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S i g h t R e a d i n g

1 0S t e p s t oI mp r o v e Y o u r P i a n oS i g h t R e a d i n g


10 Steps to Improve Your Sight-Reading

by David Wrn & Johan Sandback

The three different types of sight-reading

There might be a number of reasons why you are reading this: perhaps you are facing a piano exam where you will have to perform a short piece at sight; perhaps you just want to be able to learn new repertoire more quickly; or perhaps you want to become a more competent accompanist or ensemble player, which often entails being handed a thick bunch of music to play through without much preparation. What we have just outlined by mentioning these possible reasons is the three main situations where you will be required to sight-read: 1. Playing through a new piece for the first time, which could be done together with your teacher or at home. 2. Sight-reading a piece as an accompanist or as part of an ensemble, where you will not have the same opportunity to stop and take time to analyze. 3. Sight-reading as part of an exam, where you will get just a short time to look through the details of the piece before you make a complete and definite performance.

The 10 steps to become a better sight-reader that you will read about in a moment will help you cope with all these situations. Its no secret that many pianists find the exam or ensemble situations rather frightening some may even be slightly embarrassed that they are so poor sight-readers, when their performance otherwise is quite good. Follow the advice that you are about to read and the elements of sight-reading that scare you will gradually disappear. Look at the first two sight-reading situations again. If you think about it, it is pretty obvious that working at your sight-reading skills will not only take much of the stress away from certain taxing situations that we have to face as pianists. It will also make you a better musician generally. The less time and effort you need to put in just deciphering the notes, the more you can concentrate on interpretation, technical issues and so on. Your technique will improve because you will be able to try out more music, exposing yourself to more technical problems and gradually beginning to solve some of them more easily as you for instance get to know the peculiarities of a certain composer. In the ensemble situation, you will be able to listen and adapt your playing more easily to your partners when you dont have to fight as hard to get all the notes in.

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Is it possible to practice sight-reading?

Can you really practice sight-reading? Isnt that a contradiction in terms? Isnt it the whole point of sight-reading that you are not allowed to practice? One could argue that the best way to become a great sight-reader is to try as hard as possible to develop ones understanding of music and to practice technique. If you are already familiar with the principles of composition - harmony, counterpoint etc. - as well as the styles of different composers and eras, deciphering notes will cease to be a problem. If, in addition to that, you are in possession of a great technique, you will also be able to play a lot of music at sight. The only trouble is that to gain all that knowledge and skill, you more or less have to be able to read music in the first place, which of course doesnt come as easily to everyone. For most of us, the process of improving ones musicianship is a complex one. If we work diligently to improve our technical, musical and theoretical skills we will become better sight-readers, but it also works the other way around: if we practice sight-reading, other skills and insights may come more easily to us. So, the answer should most certainly be: yes, you can and should practice sightreading. If you suspect that you are a fairly poor sight-reader, the best thing you could do is probably to include it in your daily practice. And as our ten steps will show you, practicing sight-reading is not always the same thing as actually sightreading. Just reading a lot of music will probably make you a better sight-reader eventually, but there are more efficient strategies which will make you reach your specific sight-reading goals more quickly.

Do I need to use specific sight-reading books, DVDs or software to practice sight-reading?

If you find that you need to work a lot on the three initial steps, it will probably be a good idea to get one or two books with sight-reading exercises, as they are often built up in a way that allows you to stay for a while within the same key or time signature, practicing the same sort of rhythms, scales, chords or intervals until you know them, which is exactly what you are going to find useful. When you get more advanced, however, the best thing is to practice your sightreading skills on real music, the kind that you are already working on in your repertoire studies. If you are playing at an intermediate level and dont feel that your sight-reading skills are particularly poor, you can probably do without tailor-made sight-reading exercises.

How far will these 10 steps take me?

As you surely already understand, just reading about them will not take you anywhere! Of course you need to show some dedication and overcome some of the initial frustration we all feel when we are about to try new things. To see any real improvement, daily work for at least a couple of weeks will certainly be needed. Another thing which may be useful to remember is what we hinted earlier - your

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sight-reading skills will always develop only within certain limits, set partly by how well you understand a musical score, and partly by your technique. When you have tried and tested the 10 steps, and feel that your improvement is slowing down, putting in more effort on your technical and theoretical skills is what will really take your sightreading to the next level.

Three initial steps acquiring the basic tools

The first three steps are concerned with the building-blocks of the page of music before you. The main things that you have to be able to instantly recognize to be a good sight-reader are the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic elements of the music. It will be a good idea to practice these elements separately, gradually introducing more and more complex variants.

Step 1: Practice time-signatures and rhythms

The very first thing you need to look at before you start sight-reading a music sheet, is the time signature. We assume that you are already familiar with the concept, and that you have no difficulty in counting a measure correctly. Still, for sight-reading purposes, it might be a good idea to practice one time signature at a time, to really get a feel for what you might come across when you see a 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/8 or 6/8 (and so on) time signature at the top of the page. For instance, there arent that many ways in which you can combine quarter notes and eighth notes in 3/4 time. If youve spent a few hours working them all into your system, you will begin to feel a lot more comfortable sight-reading music with that particular rhythmic setup. This is why it makes sense to practice one time signature at a time. It will give you time to absorb many of the most common rhythmic variants, making you feel gradually more at home in any time signature.

Step 2: Practice key-signatures

When scanning a page of music before sight-reading it, the next thing your eyes should stop at is the key signature. You already know that this will tell you which notes are sharpened or flattened in a given key. You can practice key signatures in much the same way as time signatures, You probably did something like this when you were a beginner, starting out in C major and then adding more and more sharps or flats. This is also one of the reasons why practicing scales are not such a bad idea. Eventually they will make your fingers find their way more and more automatically between the black and white keys of a given scale. As you can imagine, there is no end to the good that this will do your sight-reading. In addition to studying the scale, it is also extremely useful to observe the most common chords and cadences (harmonic progressions) of a certain key. With practice, this knowledge will help you to predict roughly how a phrase is likely to continue and conclude. Besides, when sight-reading a technically demanding piece, being able to spot the most important harmonic elements will often enable you to give a fairly adequate rendition of the music without having to play all the

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notes. This is particularly useful if you are sight-reading as an accompanist. Begin with a really simple, short piece and see if you can spot the harmonic (chordal) elements of the music. There is no need for complete analysis here - if you are looking at a piece in C major, for example, a good start would be to look for all C major chords or bass note C:s. This is where the piece returns to its tonal center (the tonic).

Step 3: Practice intervals

Knowing your way through time and key signatures is all very well, but it wont help you much if you are slow at finding the right notes. So how do you speed up your note-reading? One great tip is to start thinking intervals instead of just note names. I assure you that no great sight-reader is thinking one small bit about the names of the notes that he or she is playing, just like nobody is thinking about individual letters when reading a book. When you read music fluently, you look at shapes and groupings, instantly fitting all individual notes into rhythmic figures, chords or melodic figurations. So how do you start thinking in intervals? I am sure you already do in some respects, unconsciously if not otherwise. For instance, you will probably be ready to instantly agree that the distance between two lines on the staff is a third. If you skip a line, you get a fifth. The same goes for the spaces in between lines. If you get this kind of thing, you can actually learn to read music excellently without having the slightest clue about the names of notes. Try to become more conscious about the distances between notes and what the various intervals look like on the staff. Here is one way of practicing intervals: Look at a page of any piece of music, and see how fast you can spot all the seconds, thirds, fourths and so on. Concentrate on one or two intervals at a time become a fifth or octave expert before you go on to sixths or sevenths. Look for your intervals both horizontally (intervals between notes struck simultaneously) and vertically (intervals between the individual notes of a melody).

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Seven further steps perfecting your performance

Now that you have prepared yourself properly, you are ready to try the real thing! Steps 4 to 9 all deal with actual sight-reading strategies: what you need to think of when you have got a page of music in front of you that you want to play instantly. The concluding tenth step deals with sight-reading away from the piano, which will add efficiency to your practicing and even more security in every real sight-reading situation.

Step 4: Abandon fear and embarrassment

If you consider yourself a fairly good piano player but a poor sight-reader, you will probably feel annoyed and frustrated by the fact that you are making so many mistakes when playing at sight. Dont let those feelings keep you from trying! Dont feel ashamed if you have to start practicing your sight-reading with pieces that are much less technically advanced than the repertoire pieces you are used to be able to perform brilliantly. In the ensemble sight-reading situation, when it is of absolute importance that you keep a steady beat and that you are aware of what the other players are doing, it might be necessary to simply skip a lot of notes that you cant decipher instantly or that are too difficult to play properly at a first run through. If you are used to practicing every detail very thoroughly before trying a performance, this kind of cheating may almost feel like a crime! There is no reason to be ashamed though. The people that you are making music with will appreciate your playing much more if you are alert to their playing and give them the most important notes or chords in time, than if you are just desperately struggling to get all your own notes in.

Step 5: View sight-reading as a musical activity, not an exercise

Like the previous one, this tip is also meant to take some of the unnecessary prestige and tension out of sight-reading. But the emphasis here is on why you are doing it at all. All right, when preparing for your grade exams you may be forced to think about sight reading as a test or an exercise. But dont let that influence your whole view of what sight-reading is about. Consider reading music and translating it with ease to musical meaning and finger movement one of the cornerstones of your art as a pianist. When you look at a fresh page of sheet music, dont view it as a complicated crossword-puzzle that you have to decipher. Think instead of every phrase as a musical statement. In other words, get into the same mindset as when you are reading the words and sentences of a book. You shouldnt be decoding your music one note at a time, you should be reading it fluently in groups of notes. If you find this hard to implement, you are probably trying to sight-read something that is still a bit too difficult for you. Try something easier and work a bit more on the three initial steps.

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Step 6: Scan the page before you start

Remember that sight-reading doesnt necessarily mean playing entirely without preparation. In all the three sight-reading situations sketched above, you should always be able to take time to at least look through the most important aspects of the page of music that you are going to play. Just starting to play the first measure without looking ahead to the rest of the music is downright stupidity and has nothing to do with good sight-reading. This is where sight-reading music differs a little from reading books. So, what should you be looking for in these few, precious moments of preparation? First of all, look at the things that the composer of your score began with. Before writing down any of the notes, he or she gave the piece a time signature as well as a key signature (unless you are sight-reading atonal music without a fixed beat, but thats another story). Consequently, these are by far the most important clues you have. As long as you have done some solid practicing of rhythm and playing in different keys, this will set you up very well for the task ahead. Then look for any sort of recurring patterns of notes or rhythms on the page. And dont just look at them. If the situation allows, try them out. If not, try to imagine their sound and prepare the placement of your hands and fingers. Make a note of tempo, time or key signature changes ahead. Look for the quickest notes you will have to play, and adjust your speed accordingly (that is if you are allowed to decide a tempo for yourself). Then you are ready to go!

Step 7: Watch the music, not your hands

This tip is going to help you a lot, also when you are not sight-reading. A lot of pianists look far too often at their hands, even when this is absolutely unnecessary. If you feel that you may be guilty of this, consciously try to lift up your head and eyes when you are playing a piece that you already know. Look at the music or just somewhere in front of you if you are playing from memory. You will enjoy the feeling once you get used to it. To become a good sight-reader, its essential that you learn to trust your hands and fingers to know what they are doing. If you have to keep looking down at the keyboard every other note, you will never be able to sight-read with ease. To prepare for this element of sight-reading, get used to playing all your pieces with a minimum of looking at your hands. As already hinted, this will give you a new sense of freedom which will improve the quality of your playing and increase your own enjoyment of what you are doing.

Step 8: Always think about the next note(s)

So, you have scanned the page and are comfortable with keeping your eyes on the music rather than your hands. But what exactly happens when you are able to read and play fluently? Lets go back to what is happening when you are reading the words on this page. Unless you are just learning to read, or unless your English is very bad, you are not reading letter by letter. You are reading words and sentences, often imagining the sound of spoken words as you go along.

When you are a fluent sight-reader, you read groups of notes at a time, imagining the sound of each musical gesture or phrase the moment before you play it. This sounds like magic, and in a way it is - but not more so than the fact that you can speak, sing, read, type, walk or play tennis. You are already performing a lot of very complicated tasks where your mind and body work together in the most remarkable ways, without any sense of difficulty. Your goal should be to make sight-reading one of these very natural activities. If you are not there yet, go to the piano and sight-read something really, really easy. It only has to be a couple of notes. The main point is that you should be able to grasp the whole thing more or less at once. This will give you a foretaste of what fluent sight-reading should feel like.

Step 9: Play slowly if you need to

This step applies most of all to the first sight-reading situation, the one where you are simply reading through a new piece for your own sake. In the exam or ensemble situation, you will be more limited in your choice of speed. In these latter situations, there will be times when it might be best to sacrifice detail in favor of fluency. But ultimately, your goal is of course to sight-read not only fluently but also correctly. That is why, in the comfort of your practice room, it may be a good idea to take things slowly. An added benefit of this approach is that virtually anything can serve as a sightreading exercise. Perhaps you have one or two pieces that you are really fond of and curious to get to know, but which are beyond your technical abilities at the moment. Well, this is not an argument that should stop you from getting hold of the score and sight-reading it at a speed that you can handle. Most technical problems disappear if you play something sufficiently slowly. This enjoyable exercise will be very beneficial for your general development. Youll get to know your favorite piece even better, and if and when you feel ready to play it properly you will already have formed an idea of what the main problems are.

Step 10: Practice reading music away from the piano

Most of the tips I have given you here can be practiced both at the piano and away from it. For example, if you want to practice the reading of rhythms or intervals, get hold of any piece of music, sit down in your favorite armchair and start reading. Tap the rhythms or try to spot intervals that you find tricky. Step 6 is also a very good one to practice away from the instrument. Take a few minutes and just go through the main clues of a score, just as you would do before playing it for the first time: time and key signature, speed, dynamics, rhythmic and melodic recurring patterns, important changes and so on. To alternate between practicing with and without the piano is a very efficient way of improving sight-reading. When you are not actually playing the piece, it is easier to focus on a particular problem area: rhythm, accidentals or whatever. And you will be able to scan a lot more music without having to go into every detail. If you go on like this, constantly improving your ability to grasp a page of sheet music, your knowledge of the piano repertoire will end up being very impressive.

As Robert Schumann once wrote: there is something magical about this veiled enjoyment of soundless music. Let this be a motto for your sight-reading practice: to be able to enjoy the music just by looking at the notes should be one of your main goals. When you have achieved that, every improvement of your technical ability will give you instant access to new parts of the piano repertoire.