How do you get better at sight-reading? What is the secret to becoming a sight-reading expert? Is it just a matter of practising sight-reading daily? Read on to find out what sets the experts apart and how YOU too, can improve your sight-reading and become an expert.
As you probably already know, to improve your sight-reading, you need to practise it daily. And if you’re applying these 5 tips on how to improve sight-reading and following my suggestions on how to break these 10 practice habits, you’re on the right track. BUT, what if I told you that practising sight-reading alone is not enough?
If you want to become a sight-reading expert, you have to learn from the best – the experts themselves!
What have THEY done differently to get to where they are now? What other things have they done besides practising sight-reading?
That’s what we’re about to find out.
What does sight-reading involve?
As the name suggests, “sight-reading” involves seeing. But what exactly do we see when we sight-read music? Do expert sight-readers and novice sight-readers see the same thing?
Let’s do a little experiment.
If you’re home, go over to your piano – or if you’re out and about, do this mentally, or later when you get back – and have a go at sight-reading the following 4 bars. Whatever you do, don’t peek at the rest of this blog post!
As you read, make a mental note of what you see. Do you see groups of notes or individual notes? Try to observe how you look at the notes, and how much time you spend on looking at each one.
Now take a look at these two scenarios.
Person A looks at each note, as suggested by the red arrows:
Person B, on the other hand, looks at groups of notes, as indicated by the red rectangles:
How did YOU look at the notes? Like Person A or Person B? Or a mix of the two? If you’re not sure, don’t worry. I’ll explain what this all means.
Novices vs Experts
As you can probably guess, Person A represents a novice. Novices tend to see notes as individual notes, all of which have to be processed mentally in a short amount of time before they can be played on the piano. In this excerpt, there are a total of 62 individual notes! That’s a LOT of information to take in (and a lot of arrows I had to add!).
The experts (like Person B), on the other hand, automatically divide the music into meaningful “chunks” (a method called “chunking”), and see groups of notes, thus drastically reducing the amount of information they have to process. As a comparison, there are only 14 groups of notes in this case.
How do experts do this?
They can derive meaning from the music because they UNDERSTAND the music. That is the key difference between a novice and an expert.
- They have acquired enough knowledge in music theory to instantly recognise chords, intervals, melodic/rhythmic patterns, etc.
- They have worked on their technique so that they can play what’s on the page.
- They have trained their ears to hear chords and intervals so that they know what the piece sounds like.
Total musical understanding
As British pianist Melanie Spanswick explains in her blog:
“Attaining secure sight-reading skills involves total musical understanding.”
And “total musical understanding” means you need to be able to understand (music theory), hear (ear training) and play (technique) what you sight-read.
How to become an expert sight-reader
To sight-read like an expert, you need to have a good understanding of the following concepts:
- Notes in the treble
- Notes in the bass clef
- Note values
- Key signatures
- Time signatures
- Chords / harmony
- Musical terms
By understanding, I mean being able to identify, hear and play these concepts.
For example, if we take the same excerpt as above:
With enough knowledge of music theory, you would be able to:
- recognise the harmonic intervals and chords inside the red rectangles
- identify the notes in the blue boxes as broken chords and name the chords
- see the melodic lines in both parts, as shown by the orange lines. It is harder to observe in the left-hand, but if you look more closely, you can see how the first note of each group of broken chords ascends by step (C, B A, etc.).
With a good enough ear, you would be able to hear what the piece sounds like.
And with a good enough technique, you would be able to play the intervals, chords and broken chords with ease and do whatever is required to play this passage smoothly (for example, coordinating the hands so that they align on the beats).
So what should you do?
Alongside sight-reading, devote time to acquiring more knowledge of music theory, to developing your ear and your technique. Learning new concepts takes time so learn them progressively.
LEARN MORE >> How to Sight-Read in Any Key
LEARN MORE >> Learn to Read Ahead with the Read Ahead App
As a starting point, spend 10-20 minutes a day on scales and arpeggios. The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences is a great book for this as it also includes theory. (Click on the link to see a preview.)
My best advice is that you assign a portion of your practice to each area you want to develop. For example:
So one hour of practice could look something like this:
10 minutes of technique
10 minutes of sight-reading
20 minutes of Piece A / Study
20 minutes of Piece B
Tip: Start with sight-reading or after your warm-up, when your mind is sharp.
N.B.: Make a point of UNDERSTANDING what you are practising. Avoid mindlessly playing through your scales and arpeggios. Involve your brain so that you register each note and fingering, involve your tactile sense so that you remember the feel of the keys, and involve your ears so that you remember the sound of each interval.
Once you’ve mastered your scales and arpeggios, move onto chords, broken chords, octaves, etc. Keep expanding your technique. The more advanced your technique is, the better you can sight-read more difficult repertoire.
If you want to become an expert at sight-reading, don’t just practise sight-reading. That will only get you so far. Keep working on your technique, your pieces and your studies. You can also try to improvise or compose. Learn sight-singing or solfège. Whatever you do, keep learning.
Develop your overall musicianship, and you will start to SEE what the experts see when they look at music. You’ll begin to UNDERSTAND the relationship between the notes, and you’ll instinctively group notes into meaningful “chunks”. And best of all, you’ll start to sight-read with more ease because you’ll understand more and more!
How did you go with the sight-reading experiment? How much of the music did you understand? Let me know in the comments below.
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