Updated: Feb 20
Last year, I participated in a masterclass that I thought to be extremely practical. It was a quick study session on sight reading with a master pianist.
Even though most of the participants were advanced pianists at the senior levels, the excercise to go on stage and work a short sight reading piece impromptu was quite nerve-wrecking!
Most of us practice or do sight reading in the comfort of our home, alone at the instrument or in lesson with a teacher. If you sit for examination, the sight reading portion is probably the most terrifying part because you are given something unfamiliar to play on the spot.
Having said that, it is for this very reason one must understand that sight reading is not "practicing for performance" or "practice to perfect a piece". It is a one-time through reading excercise that is meant to train your reading by looking ahead effectively. And as you get better at it, you will look ahead and read more efficiently (and quickly with accuracy).
What are the top tips to sight reading?
Some may be very familiar already such as identifying the time signature, key signature, accidentals, title, composer. These few are the beginning concepts drilled into young children learning to sight read piano at the elementary levels.
In this post, I will break it down further, which would be especially for the intermediate to advance level pianist looking to improve their sight reading skills.
Titles are important because they give you an idea of the character of the piece.
At the senior levels, your understanding of various types of compositions from different musical eras is crucial. For example, you would play a Nocturne, differently than a Minuet, or execute a Gigue differently than a Fugue. Contemporary pieces can give you a clue to how the excerpt should be played, to best depict and capture the style of the composition at hand.
2. Composer (or date)
Building upon the title, do a quick scan of the composer to confirm which musical era the piece or excerpt is from. Knowing this is key as choosing the right technique for tone execution is important to depict the musical style in which the piece was composed in.
For example, a piece by Chopin may not have pedal markings in it, but the expectation is to utilize pedal appropriately in the style that was written in Romantic era compositions. A Baroque piece utilizes less pedal and requires more detached articulation since music during this time was composed for the harspichord,
3. Key Signature
This should always be part of your routine when you analyze a piece of music to be sight read.
Knowing whether the piece has a tonal center (or not), and what it is can help you read better when you expect there will be pitches that need to be adjusted (accidentals - sharps and flats). Scanning a section where new accidentals appear can also be a quick indication of a key change (modulation) within the piece.
Tip: An added excercise to supplement your sight reading excercise is to work on music theory and technique of scales by rote. Building your knowledge and muscle memory of patterns of major and minor scales can greatly help you with your reading skills.
4. Time Signature
Always look for the smallest division of the beat once you've identified the time signature of the piece.
The next thing you must always do is to quietly or internally tap/feel that smallest division of the beat, say in the measure it's at or when you approach the measure itself. Tapping the base beat with one hand, and using your other hand to tap the rhythm of the melody is always a good start. This helps you internally hear or feel what you need to play before playing it.
Then, before you play it ... always give yourself a count-in of one measure. Take your time and don't rush this process!
What's always tricky is reading piano music in same clefs, meaning there are both treble clefs, or both bass clefs. Also tricky, is comfortably playing something hands together and then there is a change in clef for one of the hands.
Be sure to scan for these and make a mental note of where and when to expect it. Things like wide ranges, ledger line notes and ottava markings are also important to look ahead for.
Ledger line notes: this is where intervallic reading skills are important. We can't remember every single note name and how they look like on the staff once it goes outside of the grand staff. Revisit your knowledge of landmarks and practice reading skip or steps or double skips up/down from those landmarks.
6. Expression Marks
Dynamic markings are what brings life to a musical piece. Even though there's lots to focus on reading a piece of music at first pass, try your very best to incorporate it musically as you play. I know right, so much to read on a single page!
Missing this out when learning a piece on your own is not a big deal, but when it comes to examinations you will be strictly assessed on this aspect of sight reading, and so it is a good habit to develop in your sight reading practices.
As mentioned in #4, the rhythm of your sight reading piece must be steady even if the notes are incorrect. Always, always keep the pace going even if you have to drop out a hand for a while to catch up.
Then, if you want to revisit sight reading the piece a second time, you can attempt the challenging section again. If you realize you aren't keeping a good flow when sight reading a piece, this means that the piece is too difficult for you to read comfortably, and it is wise to skip it for a while and develop practicing reading of pieces that are less challenging first.
Remember, don't spend too much time over-correcting your sight reading excercise! It is not for performance. Play it no more than twice, then you must move on to a different reading excercise.
Always choose an appropriate tempo to sight read any piece of music. In examinations, the tempo marking is expected to be executed well, however slight variations (not too slow) can be accepted most of the time. If our fingers cannot work as fast our mind, then we need to slow the tempo down to keep a steady playing.
9. LOOK AHEAD!
The goal of sight reading is not to repeatedly perfect something for performance. It is the practice of training our awareness to look ahead and know what's happening, and execute the tones accordingly in a steady flow.
The more one practices, (and it is okay to start with lower level pieces/excercise!), the more comfortable the activity becomes.
Sight reading is often a misunderstood excercise and it takes a good, experienced teacher to teach it and pair it with diligent practice by students at home to truly see progress in one's sight reading skills.
Truthfully, I have met many advanced pianists who can play very advanced pieces, but when it comes to reading a new piece of music, they often cannot do it on sight.
Then, there is the question why work on reading if it is so tedious? In fact, most of us do have a very good ear and can memorize playing a few pieces of music well. But if you really want to tackle the vast literature of piano compositions in the world, it is important to develop this skill well, and not rush the process. Embrace reading more lower level pieces of music to keep your sight reading excercise musically enjoyable.
Your learning of more advanced pieces becomes less frustrating and more efficient. Instead of learning just one piece for 6 months, you reading well can allow you to learn 3 - 4 pieces efficiently in the same amount of time.
Also, if you enjoy working with other musicians who are vocalists or instrumentalists, being able to sight read fast and well is an important musicianship skill to have!
I hope you've enjoyed this post! If you'd like to join my sight reading community on reddit, head over to https://www.reddit.com/r/sightreadingpianonerd/