The title here says it all. For any musician, the skill of sightreading is absolutely essential. It doesn’t matter if you are primarily a church musician, orchestra player, teacher, or something else – there is sure to come a time when you are handed music you have never seen before and asked to play it with very little, if any, notice.
So how do we get there? I think the principles of learning to sightread are pretty much the same for most instruments. Sightreading is, at the most basic level, excellent eye-brain-hand coordination. The information has to be read, processed in a matter of seconds or fractions of seconds, and put out through the fingers. Ideally, when sightreading you will be able to maintain a metronomic tempo that moves you steadily through the measures with a large percentage of accurate notes (actually, the ideal is 100% accuracy, but after all, we’re sightreading….).
As with anything, starting out right from the beginning can make all the difference in the world. I make a point with all of my students, especially the beginners, to have them sightreading something at every lesson. More often than not, the beginners end up sightreading a small handful of short pieces during each lesson. This plants the seed for the skill very early on and it will naturally grow and mature with the student’s mastery of the instrument as they move through literature. This is definitely the best way to learn or teach it in my experience, so if you have beginning students, get them sightreading right away!
Sometimes, though, sightreading slips through the cracks. This has, unfortunately, happened with some of my students. Additionally, sometimes I take a transfer student who’s previous teacher didn’t work on this and so then I have an intermediate student who is not comfortable with the sightreading process. The good news is, it’s never too late to learn! Intermediate and early advanced pianists have an excellent chance at mastering sightreading even if they haven’t done it from the time they started lessons. Below are a few helps for learning to sightread that I have found immensely helpful both in my own journey as a musician as well as from a teacher’s perspective.
- Do it often! For older students, I find it helpful to assign a book strictly for this purpose that they can do on their own every day.
- Start simple! Your student may be able to play Level 10 literature, but is on par with a Level 2 sightreader. Find music with which they can succeed, no matter how easy it feels, and gradually work up the ladder.
- Practice with variety! Is your student burned out with stumbling through the hymnbook? Try a series of simple etudes for a change (see below for recommendations). Don’t always stick with solo works, either – practice with simple accompaniments for children’s choir or other instrumental soloists.
- Repeat it! Even though technically speaking you can only sightread something once, if you are not consciously putting effort into learning it, your brain will still process much of the information as new. Use this to your advantage and play the same thing over and again, and each time you will pick up on something else and increase your accuracy, thus combining the benefits of sightreading and structured practice.
- KTS! This stands for Key signature, Time signature, Scan. These three things are perhaps the most important in any sightreading situation – special thanks to Mr. Pinner of Pinner Studios and Pinner Publications for this wonderful tip!
I have found the Technical Skills book by compiled and edited by Jane Magrath to be an excellent resource in helping students sightread successfully. Check out these wonderful technique building books as a resource for beginning sightreaders.
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||Masterwork Technical Skills Level 1-2. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 24 pages. Alfred Music #00-6583. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6583).
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||Masterwork Technical Skills Level 3. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6584. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6584).
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||Masterwork Technical Skills Level 4. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6585. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6585).
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