Teaching & Developing Sight-Reading Skills

The Joy of Sight-Reading

Sight-reading an interesting piece of music is like meeting an interesting person. We enjoy the pleasure of a new encounter, sense perhaps a mutual affinity, and look forward to a deeper acquaintance. And just as a new acquaintance can introduce us to a whole new set of friends, so an encounter with a new piece of music can lead us to discover a whole new world of musical experience.

This sense of discovery is one of the primary joys of sight-reading, and of music study in general. Yet in the crush of learning scales and arpeggios, preparing for exams and juries, polishing pieces for recitals and competitions, it is a joy that is often forgotten or neglected.

In the earliest years of study, learning to read music is not separated from learning to play music. Children spell out the notes of the new piece they are learning the way they sound out the letters and words of a story they are reading. It is sometimes slow, and occasionally frustrating, but the pieces they learn are still within reach, and their relatively quick mastery of them gives them a sense of accomplishment and meaning. They are eager to receive a star or sticker, and graduate to the next book.

But as our students move forward, the pieces become harder and take more time and concentrated effort to learn. This is when we start to teach all the practice methods that are a fixture of piano pedagogy: slow tempos, separate hands, small chunks, deliberate repetition, and so on. This kind of practice is time-consuming, leaving less time for sight-reading and other musicianship skills. In this way, the gap between what students can sight-read and what they can learn to play with patient practice begins to widen.

If this gap between what they can read and what they can learn widens far enough, our students may find themselves in the position of Dalcroze’s “Young Lady of the Conservatoire” (in his book, Rhythm, Music and Education), who is always busy learning difficult pieces for examinations, but in between has nothing to perform, and having neglected sight-reading, improvising, and accompaniment, has no other outlets for musical enjoyment and development. With such a limited musical horizon, her artistic life has become as dull as the social life of a hermit. On the rare occasions when she does encounter a new piece, she is unsure how to proceed, and the meeting is awkward.

Ironically, the focus on developing technique and polishing a small number of advanced pieces does not lead to technical security and mastery of this repertoire. Poor reading inhibits technical fluency, and a limited exposure to music hinders the development of a foundation for making stylistic and interpretive decisions. As Harold Taylor wrote in The Pianist’s Talent, “Technique and sight-reading should go hand in hand, so that the student chooses his performing repertoire from amongst a large number of works which he knows he can play — because he has already played them!”

The repertoire for solo piano is inconceivably vast, and interesting, little-known music exists at every level. If we add to this the piano duet, song, and chamber music repertoire, the possibilities for musical encounters are unlimited. Piano teachers can be seen as guides through these realms of gold, introducing students to hidden (or well-known) gems, showing them what makes them beautiful, and how to make them shine. Such a broad and varied acquaintance creates curious, open-minded musical travelers, just as a wide exposure to people of different kinds forms tolerant, compassionate citizens of the world.

Below are links to two interesting pieces we think you’ll enjoy meeting.

Effective sight-reading is a complicated task that requires different sets of strategies and skills from repertoire practice. The remaining articles in this series provide exercises and music that you can use with your students to help them gain confidence in playing at sight, and strengthen their passion for playing the piano.

Written by Ken Johansen. This article is from a post published initially on the Read Ahead blog.

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