Sight-reading: A vital skill for any serious pianist from beginners to advanced levels.

With the Summer exams looming on the horizon this July, it’s time to start thinking about brushing up on Sight-Reading. Sight-reading encompasses “the ability to read and produce both instrumental and vocal music at first sight … the conversion of musical information from sight to sound”. (Dneya Udtaisuk)

Many students struggle with sight-reading, due to a lack of exposure to pieces outside the rigid exam repertoire, or perhaps a reluctance to try out new pieces without any guidance from their teacher whilst practicing at home on their own. I encourage my students to try out a new piece as often as possible, something within their comfort zone to start off with, but then increasing the difficulty level slowly but steadily. I will usually offer a very short piece that they will recognise it, but with time, I will introduce them to pieces that they have never heard of before. With each increase in difficulty, I ensure a level of confidence has been attained before moving on to a higher level.

Sight-reading is vital for many reasons. For a beginner student taking their first piano exam, 4 short bars of sight-reading constitutes as many marks as your entire scale book. The difference between ‘just passing’ your exam or achieving the coveted Merit or Distinction will often weigh heavily on achieving as high a mark as possible for sight-reading.

For intermediate students venturing out into ensemble or orchestral playing, you will very often be faced with a piece of music that you have only had a minute or two to look through and you will be expected to keep pace with an entire orchestra whilst trying out the piece. This would probably be too daunting for a musician that could not sight-read and it could be the ‘make or break’ of your orchestral career if you didn’t have the confidence in your skills to play upon sight of a new piece of music. Here in the UK our orchestral musicians are famous throughout the world for their sight reading abilities.

For the fledgling professional musician working freelance, you will be called up a short notice for a rehearsal having no idea what it was you were about to play. It can be pretty scary, but you learn to knuckle down and get the job done.

Studio musicians (that is, musicians employed to record pieces for commercials, etc.) often record pieces on the first take without having seen it before. Often, the music played on television is played by musicians who are sight reading. This practice has developed through intense commercial competition in these industries.

The Golden Rules of Sight Reading for pianists

1. BEFORE STARTING, CHECK OUT THE SIGNATURES. Study the “clues” left by the composer at the beginning of the piece before you start – the Key Signature and the Time Signature. Put your mind into the correct key and rhythm of the piece of music. Don’t stop there. Look for tempo indications, either written words or metronome markings.

2. SCAN THE PIECE BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO PLAY. Mentally read through the first few measures, visualizing the music, “playing” it in your mind, then scan the entire piece for possible difficult passages, unusual rhythms, section breaks, changes in tempo. Find out where you may have to turn the page.

3. LISTEN AS YOU PLAY. Remember that your goal is to “make music.” If you have a good ear for music, it will help your reading skills improve; and if you are a good reader, your knowledge of notation, theory and harmony will allow you to hear what the music should sound like, and therefore catch mistakes before you make them.

4. KNOW THE BASICS. To be a good reader, you must know the language. Basic music notation, rhythm and knowledge of the keyboard are necessary building blocks. The more knowledge you have, the faster your sight-reading will become.

5. READ GROUPS OF NOTES. When you play an instrument, you want to read the music like you would read a book. Let your eyes take in groups of notes, instead of one note at a time. Music is grouped into phrases, just as language is grouped into sentences. Keyboard music requires reading more than one staff at a time, so you must train yourself to read vertically as well as horizontally.

6. LOOK FOR INTERVALS. Recognize intervals and chord structures in order to read notes faster. Eye-hand coordination, knowing how far to reach for a certain interval or chord, can train muscle memory and speed up the sight-reading process.

7. READ AHEAD. Read as far ahead as you comfortably can. Your conscious mind should be analyzing the next phrase as your hands are playing this one. A fluent reader’s eyes are focused approximately five words in front of what the brain is absorbing – we use the same technique when reading music. Have your technical skills sharpened well enough so that your hands work on auto-pilot while your brain reads ahead.

8. DON’T FORGET THE TIMING. Even though we’re talking about sight-reading, which implies playing the correct notes, don’t stop or stammer to get the notes right at the expense of the rhythm. Remember, you’re not playing music unless you’re reading the notes and the note values, together. Keeping the rhythmic framework is more important than missing a few notes here and there.

9. KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE MUSIC. Proficiency in sight-reading depends on the ability to guide your fingers by the sense of touch. Develop skill in playing the notes without looking down at the keyboard. Keeping your eyes focused on the music also decreases your chances of losing your place while sight-reading.

10. DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF! Even the pros make mistakes – they’re just better at covering them up. Don’t panic, over-think or over-worry. If you make a mistake, keep going. Think of the big picture. Sometimes, you’re the only one who noticed that little mistake. Rhythm is the basis of all music, so do whatever is necessary to keep it flowing. You’ll make fewer mistakes if you don’t obsess over them.

This is the Golden Rule of sight-reading. The aim is to establish a steady beat and keep the music flowing. You gain more marks if you just keep going than if you stop and try to correct wrong notes. Never go backwards, always look forwards!

Recommended sight-reading books for beginner pianists:

Paul Harris’ Improve your Sight-Reading range of books for all grades, here are the foundation level books that have recently been revised and updated for current ABRSM exam requirements. These books suit an older learner aged 6 – 11:
Pre-Grade 1
Grade 1
Grade 2

Piano Time Sight-Reading series by Pauline Hall. A highly recommended series of sight-reading tutor books, full of puzzles and quizzes. Less rigid in structure than the Paul Harris books so suitable for ages 6 – 8.
Grade 1

Chester’s Easiest Sight-Reading Course: This particularly appeals to the younger learner aged 4 – 7. Similar to Piano Time, it has a good combination of puzzles and clues to keep the fun element alive. It aims to take the fear out of Sight-Reading and it is a book that teachers should consider using from the very first lesson with their students.

Sight Reading Short Shorts Book 1 by Edna Mae Burnam. Edna Mae wrote two of my favourite piano tutor books, The Dozen a Day series of books which is fantastic for providing fun daily exercises for beginner pianists and The Ministeps to Music series. The Dozen a Day books are vital for strengthening little fingers whilst Ministeps provides a complete piano tutor course for the young beginner with lovely tuneful pieces.

I was really excited to find this Sight-Reading series also written by her. I love the retro drawings from the 1950s and also the emphasis on daily practice to learn to sight-read by repetition. As the Chester’s book, it is suitable for ages 4 – 6. Older students can use the second level.

I leave you with this opening quote from Joe DeShon’s Sight-Reading article:

“Sight-reading separates the men from the boys as musicians. It’s the difference between “playing” music and “knowing” music. A good sight-reader is worth his more as a musician than someone who simply performs well.”


About Lorraine

Head Teacher at the SE22 Piano School, a private piano teaching practice in East Dulwich, South London. I work with a fantastic team of teachers offering piano, harpsichord & music theory lessons to adults and children from the age of 4.
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