A lot of people want to learn to play the piano because they envision themselves leisurely reading through a book of sheet music purely for enjoyment. Sight reading sheet music is definitely a satisfying activity and worthy goal for pianists. You can entertain yourself and others for hours just by flipping through the pages of your favorite collections of sheet music.
Unfortunately, most people discover that sight reading piano music can be a fairly challenging skill to learn.
Believe it or not, even many accomplished pianists are not strong sight readers. Sight reading music is a unique skill that is very different from working through and mastering pieces of music. It can be even harder if you tend to rely on your ear to play the piano.
In order to sight read music, you have to plan ahead by observing every possible musical marking on the page. You must think quickly and keep the music moving at a consistent tempo. Pianists are notorious for stopping to fix mistakes as they occur, which is useful when learning music for mastery. But, when sight reading, continuity and forward motion take priority over perfection.
Before we launch into our discussion on how to sight read music, let’s make sure we’re clear on what it means to sight read music.
Sight reading music is the act of reading music from the score on the spot. Sight reading assumes that you will not spend time practicing or perfecting the music as you go. Instead, your goal is to play the music from beginning to end without stopping and with as much precision as possible.
Sight reading is not only useful when you are playing for your own enjoyment, but it comes in handy in many different scenarios.
Maybe your friend found sheet music to their favorite song. They hand it to you and say, “I love this song, can you play it?”
Or perhaps you’re celebrating a birthday and someone says, “Who can play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the piano; it’s in this book?”
If you’re ever around other musicians, it’s likely that they’ll want to jam or collaborate with you. They might show you what they’re working on and ask you to play along.
My most frequent sight reading opportunities are when accompanying singers and choirs. More often than not, the music that we are performing together is planned out on short notice. It’s very common that changes are made at the last minute. I usually only have the opportunity to look at the music moments before we practice it together for the first time. This situation used to stress me out a lot, but in reality, this is what has made me a strong sight reader. I now appreciate and look for to the opportunity to use and improve my sight reading.
If improving your piano sight reading skills one of your goals, here are the best ways to approach it.
Just Do It
Yep, the Nike slogan even applies to sight reading music! The only way to improve at sight reading music is to sight read music. You won’t get better at reading music by reading about reading music. In fact, once you read this article, don’t bother searching for more information about sight reading. Just go to your piano, open a book and start reading.
There are no short cuts. Taking a class on sight reading won’t make you a better sight reader. The only way to improve your sight reading skills is to deliberately spend time sight reading a huge variety of music.
It’s important to recognize that sight reading music is a very different skill from the normal practice that you do when you are learning and polishing music. You likely won’t sight read the same level of music that you play.
As you are practicing your sight reading, find music that is a lower level than what you ordinarily play. This is important because it will give you an opportunity to sight read successfully. It will also give you a chance to observe and perform every musical marking on the page since you won’t have the opportunity to go back and practice it again.
Stop And Think Before You Start
Before you launch into the music, take a minute to absorb as many details as possible.
- What is the style of the music? What is the music communicating? How can you express the music right from the start, even if you’ve never heard it before?
- Take note of the key signature. What sharps or flats do you need to be mindful of? Are there accidentals throughout the music that you’ll need to be aware of?
- Find the road map of the music. Are there any repeat signs? Is there a coda at the end? If the music is in stanzas how many verses are there? Will your eyes need to bounce to a different part of the page when you get to the chorus? Are there first and second endings to observe?
- How fast is the music intended to go? Do you think you can go that tempo on your first try? Be sure that you can feel the pulse of the music in your body before you begin playing.
- What is the time signature?
- What is the rhythm like? Do you need to tap out any tricky rhythms on your lap before you get started?
- What are the dynamic markings? Where do they change?
- How should the music be articulated? Legato, staccato, both?
- Are you familiar with all of the musical terms and symbols in the music?
You can see that there is a lot to think about when sight reading! This list should also help you to see why it’s a good idea to start with a level of music that is already comfortable for you. This way, all of the answers to these questions will be very straight forward. Hopefully, there will be no surprises and many of these things you’ll be able to answer and observe in a matter of seconds.
Once you have made these observations, you’ve set yourself up for success. You’ll find that it’s much easier to sight read when you are mentally prepared for everything that shows up in the music. Things can easily fall apart when you’re sight reading, but a few minutes of preparation can really help you hold it together.
The goal of sight reading is precision of all aspects of the music on the first try. Ideally, you want to try to sight read music at the tempo marking that is indicated. However, if you’re going to alter just one thing in the music, I suggest taking the tempo slower.
This is especially true if you are practicing sight reading by yourself, as opposed to with other musicians. Over time, as sight reading becomes easier for you, you will learn how to observe a faster tempo from the beginning.
Early on though, make it your goal to get through an entire piece of music with as few mistakes as possible, no matter how slow the tempo. This will give your brain and your hands a chance to learn how to act quickly and accurately.
Don’t Stop & Prioritize What Gets Played
Whether you’re reading up to tempo or playing slower than indicated, always aim to keep going no matter what. When you’re sight reading, it’s not the time to stop and fix mistakes, circle back around and play a passage again or to stop and study what’s coming up. Keep going no matter what!
A great way to force your self to keep moving is to use a metronome or to play along with a rhythm track. This will give you some accountability to help you maintain the integrity of the musical pulse.
If you feel like you have to stop a lot just to figure out what to play, find easier music to sight read. Remember that it’s normal to practice sight reading at a lower level that what you are capable of playing.
In the interest of achieving continuity and forward motion in your sight reading, it’s likely that there will be times that you’ll have to leave something out, just to keep the music going. You will have to make instantaneous decisions about how to prioritize what you play.
You may have to drop a hand out and focus on playing a single hand in some passages. You may have to simplify rhythms in order to keep a steady beat.
A lot of musicians sacrifice the style and musical expressions as they are sight reading. It’s normal to get so wrapped up in the playing correct notes and rhythms that things like the dynamic markings, articulations, expressions and stylistic qualities of the music get overlooked.
I challenge you to make the artistic components of the music a priority when you are sight reading. The notes and rhythms will come over time, but make it your aim to make genuine, beautiful music from the beginning, wrong notes and all.
Don’t let your sight reading practice sessions turn into your normal practice sessions. Remember that it is your goal to get through your music from beginning to end without stopping and with minimal mistakes. Be disciplined about this and don’t let yourself go back and practice something over and over. If you sight read something that you’d like to master, come back to it later and stay focused on your sight reading goals.
Remember the first thing that we established about sight reading: the only way to improve at sight reading music is to sight read music.
This means sight reading has to become a regular part of your practice routine. It would be ideal to have a portion of every practice session dedicated to sight reading. Or, if you prefer, you could dedicate a few practice sessions each week to sight reading.
However you approach it, practice sight reading as often as possible to see the best results.
Practice With Others
All of the tips we’ve discussed so far are helpful and effective for your independent practice. However, sight reading music with other musicians will quickly take your sight reading to the next level.
Collaborating with a singer or other instrumentalist or reading piano duets with a partner are powerful ways to sight read.
In your private practicing, there is no way to replicate the intensity and in-the-moment pressure that is felt when sight reading with or for others. Admittedly, adding other people into the mix can be stressful. But, if you can move past your insecurities and know to expect some moments of panic and possibly chaotic music, you’ll discover that sight reading will start to become second nature.
Being put into a situation where you are absolutely forced keep your music moving forward, to think on the spot and to react with another musician will quickly mold you into an excellent sight reader.
You don’t need any special material in order to sight read. You really can just sit down at your piano and start reading from any book that you have around.
However, there are many books dedicated to sight reading. If you prefer to have a more regimented approach to your sight reading practice, a sight reading book might be help for you.
The series Improve Your Sight Reading by Paul Harris is an excellent choice. It’s available in 8 levels and rhythm exercises, melodic exercise and short prepared pieces. Each piece includes a series of questions to help you think through how approach the music.
Sight Reading & Rhythm Every Day by Helen Marlais and Kevin Olson is another great sight reading series. This series assumes you will practice sight reading 5 days a week. Each day has a dedicated page to work through that includes a few short rhythm and sight reading drills. There is a 6th page for each week that a student would sight read for their teacher, but of course, it could also be used independently.
Both of these series are appropriate for kids or adults.
For kids working through the Faber Piano Adventures method, I highly recommend the sight reading books that correspond with each level. Many of my students use these books and they are ideal because are based on the exact same concepts found in the method books. This sets students up for success.
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