How To Improve Your Site Reading At The Piano

How do you improve your piano sight reading? Many people view sight reading as the “holy grail” of musical skills, and that’s not without just cause. Sight reading really can give you a world of musical freedom that you can’t comprehend otherwise.

It takes consistent, careful practise though — if you follow the steps and guidelines listed below, you’ll be well on your way.

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Why Does Sight Reading Matter?

Assess New Music Quickly

First of all, when you can sight read music effectively, you can quickly assess new music. If you are looking into repertoire that hasn’t been recorded on Youtube, or if you have an affinity for brand new compositions, you won’t know what it sounds like unless you can read through parts of it. With decent sight reading ability, you can simply buy a book of music (say, a collection of Debussy preludes) and you can play through enough of them to see which piece you like best.

Have More Casual Fun With Music

Secondly, sight reading lets you have casual fun with music. You can get together with friends or other musicians and try out new music together, and you won’t need time to practise beforehand. This is especially important for chamber musicians — if you want to be able to read through new music as a collaborative pianist with violinists, cellists, or even other pianists, you have to be able to read. The most pressure offer falls to the pianists; after all, you are reading multiple notes for both hands, whereas other instrumentalists usually read one line of music at a time.

Work As a Gigging Musician

Third, if you ever choose to play gigs, you may need sight reading as an adjacent skill. You never know when unexpected requests may come your way, and if you play gigs with other ensembles, you might be handed new sheet music without warning.

Learn Music Faster

Lastly, you can learn new pieces more quickly when you can sight read. Some people take years to learn a single piece of advanced piano music (entirely by rote), and they fool listeners into thinking they are  “good” pianists. However, pianists who are able to read well can learn music quickly and efficiently, and they will have practical skills to share with others.

How To Improve Your Sight Reading

Prerequisite – Know Your Notes and Rhythms

If you are relatively new to the piano, then your first priority should be to learn your notes, rhythms, time signatures, and key signatures as well as possible. Use flashcards if necessary, and never rely on crutches like finger numbers to read music. Also, you must be comfortable making yourself read music, even if you can play it by ear — playing by ear is another valuable skill, but having a great ear can hinder your reading if you rely on it too much.

Practise Your Scales and Technical Drills

Sight reading piano music is much easier if you have already experienced the same patterns and key signatures in your practise. For instance, if you practise scales and arpeggios in the difficult key of E Major, you’ll be able to sight read Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 3 more easily.

Think of it this way — in many professional music auditions, there is a sight reading portion of the audition. In this section of the audition, judges will place excerpts of music in front of the musician, and the person auditioning must try to sight read it perfectly. But guess what — if the musician has practised that music previously, they aren’t actually sight reading. This same principle can be applied to your sight reading; if you practise scales and arpeggios in different keys, you will recognise those patterns in the music you try to sight read.

Keep Your Eyes On The Music

Do you find yourself looking down at your hands while you try to read music? That habit will hold you back more than you realise. Reaching for leaps and chords without looking at your hands can feel scary, but the more comfortable you get with the topography of the keyboard, the better you will be at reading through piano music accurately the first time you see it.

Scan Through Your Music Before Playing It

Take a look at the piece’s overall structure before you start playing, and keep your eyes open for any pitfalls — key changes, tricky counting, and difficult technical passages included. This step becomes more important when you have to sight read music under pressure (at a gig for instance, as mentioned above), but it’s a habit you should build nonetheless.

Keep Going, Even If You Play a Wrong Note

Time doesn’t stop for missed notes, so neither should you. You may have heard it said that time is the most important element of music, and that’s absolutely true; you can’t delay or pause for wrong notes when you are sight reading. Also, if you are sight reading an accompaniment for another musician, or if you are playing a live gig, you cannot afford to stop for any reason. The sooner you get into the habit of sight reading without pausing, the sooner you will be an advanced sight reader.

Think About Chord Structures

When sight reading, read from bass to treble so you can figure out the chords; this will save you from having to read every note, once you get used to it. This technique works better when you are reading more traditional literature with tonal chord structures, but it’s an excellent habit to get into regardless! For instance, if there is a left hand broken chord pattern in the left hand, and if you can identify the pattern and the chord, you won’t even have to read the notes — you can focus your attention on the music in the right hand.

Read Lines and Chords, Not Individual Notes

Train your eyes to scan phrases instead of staring at individual notes. This is similar to reading quickly (or even speed reading). As an advanced reader, you wouldn’t sound out individual words or read individual letters — you read words and phrases. Similarly, you should sight read chords and phrases instead of individual notes. Learn to scan across passages of music and comprehend the notes without focusing intently on just one note, and learn to use the contours of lines to read them — look for “steps” vs. “skips,” for instance.

How To Practise Sight Reading

  1. Find music with melodies and lines (the kind of music that you might whistle to yourself later). Don’t pick out avant garde music or anything too pointillistic; you shouldn’t learn site reading from George Crumb! This kind of music is much easier to mentally “digest,” and you will be able to apply the principles listed above to your sight reading.
  1. Another prerequisite: make sure the music is well below the level of music you would practise for a performance. You should always have challenging music that you painstakingly practise, but that’s not the music that you should use to learn sight reading. Use simple, tuneful music for your sight reading practise, and as you get better, increase the level of difficulty.
  1. When playing, take it slow (slow enough that you don’t have to pause or stop to comprehend the notes). Don’t worry, you’ll speed up over time!
  1. This might sound too simple to be true, but just get started sight reading. Simply doing it is what many pianists will recommend, and they are absolutely correct. Force yourself to sit in front of brand new music for 10 minutes or so every day, and you will get better over time.

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