Piano Teaching - How to Sight-Read
This page is a note about how I teach sight-reading. I've posted it as a matter of public service. Usual disclaimers about no responsibility taken if it doesn't help you, or makes matters worse!
Sight-reading is different from learning for performance
Some people have never been told that sight reading iis different from learning pieces for performance. Andreas
Lehmann and Victoria McArthur, writing in The Science and Psychology of Music Performance (Oxford UP 2002) enumerate five strategies which differ for pianists when practicing for rehearsed performance as opposed to sight-reading.
Practicing for Performance
1. Correct your mistakes
2. Look at hands when playing
3. The details are important
4. Correct fingering is crucial
5. Avoid errors and omissions
1. Maintain rhythm and metre
2. Avoid looking at hands
3. The big picture is important
4. Get to notes however you can
5. Errors and omissions are OK
Here are some common problems, together with my solutions to them
* means “see list of resources below”
‡ means “see the Review of Graded Sight-reading literature below”
Identifying note pitches
I find it is usually the bass clef or ledger lines that cause difficulty
- Games of Musical Space Invaders* often help
- There are a surprising number of pieces written totally in the bass clef*, that tackle this problem head on.
- Also, I ask students to practice saying the name of each note before they play it (recommended by Richmann‡).
Difficulty playing both hands at once
- I think this is the hardest of all for the teacher to sort. It really is up to the student. My solution is largely giving the pupil experience. I start with really easy baroque pieces, or books of teaching pieces, like Gedike. Many of these I have written out in keys with high numbers of sharps or flats. An easy two-part piece from “First Book of Piano Pieces” isn’t so easy when it is in the key of D flat major.
- Linda Barger e-mailed with an idea from the last page in the first book of John Thompson's Easiest Piano Course--it is a theory page. "Have the student clap the beat of the piece and say the note names against it. This is SO helpful because it forces them to pre-act out what they will be doing when they play the piece." I agree - the difficulty for a lot of people is doing several things at once.
- I think the solution here is to encourage the student to read by interval (not by seeing note-name & then looking for it)
- I use 5-finger position exercises: note mlssing = finger missing. I start with reading 2nds and scales, and then gradually introduce wider intervals.
- I sometimes cover the hands with a newspaper
- I ask them to play pieces in unfamiliar clefs*, such as alto and tenor, or transpose simple pieces, both of which encourage reading by interval.
- And I revise the difference between Sight-reading and Practicing for Performance.
Difficulty identifying chords
- I have known student who when given two identical pieces, one written as broken chords, and the other as block chords, to play the broken chord version fluently, and yet stumble over the block chord version.
- I encourage students to play hymns, identifying the chords as the play them (D major in first inversion, etc). Hymns are better than Bach chorales, which require the student to re-distribute the notes of chords between the hands and have awkward stretches.
- We also do elementary Figured Harmony* and Keyboard Harmony*.
Corrects mistakes & loses pulse
- This is the most common problem: some people cannot bear to leave mistakes behind them.
- Duets are good, because they encourage the same principles of "always count, never stop"
- Practice holding a conversatlon while playing.
- Revise the difference between Sight-reading and Practicing for Performance.
- This is when the student doesn't see phrases, only individual notes
- The sight-reading course by Peter Lawson‡ offers the best help here.
- Musical Intelligence tests* used to be published by the exam boards, when they still tested this sort of thing, and are useful for advanced students.
- I find that students often have a poor idea of how the piece might sound before they play it. They don't hear it in their heads.
- To help them hear mistakes - I play excerpts of pieces from a piano book of which I have two copies - easy stuff, grade 1 or 2 - except that I make deliberate mistakes (like changing it from major to minor, or distorting the metre and playing in 2/4 rather than 3/4, etc.). Or even playing the left hand in the treble clef (surprisingly this often doesn’t sound completely wrong! By getting them to identify the mistakes, it helps them imagine the sound of the piece in their heads.
- Alternatively, there may be a lack of counting, even in advanced students.
- The solution here is surely lots of practice! I give books of easy pieces to students and ask them to prepare some each week - music at least two grades below where they are currently playing. Anything by Joan Last is good.
- Harris‡ rhythm exercises from the series "Improve Your Sight-reading" are helpful, as are the books Rhythmic Reading* by Joan Last
- For adults or older teenagers, the book Rhythm Coach* is invaluable
Disregard of key
- It surprises me that students who can play their scales well, sometimes still cannot remember a key signature: indeed don't associate the scales with their other areas of study much at all. I try and inculcate a sense of key in sight reading by doing some practice on the notes of the scale first.
- When doing scales I get the student to look at me (i.e. away from the keyboard and practice saying notes of scale - ascending and descending
- I play a jazzy secundo part, and the student Improvises a tune above it in a key. N.B. you have to chose a time signature first!
- One of the problems with simple pieces and duets is that they tend to be in simple keys. However, there is one book which offers simple pieces in more extreme keys: I use the book Black Key Duets*. I have written out a number of easy Baroque pieces and transposed them into weird keys.
Musical Space Invaders is a computer programme that fires notes on staves across the screen which you have to shoot down by playing the notes on a midi keyboard.
For pieces in alto and tenor clef, I use Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading by R O Morris and Howard Ferguson, 1931 Oxford University Press
There are a surprising number of pieces written totally in the bass clef, for example,Douze Petits Divertissements pour piano by Jacques Barat, Editions Choudens 75008
Figured Harmony at the Keyboard, 1933, R O Morris, Oxford University Press
The following books might still be found in second-hand shops:
Musical Initiative Tests (for Teacher's Diploma Examinations) , 1958, Guy Jonson, Elkin and Co Ltd
Twleve Tests of Musical Initiative. 1930, E Markham Lee, Lengnick
Duets: I tend to use music that is specifically written for teaching, not Jeux d'Enfants or Dolly.
Black Key Duets by Geoffrey Shaw, 1938, Novello (OOP).
However, I suppose it wouldn't be difficult to make your own, such as rewriting "Chester's Piano Duets Vol On (by Carol Barratt - Chester Music), transposing the pieces in F major into F sharp major, etc.
Rhythm Coach by Richard Filz (Universal Edition UE 21 347), is a good self-help book on developing rhythmic skills
Rhythmic Reading (Sight Reading Pieces for Piano), 1955, Joan Last, Bosworth
Classic Harmony by John Leach, 1997, self published is very good for Grade 5 plus.
Keyboard Harmony and Improvisation, 1963, Kenneth Simpson, Lengnick is more elementary.
Also, Specimen Tests in Keyboard Harmony, 1965, Associated Board (OOP)
Review of Graded Sight-reading literature
Paul Harris' series "Improve your sight-reading" (Faber Music) is widely used. Each book is designed in eight stages, each of which addresses an aspect of the ABRSM syllabus new to that grade. There is very little written advice given, but there is one brilliant idea*: each stage opens with rhythmic exercises, which encourage the student to get to grips with different rhythmic patterns away from the piano keyboard. It's the sort of thing that has you asking "Why didn't I think of that?". Also, there is a checklist of eight things to look at when you see a piece for the first time, that I find invaluable for students. In the preparatory book, the principles of "Always Count, Never Stop" are established.If your aim is to pass exams, then this is the best book around. The Revised Edition is simplified and better presented on the page. It has one really annoying feature: the pieces have been given “funny” performance directions, like “Like a Summer Breeze”. I understand the rationale: you need to play with character, but my students think this is condescending.
There is one book for each grade and one for the preparatory grade (which I also find useful for general notation teaching in the early stages)
* The "play and tap" idea is the same one as found in Paul Hindemith''s Elementary Training for Musicians (1946)
The Sight-reading Sourcebook by Alan Bullard (Chester Music)
- Piano Grade One
- Piano Grade Two
- Piano Grade Three
- (other grades planned)
The most widely available, and (imho) least useful, series of books is the Associated Board's own "Specimen Sight-Reading Tests for each grade. These are not a course of instruction, but simply examples of the kind of test which students are likely to meet in an exam. In other words they will tell you the standard yoiu need to achieve, but not how to get there. Nor (and this is important, will they take you beyong the standard you need, so that the exam seems easier!
The teacher will need these books, in order to test the student before exams, but students would be better with one of the courses.
Peter Lawson, in the in-aptly named "Sight Reading for Fun" (The title always draws a groan from students!(published by Stainer and Bell) takes a more holistic approach than other writers. This is as much a general musicianship book as a specific sight-reading book, he concentrates on musical and technical skills that the sight-reader needs, such as chord recognition, practice in unusual keys, etc. The course is exam-specific, and there is one book for each grade. but it somehow contrives to be of wider interest. Other courses are more limited in the skills they address (Paul Harris, for example, seems to confine himself to the items mentioned in the Associated Board syllabus. If it says that, at Grade 5 , the piece tested could be in compound time, then there is a section on compound time. If it says, in the key of f minor, then Harris will have a section in f minor.) Lawson, by contrast, covers the same ground, and more general skills as well. Recommended.
Super Sight-Reading Secrets by Howard Richman is a single book with a "method". It is very good, but doesn't examine the causes of why people can't sight-read, and so proposes standard solutions. It is very well thought out, including drills to help "keyboard orientation' and 'visual perception drills', including the idea of saying the note before you play it. I think it is pedagogically sound, since it addresses problems by splitting them into constituent parts, such as practicing the rhythm and the notes separately. This book could be used by a student on their own without a teacher.
I like Thomas Johnson’s approach in these old Hinrichsen books. It encourages the student to look through the music in details before they play. I describe it as “Have you noticed this …”, when he asks, for example, “Where does the right hand change position?” or “Find the change of clef”. He is also very keen in the early stages on hand position - he doesn’t always show fingering, so the student has to work out not only which note to start on, but which finger to start on, which of course they work out by looking through the piece.
These books are also published in a series called “Read and Play”, with different covers, but identical contents.
The only one of these I have looked at is the Grade 5 book. It seems to me to be tied too tightly to the ABRSM syllabus, as it presents one chapter on each key - with the same exercise in each key, and then a couple of well-written characteristic pieces in that key. This is excellent for getting the student to imagine character when they play, but I find them too long and difficult to use on a weekly basis for sight-reading. I question the “one key at a time” approach, although I do see the need to give the student practice in different keys, there are simply too many of them to keep the student motivated, imho.
I haven’t had a chance to look at John Kember’s books yet.
Howard Richman runs his own page about piano sight-reading:
Sight-Reading Books: The most comprehensive list of sight reading books to improve your keyboard sight-reading.