Teaching Sight-Reading

Musicians without sight-reading skills are hampered in all they do. Approaching every new work is a hassle. Picking up a piece of pop music is a chore and learning it is equivalent to learning a piece of the standard repertoire. It's no fun to "go shopping" for new pieces. Many entertaining options are not easily accessible: accompanying, playing duets and ensembles, playing "requests" for family members and friends. All students need to learn to sight-read.

Sight-reading, also called sight-playing, is a learned skill, although many professional musicians don't remember how they learned to do it. Most of us don't even remember when we couldn't! Let's please be more methodical with our students!

I start my teen and adult beginners in a sight-reading program after about 9 months to a year. With children, I wait at least a year or until they are well-established in reading in C position (which for my students, comes after being well-established in middle C position). My transfer students wait until I am assured any remediation in counting and note-reading is well under way.

First, the student must understand--or at least have an explanation!--of why sight-reading is important. Probably he'll remember a particular song that was really tough to read when he first started it: he had to count up and down on the staff and use mnemonics to figure out the notes. (Let's hope he didn't write in letter names!) As he discovers it's easier to begin a new piece, he'll gain appreciation for the importance of good sight-reading.

Second, select material that is at least one level below the student's present ability. Two levels is probably better. You want to cut back the difficulty of other aspects of music when you are teaching a specific skill, as I advised for using the metronome or teaching eighth-notes.

Third, lay out the three basic rules of sight-reading and write them in the margin of the first song:

You may have to devote 15 minutes to introducing sight-reading; maybe 30. Don't worry; it's time very well-spent.

Fourth, make sight-reading a part of the assignment. Don't just do it at the lesson. Assign it as part of the daily regimen. And check it at each lesson. Start at various places (not just the beginning--and especially at difficult spots) and hear a little bit of each piece. By checking sight-reading every week, your student understands that this is an important skill. And knowing he'll have to start anywhere you choose encourages him to sight-read correctly at home.

Be prepared to re-teach the "three basics" the second week, the second month, or whenever you perceive sight-reading is not being done in its most effective way.

Beginners often cannot traverse one page daily, so I ask them to do one line (or two lines or two measures - - whatever I think is approapriate).

Another option is to play one whole page, but do it one time each for two days. This sort of defeats the purpose of playing whatever it is only one time, but it may serve well for some students.


Your student will never regret the time spent learning to sight-read. And having students who sight-read well will pay off for you, the teacher, too.

copyright 1996-2002, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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