachers, colleges, and universities on how to use technology to engage music students at a higher level of neurological learning.