Are you practising sight-reading but not getting any better? Or perhaps you are new to sight-reading and not sure where to start? Then read this post where I give you 5 tips to improve your sight-reading as well as a FREE cheat sheet to help you during your practice.
How is it that some pianists seem to find sight-reading easier than others? Does it all come down to practice?
Yes, and no. Naturally, pianists who practice or do a lot of sight-reading will find it easier than those who don’t. But what differentiates the really good sight-readers from the average sight-readers is the tricks they have up their sleeves that make the task much more manageable.
In this blog, I’ll go through each of these tricks and show you how YOU too can apply these tricks to your practice and boost your sight-reading!
Tip #1 Look at the music before you start
Always look carefully at the music before attempting to sight-read it. Don’t dive in immediately and hope for the best!
Think of it this way: if you wanted to prepare a dish you’ve never done before with a recipe, you’d first read through it, wouldn’t you? First, you’d check that you have all the ingredients, lay them out in front of you, check whether you need to chop anything and in what way, prepare the right quantity, then you’d read through the instructions to make sure there aren’t any surprises. Maybe you need to turn on the oven at some point or put the mixture in the fridge for 30 minutes. You need to know these things in advance to avoid disasters!
The same applies to sight-reading. Before you begin, you’ll need to know:
- how to count (time signature)
- how fast you need to play (tempo marking)
- in what key the piece is in (key signature)
- how loud or soft you need to start (dynamics)
- with which fingers (fingering/hand position)
- how to play the notes (articulation)
- surprises! (things that are hard to decipher)
You’ll find most of these instructions in the first bar like in the following example:
Let’s now look at each of these instructions and see why they’re important…
1. Time signature & tempo marking
The time signature and the tempo marking will determine how to count and at what pace. Ideally, you will want to sight-read the piece at the required tempo, but if you feel you need to take it slower, that is fine. It is better to take it slow as this will give you more time to process all the notes and enable you to stay in time.
If it is a particularly slow piece (Adagio or Largo), you might need to subdivide and count in quavers.
LEARN MORE >> How to Read Basic Rhythms
2. Key signature
Look at the key signature and work out in which key the piece is. Be aware that the piece could be either in a major or minor key. If needed, play through the scale or remind yourself of the sharps or flats by going through them. You’ll need to keep those in mind when you’re sight-reading.
LEARN MORE >> How to Sight-Read in Any Key
Take note of the starting dynamics and try to observe any changes in dynamics throughout the piece. Dynamics form an integral part of the music, so don’t leave them out!
4. Hand positions
Look at the fingering to determine the starting position of your hands. This will prevent you from running out of fingers or having to use odd fingering to get around. Try to follow the fingering as you play.
Look out for symbols over the notes like the following:
And slurs and ties:
You might be tempted to ignore these markings while sight-reading, but I strongly recommend that you pay attention to these and observe them as much as you can. They contribute to the piece as much as dynamics or expressive markings do.
6. Things that are hard to decipher
Occasionally, you may come across a symbol you don’t know or a low/high note with many ledger lines. Take the time to work out the symbol or note and write it down if you need to. Doing this will prevent you from having to stop halfway through to figure these out.
Tip #2 Go through the rhythm in your mind
Once you’ve decided on what your tempo will be, sing or tap the rhythm of the first few bars out loud or in your head. Then once you’re ready to start, count one bar in.
Watch out for upbeats like in the following example:
LEARN MORE >> How to Read Basic Rhythms
Tip #3 Look ahead
Train your eyes to be at least one or two notes ahead. This means that while playing the first note, your eyes should already be on the second note. The more notes you can “take in”, the further ahead you’ll be able to look.
LEARN MORE >> How to Look Ahead When Sight-Reading
To do this effectively, look for rhythmic or melodic patterns and group these into chunks. This is a method called “chunking“. (Learn more about this method in my article on how to become a sight-reading expert.)
Here is an example:
Tip #4 Keep your eyes on the music
Your eyes need to stay on the music. If you keep looking down at your hands, your eyes won’t have time to look ahead and process the upcoming notes. You might also lose your spot, which means you’ll need extra time to find where you were, and the music won’t flow.
Instead, you need to trust your sense of touch and spatial awareness. Get into the habit of playing your scales, arpeggios and pieces without looking down, and familiarise yourself with the feel of the black keys. Why the black keys? Because unlike the white keys, they are raised, and they are grouped into two’s and three’s, which makes it much easier to find the white notes. So use the back keys to help you.
LEARN MORE >> How to Play Without Looking at the Keys
Tip #5 Keep going no matter what
The goal is not to play every note perfectly from beginning to end but to play as much as you can and stay in time. For the music to make sense, it has to flow. So if you find that you constantly stop to figure out notes, start again at a slower tempo. It is better that you play slower and in time than faster, with many stops and starts.
If you are accompanying a singer, for example, the most important thing is to stay in time with them and if this means leaving out notes, then do it (This is a skill in and of itself that I will expand on in another post.)
For each piece you sight-read, the first things you should do are:
- Look at the music before playing
- Go through the rhythm
Then while playing, try to:
- Look a few notes ahead
- Keep your eyes on the music
- Go ’till the end no matter what happens.
If it didn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped, try again slower or pick something easier.
And remember that the goal of sight-reading is NOT to get it note-perfect! The goal is to learn how to approach a new piece of music and how to play it at sight fluently while maintaining a pulse. The goal is to make the music flow, even at a slower tempo.
You’ll see that if you can achieve this sense of flow, you will start to really enjoy it and you’ll want to keep sight-reading more and more. This means you’ll get better and better!
READ MORE >> Why Is Sight-Reading Important?
READ MORE >> The Best Sight-Reading Books for Piano
Now that I’ve given you these tips, it’s time to implement them in your practice!
I’ve designed a FREE Sight-Reading Cheat Sheet to help you remember these 5 tips to improve your sight-reading. You can print it out and put it alongside your music when you practise sight-reading.
Or if you just want to stay in the loop, you can do so by filling out the form below.