Being able to play a piece at first sight with almost little to no prior preparation is a real talent and something that never fails to amaze audiences and performers alike as well as massively widening your playing experience. This being said however, it is often one of the most overlooked or unglamorized skills within music for one simple reason.
Sight reading takes time and dedication.
Today we want to break down the importance of sight reading, how it can help improve almost all aspects of your playing and offer you some simple tips to help you to begin improving your sight reading.
Why Is Sight Reading Important?
Sight-reading is an essential skill that all pianists should possess and aspire to excel at. It helps with almost every aspect of your playing, even the parts you may think are independent from being able to sight read.
For example, if you are able to sight read fluently, even improvisation becomes far easier as you are able to use your sight reading knowledge to know which notes will be appropriate for the improvisation and also because of the skills on tempo and dynamics that sight reading teaches, you don’t have to worry about going out of time, or how the chords should sound before they are played.
Likewise, being able to fluently sight read not only dramatically speeds up the time required to learn a piece, but it also allows you to add more nuance and expression into both your fingering and your pedalling as instead of focusing on where your hands are moving, you are able to spend more time focusing on the music itself and how YOU want it to sound.
This is especially true for those looking to play in chamber music groups or alongside other musicians. As you will not need to focus as much on your own music, you are able to focus more on the entire group and how each instrument communicates with another and how you can use your instrument to help complement those around you.
Finally, being able to sight read dramatically increases the number of compositions and songs in your repertoire as you essentially have access to any song ever written if you have the sheet music infront of you - The next time someone throws a suggestion at you, so long as you’ve got the music, you’ll be able to play it!
The Barriers of Sight Reading
So with all these amazing benefits to your playing, it is a surprise that so many pianists, of all abilities and standards, will often say that their sight reading is one of the weakest components of their playing.
Many often rely on either playing from memory or other tricks to give the impression of sight reading and whilst this may work for pieces that can be prepared and learned over long periods of time, for those who either need short turnaround times on learning a particular composition, or those who are looking to learn longer, more challenging pieces, playing from memory simply does not work and takes infinitely longer.
The easiest way to explain this is that it is similar to learning to read a book. Imagine that every page you read in a novel, you have to look up the definition of every word before moving onto the next and break down each sound individually. You may remember doing this as a child at school and it being incredibly frustrating at first, but now, you can read almost anything that is put in front of you without needing to really think about it.
The exact same is true for music and whilst the initial stages of learning to sight read may seem challenging or frustrating, in the long run, it will benefit your playing to no end. If you are finding it hard to switch between the score and the piano keys when trying to sight read, all of the below exercises will help enhance your learning.
Tips To Enhance Your Sight Reading
Practise, Practise and Practise Some More!
It may sound silly, but the absolute first place to begin when learning to enhance your sight reading is to dedicate the time to doing so. For more accomplished players who have relied on memory, this may seem like going back to square one and you will notice that you will be needing to learn far easier pieces than you are used to, however again, this is a long journey and every journey begins with the first step.
Set yourself the discipline of committing to learn via sight reading, no matter what your eyes will always be glued to the staff and not your hands. Creating this habit is a great way to learn how to navigate the keys without the need to constantly look at where your hands are moving to and from. By doing this each time you practise, soon it will become second nature.
Familiarise Yourself With The Staffs
As pianists, we are a little unlucky in that our music uses multi-pitch staffs, typically in both the bass and treble. This means that as well as reading our music from left to right, we also need to appreciate what is happening above and below where we are focusing.
This is why familiarity with the staff, the note positioning and also how the two interact with one another is the best place to begin. There are plenty of exercises in helping you learn staff positioning, from flashcards to games to exercises that you may learn with your teacher. Spend some time at the start of every practice session ensuring that you know your notations and the musical alphabet, forwards backwards and in skips.
Start Slow And With One Hand
Now that you are familiar with the staff and its note positioning, don’t try to jump in with everything all at once, begin with simple exercises that break down each hand movement, starting with the right hand, getting comfortable with that and then going back to learn the left hand, before finally piecing it together.
It is also a good idea to begin your sight reading journey with a song you already know the tune to, the classic staple that many people use here when first starting to learn piano is ‘hot cross buns’ as it is a tune everyone knows and so this allows you to easily see and appreciate what the staff is trying to tell you.
However this exercise is not just for beginners and even the most advanced of pieces, by listening to the tune first and understanding where the staff is trying to take you, makes learning and following along with the piece far easier.
Challenge Yourself, But Don’t Overdo It!
All too often we see people try to learn pieces that are well beyond their sight reading ability level. This often leads to them either giving up or becoming frustrated with their playing. Instead, especially when learning to read sheet music, visit your local music shop and browse the material in person for yourself. This will help give you an idea of what is and isn’t within your ability.
A piece should be readable, but still challenging enough that you aren’t 100% sure how to play it immediately. A great example of this would be to follow a 70-30% rule. If you can read around 70% of the sheet music with ease, but then around 30% require at least some thought or practice, then it’s the right level for you.
Start Your Practice With Sight Reading!
One of the most common things we hear from teachers when we bring up this topic is stories of students saying that they didn’t have time to practise sight reading because they have been working on pieces they already know. Whilst learning to master those pieces is important, we promise you, sight reading exercises are more important and they should always take up at least the first half an hour of your practice sessions to help you become accustomed to learning this way.
This is another fantastic reason to keep a piano diary, or add some structure into your piano practice as this will help keep you on track and disciplined within your practice. It will also help you track your progress.
Our Final Tip - Be patient.
Sight reading takes time and there is no way to speed up the process without cutting corners, so enjoy the journey. By having a daily routine of practising your sight reading, over time your skills will grow and grow each day. The best part about this is that you can even be practising your sight reading when not at a piano, simply sit down and read the music and follow along with your finger or hum it. This really helps speeds up your ability to sight read.
So what are you waiting for? Why not set yourself the challenge of learning to sight read this year and improve your piano playing skills no end! If you’d like to learn more about ways to enhance your playing, explore our piano journal here, or if you are considering upgrading your piano or are just beginning your piano journey, contact our experts or visit our Cambridge piano showroom today!