Sight-reading piano music is no easy task! Actually reading piano music at all is no easy task. Being able to instantly play music that is set before you is nothing short of amazing. Some people are so good at it. It seems to come naturally to certain pianists others of us have to really work at sight-reading piano music.
I started playing the piano at the age of 12 (late!). I spent a lot of time practicing. I worked hard to prepare everything my teacher assigned. I did not, however, spend any time on sight-reading because I had a lot of catching up to do. It was all I could do to learn to play my classical repertoire, scales, and technique. As a result, I used to be a horrible sight-reader. This was not good! Not good at all.
When I got to college I soon discovered that my sight reading deficiency was a major problem. I was awed by my friends who could sight read anything. Life was so much less stressful for them. These students had the confidence to know that they could pretty much get through anything that was set in front of them during choral conducting or ensemble class. They could also play more pieces and learn them faster. I soon realized that being a strong sight reader is an indispensable skill for all pianists. So I set out to become a good sight-reader here’s how I did it, and how I teach my students to sight read.
When sight-reading, rhythm is king. So it is important to understand the rhythm of a piece before starting to play at all. I look over a piece to get a feel for the rhythm. When sight-reading I will always sacrifice notes in favor of rhythm. After that, I check key signatures, and notice any repeats or signature changes in the music.
1. I started from the very beginning. I bought a series of method books and started sight-reading from book 1 all the way through to the last book in the series.
2. I read through Bartok’s Microcosmos starting with volume 1. I made it sight-reading through about volume 4. (If you can sight-read the “Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm” you are amazing and can stop reading this post right now!)
3. I tried to read through every piece of music I owned and I bought or borrowed as much as sheet possible.
4. I worked on difficult pieces like the Chopin Etudes. These weren’t sight-reading pieces but I found that working on note rich repertoire helped my overall reading ability.
5. I set the metronome and played through music without stopping. I did not do this all of the time but I would use this technique with music that was less difficult. Other times I would set a slower tempo and try to get every note.
6. I used Music Theory to help keep the music going. I learned to see the chords suggested in the music this way even if the notes prove to be a bit too much for my brain and fingers to keep up with at least I can keep the music going by playing chords.
7. I joined as many ensembles as possible so that I would have to become a better sight-reader.
8. I worked on playing by ear and improving my overall musicianship. Ear, eye, and handwork together when reading music so it is important to develop all of these skills.
9. I made and continue to make sight-reading a part of my daily practice. I learned that sight-reading is something that has to be practiced just like all the other aspects of piano playing. If you don’t use it you lose it.
10. I developed an attitude of confidence. Believing you can do something is half the battle. When I sit down to sight-read something I no longer feel nervous or stressed. I know that I am a decent sight-reader and I can only do my best with what is in front of me.
After a few years (yes years!) of concentrated effort, I became a respectable sight-reader. I can tell you it was well worth the effort. As a teacher I now want my students to learn to sight-read. This process begins with learning to read and count music with confidence. Once they have a handle on reading I work with them on sight-reading. I know that students who can sight-read will enjoy playing the piano much more than if they struggle with sight-reading. And people who enjoy the piano are likely to become life-long players. Which is what I am going for.
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