Updated: Jul 27, 2022
One of the most functional skills any musician can learn is to sight read music. Sight reading practice, however can be often confused with reading and learning to play a repertoire for performance.
When you work in ensembles, sight reading is required to learn music fast (sometimes on the spot). As a solo performer, you can explore more pieces effectively, and add to your portfolio for performances.
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The practice of sight reading, however, is a whole separate excercise in which anyone learning to read music, especially at the beginning levels, must consistently incorporate into their home practice routine.
Have you ever tried to read a piece of music on piano or any other instrument, only to find that you feel overwhelmed after 4 - 6 measures of reading and playing it?
Do you find that you often struggle as the reading requires more accidentals in the respective key signature of the piece?
This is where I let you in on a little "teacher's secret" for sight reading success.
Developing sight reading skills is methodically done by practicing reading of short music passages or pieces that are at least two levels below the current playing level. For example, if you are learning a Grade 3 piece, this means that your sight reading exercises will be Grade 1 music.
Why is sight reading of music below your current level of playing important?
Intervallic Reading and Pattern Recognition
Pianists have it pretty crazy as we learn how to read music on two staffs (the bass clef and treble clef). Other solo instrumentalists only read in one clef!
It is important to understand that practicing sight reading is training muscle memory and spatial awareness of the keyboard geography by learning to identify patterns that are coming ahead.
It is also training to keep a steady beat, even if the correct pitch was not played during the first pass of reading. Since we have to work both hands at the piano to sound tones, planning fingering mentally is one of the concepts we drill in sight reading excercises with melodic patterns.
In harmonic patterns, especially triads or 4-note chords, it gets more complex and learning to visually recognize the shape of chord positions (root and their inversions), is key here.
We can't be as efficient in reading every single note, so we must train the brain and muscle memory to know where to approximately go, and eventually becoming more precise and quicker in action.
Not to mention there's a billion other things to look out for such as articulation, legato or staccato touch, dynamic markings, rests, other music symbols, etc ... there's really a lot going on with reading music!
Analyzing patterns of movement in pitch is the first important step. Sight reading exercises are also usually done at a slower tempo. because the goal is to really take time to visually register the next pattern of tones (usually the next measure), and to keep count and play it with the right rhythm.
What is the time signature? What is my starting point? Which finger should I use? How are the notes moving in the phrase? Are they stepping pitch-wise up or down? Are there big melodic intervals, chords, octaves? Is it moving to another hand? Are there subdivided beats ahead? Are there any accidentals to be aware of in the piece?
Also, the training is such that once you start playing, you don't stop to correct. You keep the pace going!
This method ultimately transfers into learning to read music repertoire with patience and careful planning so as to not develop poor habits from the beginning.
To Stay Motivated
Often times, we want to advance fast. I totally get it. There are concert-level pieces that I would love to learn and play in a short amount of time.
Even for myself, tackling an especially difficult Baroque contrapuntal such as a Bach fugue or late-Romantic era pieces can be overwhelming if I dive straight into it.
I remember my teachers, who were experienced with the vast music literature, would always recommend another piece with similar technique and style but at a reading that is one level lower, often shorter in length and in a different key signature as well.
Usually the reading and learning of a simpler piece is completely done within a week or two. As a teacher myself, this is where I see a student's learning staying motivated and rewarding, even if they cannot learn to play the piece they want right away.
For a self-learner at the piano, this tip to practice reading more music in the lower levels is crucial to keep you on a less frustrating path as you try to reach your goal to learn a particular piece.
Without a teacher's structured guidance, one can quickly feel lost in figuring out appropriate levelled repertoire to learn, especially for building up sight-reading skills.
I often have transfer students who come to me for lessons at the intermediate levels, who lack important foundational sight reading skills. This is very often due to lack of exposure to consistent, simpler sight reading exercises in their home practice routine.
Reading Music with Key Signatures Does Get Harder
There's a reason why teachers use a guided syllabus from music conservatories or other established music literature guide resource.
It is also important to know reading a Mozart composition is totally different then reading a Bach or Liszt piece.
There is also 123,456 different composers' works to explore ... where they each are different styles of music to read!
Pianists often start learning to read pieces in C major (no accidentals), and take several years to progressively move their way up to comfortably reading E Major or F Minor pieces (four accidentals).
Suffice to say, there's no shortcut when it comes to reading music. Consistency is key. It does get harder! All the more reason to remember to be patient, and work your way up with structured planning.
The next time you find a music piece you really, really want to learn to read and play ... know that if you are struggling, it is okay to take a step back and work on shorter sight reading exercises or pieces first.
Trust the process of learning. You are still learning a valuable skill even if the excercise or assignment is lower than your current playing level :)
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