Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum - Part 1

Reading Ahead (10)


One of the most important skills in sight-reading is the ability to read ahead of where we are playing. Without the ability to see what is coming up before we get there, we simply don’t have enough time to prepare our next move. Consequently, the rhythm stops and starts, and we lose all sense of musical continuity and phrasing.

This is a difficult skill to learn because we are so used to reading text, which does not require us to read ahead, and allows us to pause, and even go back, whenever we like. So when we play music, our natural tendency is to look at the notes on the page that we are currently playing and hearing. When our visual sense aligns with our aural and tactile senses in this way, we feel comfortable and secure. Until, that is, the next measure presents us with a challenge we did not see coming.

Traditionally, teachers have prodded their students to read ahead by covering up the music with a small card. This can be useful, provided it’s done skillfully, with flexibility and sensitivity. One must sense how much, and which parts, of the score to cover up, so that the student feels challenged to read ahead, but still comfortable enough to maintain continuity and accuracy. For this reason, it is beneficial for students to practise covering up for each other.

It is because reading ahead is so important, and yet so difficult to do unassisted, that my colleague Travis Hardaway and I developed the Read Ahead app, in which the music disappears in advance a measure at a time, allowing pianists to practise this skill without a second person covering up the music for them. Trying this app for the first time, most pianists realise just what a new and unaccustomed experience it is to really read ahead.

Eventually, however, we must learn to read ahead without the help of teachers, fellow students, or apps. Our eyes are in fact incredibly agile, and can roam the score in all directions as we play, skimming rapidly over the parts that need least attention to seek out features that are more difficult to decode. Every score is different, so our eyes move over them in different ways. However, there are certain textures that recur frequently and with practise, we can train our eyes to move across them with greater efficiency. This unit provides a selection of such pieces.

So entrenched is our habit of looking at what we’re playing, that even when we reach a chord with a fermata, we stare at that chord until it’s time to continue, rather than looking ahead to see what is coming next. Similarly, when we reach a repeat sign at the end of a section, we often feel that we’ve reached a resting place, and stop looking ahead, or looking back to find the opening repeat sign. So that is where we will begin in this unit, using the natural resting places in music – long chords, fermatas, phrase endings, repeat signs at the ends of sections – as opportunities to look ahead. From there, we’ll move on to pieces that prolong chords with rhythmic figuration that the eyes can skip over. Then we’ll work on scores in which one hand is more active than the other, requiring a forward and back zigzag motion of the eyes. Finally, we’ll sight-read pieces that contain a lot of patterns which, once grasped, can be skimmed over with the eyes.

Each piece contains suggestions about how to move the eyes, and prompts (arrows, highlighted notes, etc.) to remind you to look ahead. It is still incumbent upon each player, however, to scan the score carefully before beginning, so that the eyes and mind have some idea of the musical terrain they are about to travel through.

Resources & further links

  • Read Ahead - Click here to visit the Read Ahead website for more information
  • Read Ahead - Complete iPad app on Apple iTunes (requires in-app purchases)
  • Read Ahead - eBook Bundle (Levels 1 - 3) - Click here to purchase an eBook bundle featuring levels 1 - 3 and save a further 20% off the discounted bundle price of £22.99!
  • Read Ahead - Additional sample materials on the Online Academy - Click here for level 1, click here for level 2 or click here for Level 3
  • Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum (Part 2) - Click here to view Part 2 of the Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum which develops skills to help you feel freer and more adaptable in your sight-reading.

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