Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum


General Introduction

The Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum is the result of nearly twenty years of experience teaching the freshman sight-reading class for piano majors at the Peabody Conservatory. It consists of an extensive collection of annotated scores dealing with every aspect of sight-reading, together with detailed suggestions on how to practise. Through the course of its twenty modules, it covers everything from training the eyes to read more efficiently, to recognising patterns, playing by ear, improvising, simplifying complex textures, mastering difficult rhythms and rare key signatures, and much more. It includes music of all kinds, from nearly all periods, by dozens of composers, both the well-known and the neglected. This curriculum is at once an exploration of music, of musicianship, and of the individual musician who works through it. For it is through exploration that we discover ourselves: our musical tastes and preferences, aptitudes and challenges.

Sight-reading is a highly complex activity that involves many different skills: score scanning, pattern recognition, instrumental technique, musical understanding, inner hearing, rhythmic sense, memory, and experience all come together concurrently in the act of reading a piece of music a prima vista. To improve our sight-reading, we must therefore work individually on each of these skills, refining the ones we already have some facility with, and developing those that need more attention. In this curriculum, these various skills are grouped into five large parts. The first part, Eye Training, is devoted to all the ways in which our eyes travel across the score to gather information. Flexibility develops several different skills that all serve to help us feel more free and adaptable in our sight-reading. We read music not only with our eyes, but with our ears, as we explore in part three, Playing by Ear. The fourth part, Rhythm, confronts the most common rhythmic challenges we encounter in sight-reading, and the final part, Other Challenges, collects specific difficulties not yet studied in the previous parts, including counterpoint, difficult key signatures, and complex chromatic harmony. See the index for a complete list of all the modules.

This curriculum was designed for piano students who are studying advanced repertoire. This does not mean, of course, that these students can all sight-read advanced piano music. There is actually quite a large range of ability in sight-reading, even among students who are capable of learning Bach suites, Beethoven sonatas, and Chopin etudes. This curriculum reflects that range of ability, and within each module the pieces are graded from easier to more difficult. Some students are able to work through the entire range of pieces, while others play only the ones that suit their current ability.

The modules are presented in the order I use them in my classes at Peabody, progressing from basic skills that are necessary in every piece we sight-read, to challenges that we encounter only occasionally. For variety, you might sometimes work on two modules at the same time (for instance Missing Melodies and Short-Term Memory from the Eye Training part), or jump ahead to a module that seems to address a particular need at the moment (Reading Musically, say, or Dotted Rhythms). But in general, it is best to go through the modules in order. If you encounter a piece that is at present beyond your ability to sight-read, it is best to leave it for the moment and go on to something else. It is counter-productive to sight-read music that is beyond one’s ability, as this leads to excessive inaccuracy, an erratic pulse or very slow tempo, and general frustration.

Each module begins with an introduction on how to practise the particular skill at hand. The tips and techniques that you’ll find here come from many years’ experience trying to discover what best helps students to improve their reading, as well as from discussions with other teachers, and from wide reading on the subject of sight-reading. Reading these instructions before you play the pieces is important because they give you specific things to think about as you sight-read. As with any skill, improvement in sight-reading comes not simply from repeating the activity, but from paying close, mindful attention to what we are doing and thinking as we practise.

At Peabody, we go through this curriculum in one year of intensive study. Without the constraints of an academic calendar, this work could easily be spread out over two years. The important thing is to work at it regularly, not only once a week at a lesson, or for a few days a year in preparation for an exam. Sight-reading is a skill that progresses gradually over time with regular practise. If you make it part of your daily practise, even for a few minutes, you will make steady progress. Moreover, it will begin to affect your repertoire practise in positive ways as well. You’ll notice more things in the music, read it more efficiently, practise it more creatively, and memorise it more easily. For in the end, it is impossible to separate reading from practising. The skills that go into sight-reading are essential not only to that particular activity, but to all musical activity.

I wish you success and joy in this journey of musical discovery.

Ken Johansen

Resources & further links

  • Click here to view the curriculum index.
  • Click here to view a collection of articles by the author on teaching and developing sight-reading skills
  • Click here for more information on the Read Ahead sight-reading curriculum on the Online Academy and the Read Ahead app.

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