Ask any piano player the most difficult thing they have had to master. Chances are, most will tell you that it was sight reading. As a novice, it makes sense why you'd find it difficult. You' ve hardly mastered the piano keys themselves – you can’t tell a B from a D major without looking at the keys. Yet you are supposed to read the music while you play.
What is Sight Reading?
Sight reading is the ability to read and play or sing a piece of music at first sight.
Consider a music score that is thrown at you to play for the first time. That you have never played it before means you have yet to memorize it, meaning you have to keep your eyes trained on the sheet, away from the keys, while you play.
Reading a passage first and turning to the keys to play, and back to the sheet, is an impossible way to play.
It is especially vexing if you have to accompany a singer, who you must try to keep up with.
And you can’t memorize the sheet as you are always going to be playing new songs for which you won’t have the luxury of preparation.
How to Master Sight Reading
You have undoubtedly been left in awe looking at your teacher effortlessly playing anything you throw at him without ever looking at their keys. You have wondered how they do it. Ask them how long they have been playing and the answer will reveal itself.
Yes, some will have a natural aptitude for it. Still, even for those, it will not happen overnight. Sight reading is a skill you have to develop over extended periods of practice, with piles of different music scores.
Probe further and your teacher will list a few things they have found imperative to learn if you are going to master the skill of playing from a music sheet. Go ahead and ask a dozen others, and the following will be sighted by almost by every one of them.
1. A solid music theory foundation
It is a tired truth that every pianist, like any other instrument player, must KNOW their instrument. Like you know the back of your hand! You must know how each key sounds like and where to find it on the keyboard. You will keep educating yourself until you can find each key even with a blindfold on.
Only after you have mastered your instrument will sight reading really start looking like something you can master. From this argument it becomes clear that sight reading should not be a goal when one starts learning to play the piano.
It must be taken as an aspiration; like a level you will get to after you have played the instrument long enough. Before that you must be worrying over things like time signatures, hand placements, and training your music ear.
2. Read music as a habit (without the instrument)
This will sound like a disingenuous way to learn sight reading, but when you sit down to consider it you will find it makes sense. Much like the tip above, when you get used to your instrument you will often find yourself playing without it. You will hear the music playing in your head even while doing your regular chores. This is practice too. And it helps, a lot.
Your music notation skills have to be at the same level with your piano mastery if you are going to master sight reading. So learning to read music without necessarily sight reading will help your music notation skills. By just reading a music sheet, away from your keyboard, you will train your brain to sight read without the instrument, much like playing the piano in your head.
3. Build your anticipation skills
After you have trained your hands and you can read music well it will become easier to build your anticipation skills. Anticipation means the ability to foretell which key you will play next without even looking at the score. It is feeling where the music is going even though you have the score to guide you.
Good anticipation skill will help you order your strokes in advance so you can avoid getting your fingers in a tangle with every unfamiliar chord. As you practice with different pieces you start to anticipate strokes just by knowing which key should precede or follow which one for a chord to sound right. You need this skill to be able to improvise and think up chords on the fly for those times when you miss your strokes.
4. Play with a singer or band
When you start feeling you can now sight read to an acceptable standard the best way to improve faster will be to start practicing with a singer or band. Accompaniment will be challenging at first as it forces you to play at a certain tempo to keep up with the singer or the other players. But it will jerk you out of your comfort zone and force you concentrate more.
If you hadn’t learned it already, accompaniment will also force you to improvise more as there will be times you will mistime a key. You will not have the luxury of slowing or stopping to correct yourself as you will risk throwing everyone off tune.
You will have think up a chord and keep playing. But because you don’t want this to become a constant feature of your playing you will practice and concentrate more when playing. This will improve your sight reading
A common mistake with most music instrument learners is wanting to play at tempo too soon. Before they have even perfected their technique. It is the reason why most take long to master their instrument. You can’t play fast if haven’t learnt to play slowly. And so it is with sight reading.
At first, you will want to be patient and not put yourself under pressure to play faster. Play as slowly as you can and only increase your tempo as you become more comfortable with your sight reading.
In the beginning, you simply have too much to mind to be burdening yourself with tempo or speed. You will have yet to master your pedaling, time signatures, rhythm, chord progressions, etc.
Forcing tempo too soon is the worst way to learn. Because of it your playing will just be an unsounding fumble through the keys. You may as well throw the score away as you will hardly sound as if you are playing from it.
6. Loads of practice, with different scores all the time
Maybe this should be the first piece of advice you get with sight reading. Regardless, this tip is absolutely important for it is a point of confusion with most who struggle with sight reading.
Sight reading is about playing a different piece well all the time. It is playing solely from the score, without referring to any memory.
So playing the same piece well all the time is not a sign of sight reading skill. It simply means you have built a muscle memory for the particular piece. You may still be flat fingered were an unfamiliar score to be thrown at you.
To be good at sight reading you will need to practice relentlessly, for an unlimited period of time, but with a new piece most of the time.
For this you have to gather as much music pieces as possible. Avoid the trap of thinking you can now sight read simply because you have played a particular score one too many times.
Sight Reading Is Hard Work
Anyone who tells you learning to sight read is going to be an enjoyable exercise will be lying to you. You must know that it will challenge you and feel a lot like work. But at the end it will feel like the only sure way to play, mostly because it indeed is.
On the opposite end, memorizing pieces before you can play them confidently is real work, and will be for as long as you play.
Sight reading is beautiful when you have mastered it. There is an effortlessness and grace to it that you can’t help but admire and want for yourself. Though the road to it will likely be long, the great thing is it will not necessarily be a winding one. You will get better at it all the time. At some point, not long after you start, you will know and feel exactly where you are going.
About the Author: Helen Baker
I am a freelance teacher and writer based in Ann Arbor, MI. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, I spent some time teaching English in Paris and, thereafter, returned to Ann Arbor where I was involved both in the media and academics. Currently I am a stay at home mom, working as a freelance writer and teacher. I love all my guitars and I also have an affinity towards old grand pianos. I love singing, traveling, reading, writing, watching films and spending quality time with my husband.