Sight Reading: A Closer Look
Updated: Feb 10
The ability to play a new piece of music sight unseen is a rewarding and freeing skill every musician longs to master. But it doesn’t happen over night. Like any other skill, proficiency increases with use and practice.
The key to enjoying the journey of learning to sight read is to start with repertoire that is almost too easy and vary the difficulty of sight-reading material. Repertoire in the more difficult category would be about two levels lower than your current of level of study. If you are at RCM Level 4, for example, unseen repertoire at Level 2 will greatly stretch your sight-reading skills. These pieces will be challenging, rather slow going, and likely have more mistakes. But that’s okay! It’s about stretching your skills, not perfection.
However, this should be balanced with pieces that can be sight read with ease. For example, dropping down even further to a Level 1 or Preparatory piece should come with quite a bit of ease and, thus, an immediate payoff - the joy of playing a new piece that didn’t require weeks or months of practice! This motivates us to keep sight reading at more difficult levels!
It's also a good idea to augment sight-reading repertoire with sight-reading exercise books. These excellent tools are available for pretty much every level of study and provide short musical snippets that take only moments to play.
So, now that you have a variety of materials, here are some tips on how to magnify your sight-reading efforts. The Royal Conservatory's Teaching Elementary Piano Course recommends four basic steps:
Take a minute to visually investigate the piece and note important details:
Key signature - recite the associated sharps and flats in your mind
Time signature - remind yourself of rhythmic stress & pulses
Accidentals (look for sharps/flats not part of key signature)
Rhythmic or pitch patterns – e.g. maybe you notice the left hand is mostly chordal, or there are repeating scalar patterns, recurring motives, or consistent 8th notes
Dynamics – loudness, expression etc
Touch – legato, staccato etc
Tap the metre and a measure of actual rhythm to determine a workable playing tempo for yourself
Briefly try out tricky fingering, jumps, and accidentals by “ghosting” (pretending to play) them on the piano.
Place your hands on the piano with the correct starting fingering.
Count off a full measure lead-in at your desired tempo and
PLAY WITHOUT STOPPING OR CORRECTING ERRORS!
This last point is the perhaps the most difficult aspect of sight reading! The urge to stop and correct an error is like an itch that one wants so badly to scratch. But, it is essential to keep going.
LOOK AHEAD! Do not focus on the note you’re playing. Focus on what comes next.
According to Speed-Reading At The Keyboard, (Edward Shanaphy, Stuart Isacoff, Julie Jordan, 1987) an excellent 3-volume set of sight-reading curriculum, sight reading is actually a reflex skill and the goal is to try and capture a mental picture of the next measure or group of notes to follow. Stopping to correct yourself interrupts the reflex building.
Finally, ASSESS yourself. How did you do?
Did you keep pace with your chosen tempo?
Did you count to ensure accurate rhythms or just wing it?
How accurately did you play notes?
Did you follow given fingerings or struggle to find the keys?
Were dynamics and articulations incorporated or overlooked?
Did you have to stop to get your bearings?
Did you keep going when you made a mistake?
Were you looking ahead?
And most importantly, KEEP AT IT! One day soon you will reap the benefits and joy!
Edward Shanaphy, Stuart Isacoff, Julie Jordan, Speed-Reading At The Keyboard, Volume 1, introductory pages, Ekay Music, Inc., Katonah, NY, 1987 Print
Royal Conservatory of Music, Digital Learning, Teaching Elementary Piano Course - 05.24.17, (Chapter on Musicianship - Playing at Sight: The Ultimate Skill)