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.
- Examine the piece first for patterns (measures repeated, lines repeated) and traps (key signature,
accidentals, unusual counting patterns, accents, dynamics, fingering). You're allowed to study the piece
as long as you like before you play. Write in tricky counting if you like.
- Play SLOOOOOOOOOOOWLY. Do not play at performance speed. You are not performing; you
are sight-reading. Play as slowly as you need to to incorporate *every* detail printed on the page. Your
goal is accuracy, never speed. You have only *one chance* to get it right. (That's right! The piece may
be played only once!)
- Read ahead like crazy. Don't be caught by surprise. Your eyes and brain should be on the next note
as the current note is being sustained. You can't read ahead if you are playing fast.
- Important and counterintuitive: The piece will not "sound" like anything. It probably will be impossible to "follow" the melody at all. This is not a cause for concern. If anything, it is corroboration that sight-reading is being done correctly. Stress this to the student. All of us are so used to hearing a tune, that it is disconcerting not to! Your student will think she is doing something incorrectly! Assure her that, in fact, she -won't- be able to perceive [much of] a melody.
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.
- I start with Allan Small's "Very First Piano Solo Album" (Alfred) as a sight-reading book. There are two
more in this "series" ("Teacher's Choice" and "Student's Choice"; the latter is the harder of the two).
- Intermediate students can use method books for the later elementary student. Transfer students, especially, have an arsenal of books. (My approach to books brought in by transfer students is to use what I deem beneficial for the student and ask that the rest be put away until "later." "Later" turns out to be sight-reading.)
- Lower advanced students can read sonatinas by Clementi, Diabelli, Kuhlau, Latour, and others, including some contemporary composers and Bartok's Mikrokosmos, vol. 1.
- Middle advanced players will gain much
by using a hymnal (4-part writing) as sight-reading material. An added challenge is to have the player watch the punctuation in the hymn in a specific stanza and to lift ("breathe") or play thru the text as punctuation demands. Naturally, the student will find many places where "everyone" takes a breath but an incorrect breath. A good example here is "Silent Night": 'Round yon Virgin | | Mother and Child should be all one phrase. (I put the "railroad tracks" - - | | - - in there to show where people take the incorrect breath.) If one hymn a day is too much, start with
one line, then two, as above. For ease of keeping track, take the hymns in order.
- Advanced students may find the easier Haydn sonatas and Scott Joplin rags excellent sight-reading
material (after having played through the hymnal). After these students have traversed the hymnal, find some 4-part vocal music in open score for them (this is where each of the voices has its separate staff; and usually the tenor must be transposed an octave lower by the pianist.) Naturally, oppportunites abound to bring out the soprano or bass parts, so they have some extra practice in voicing.
- Many publishers have anthologies of music at various levels of difficulty. These are ideal sight-reading books. There is not much available for elementary students, but upper intermediates can read from lower intermediate books (such as Lynn Freeman Olson's Essential Keyboard Repertoire (2 vols., Alfred).
- Also consider "vocal scores" from Broadway musicals (that is the vocal part plus a piano accompaniment), Big Band dance tune arrangements, easy-listening jazz, holiday music, and so on. These pieces, usually in anthologies, come in "EZ Piano" as well as "standard" arrangements. Don't rule out anything! Find material that suits your student's taste.
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.
Contact me about reprint permission.
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