“When sight-reading, don’t stop!” is advice piano teachers often give students but is this good advice? Read on to find out.
Piano teachers (me included) will often tell you that you shouldn’t stop when sight-reading, but is this good advice?
The short answer is: Yes, it is good advice, but not always.
DON’T stop during a sight-reading test
In an exam setting where someone judges your sight-reading ability based on 4 to 8 bars of music, “don’t stop” is definitely good advice. You don’t want to be starting and restarting. It doesn’t give a good impression. It shows you’re unsure and lack confidence.
The examiner wants to hear something coherent with a melody, rhythm and beat. If you stop every second beat, the examiner will hear spurts of sound that make no sense. So once you start, keep going until the final bar as best as you can. Take it slowly to give you a better chance of playing accurately.
When preparing for a sight-reading test, this is the advice I would give: Spend up to 30 seconds looking at the score (30 seconds is the usual amount of time given) and then once you start, play up to the end and try not to correct yourself. Practising this way teaches you to prioritise rhythmic fluency over note accuracy.
LEARN MORE >> How to Prepare for a Sight-Reading Test
Of course, in an ideal world, you want to both play accurately AND maintain a steady beat. However, for the purpose of passing a sight-reading test, it’s better that you learn to keep the rhythm going with a few wrong notes than get into the habit of correcting mistakes and stopping the flow of the music.
DON’T stop when accompanying
The same advice holds true when accompanying someone. Don’t stop. When you’re playing with someone or with a group of people, you have to keep going. No one is going to wait for you. You have to play in time with the other people.
So, if you’re a budding accompanist, learn to keep going no matter what. Leave notes out or improvise on the spot if you have to. (Read Piano Accompaniment: Behind the Scenes to learn more about what it takes to be an accompanist.)
There are times, however, when you DO want to stop when sight-reading…
DO stop when you’re sight-reading for fun
If you’re sight-reading because you want to explore new pieces, you may want to stop now and then when you come across a beautiful passage.
I sometimes do that. I’ll repeat the passage or return to it after sight-reading through the whole piece to hear it again and understand why I like it so much.
When you’re sight-reading for pleasure, the last thing you want to do is to quickly play through dozens of pieces without “stopping and smelling the roses”.
Take your time, savour the new melodies, the changing harmonies. Marvel at an ingenious passage or a funky rhythm. Stop and smell the roses. Just don’t stop too often otherwise, you’ll lose the sense of flow!
DO stop if you’re learning a piece
If you’re sight-reading a piece you intend on learning (which I recommend you do for every piece you learn), sight-read slowly and carefully and stop to correct mistakes, or at least make a note of the mistakes mentally so you can go back and fix them. You want to build good habits from the start and that means playing the right notes and rhythm from the beginning.
Do YOU stop or keep going when sight-reading? Let us know in the comments!