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How to improve your sight-reading

Handwritten music score from Franz Liszt
Image via Wikipedia

This weekend,  I asked an adult student how it felt to play in a new way.

She said, “I had to be hyper-alert and not think too much.”

Even though she wasn’t sight-reading, her response would be a great description for how to do that.

During my freshman year of college, it became apparent immediately that I needed to improve my sight-reading.  (I crashed in the first chorus rehearsal I played!)  Knowing whether the notes were correct was not the problem.  I’ve never had to check between the score and the keyboard in traditional music.  (In Messiaen, though, I do all the time!)

The biggest snag was that I would read one measure at a time, then regroup at the bar lines.

The drill

This is what I did:

First, I hooked up with a teacher who could sight-read anything.  He was a visiting artist at my school.

He had me sight-read Bach chorales, Riemenschneider edition.  This was an excellent suggestion, because chorales have a steady pulse.  You don’t have to second-guess meter, tempo, or key changes ~ you just keep going.

In lessons, my teacher would have me begin playing a chorale, then cover the notes with his hand, forcing me to look ahead.  At first I panicked.  Then I improved enough to play the beginning of a line, count what I couldn’t see or play, and then play the last bar of the line.

After a few frustrating lessons, things started to work much better.

For a long time, I didn’t believe my teacher when he said, “If you’ve seen it, you can play it.”  He was right.   :)

Things to be aware of

Always work on sight-reading when you’ve had enough sleep.  It’s frustrating enough already ~ you don’t need to be tired, too.

Long sight-reading sessions are not helpful.  People concentrate best at the beginning of a session.  20 minutes every day seems about right.

Sight-reading and practicing have nothing in common.  So always look ahead, no matter what.  Never go back to correct mistakes.

Choose a tempo you can handle.  This is not a speed contest.

If you leave things out, that’s fine.  Keep looking ahead, count, chill out, then play something in tempo.

Stop thinking.  Just do it.

From time to time, play the first chord in each bar and count everything in between.  Your eyes will become used to moving ahead.

When you are sight-reading with the intention of improving your skills, pay no attention to ornamentation.  Just leave it out.  This applies to Bach ornaments as well as those 17-note passages in Chopin that are printed in miniscule type.

Fingering doesn’t matter. You aren’t learning this piece, and won’t be sight-reading it twice.

It is useful to let go of the notes and move your hands to the next chord early.  You can pedal to sustain the sound.  This isn’t great art right now.  It’s about getting the notes.

For a little variety, have someone conduct as you play.  I find it easier to keep going when playing with a conductor.

If you want some “live” practice sight-reading, find a Sunday School class to play for.  Or a grade school.  Or a children’s choir at church.  The level of difficulty isn’t the point ~ looking ahead is.

Join a chorus and use the downtime to learn all the parts.  Being able to anticipate the next sound when sight-reading helps in a big way.  Developing your ear is a huge part of that.

Practice score-reading away from the piano.  Can you hear a score in your head?

Evelyn Wood

It took me awhile to improve my sight-reading skills.  Be patient if things don’t suddenly click for you.  (If you need to vent, leave a comment here!)

Both of my brothers took the Evelyn Wood speed reading course at different times.  It’s interesting that each of them described the experience in the same way.

The technique involves scanning the page in various directions, then going on to the next.  The first day, for example, might involve scanning the first page diagonally from left top to right bottom, then doing the same on the next page.  Scanning also went from top to bottom, bottom to top, bottom right to top left, scanning lines from right to left, looking at the page in blocks, etc.

Nothing made sense to my brothers for weeks. (I think it was 8 weeks.)  And then, just as each of them became so frustrated they wanted to quit, something clicked.  They could understand what they had read!

I have seen the results of this method first-hand.  My oldest brother read an entire Newsweek article while on an escalator between two floors of a clothing store.

I think sight-reading is similar.  It takes time, frustration builds, we think it’ll never work, and then… we can do it!

Best of luck!

Does your sight-reading need some improvement?  What have you tried so far?  Please share your experience in the comment section below!

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