By Chrissy Ricker, NCTM
I have a confession to make. Sight-reading doesn’t come easily for me.
Growing up, I was always a diligent practicer. I worked hard to prepare for my lessons, and I learned how to use my time efficiently to break apart my music, and practice it well. However, being able to play a new piece accurately, at first sight, was always difficult for me.
While I don’t think sight-reading will ever be my forte (pun intended!), my sight-reading has improved over the years--thanks especially to doing lots of accompanying. However, my struggles with sight-reading have made me determined to help my students better develop their own sight-reading skills.
Here are five tips I have found helpful for improving sight-reading, for both me and my students:
Tip #1: Make sure students understand the difference between sight-reading and practicing.
We spend lots of time and effort in our lessons helping our students learn how to practice. However, sight-reading requires a completely different, often contradictory skillset! When we practice a piece of music, we focus on accuracy: stopping to correct our mistakes and playing small sections of a piece multiple times. However, good sight-reading focuses on flow: playing an entire piece from beginning to end with no stopping, even if mistakes are made. It is no wonder that students who are skilled at practicing have a difficult time switching into “sight-reading mode.”
Give your students frequent opportunities to sight-read in your lessons together. I like to give students 30 seconds to look over a sight-reading piece, making note of the key signature, time signature, and thinking through the music. Then, they sight-read the piece--no stopping, no matter what!
Tip #2: Help students practice their sight-reading by assigning lots of “easy wins.”
“Easy wins” are what I call pieces that students can learn quickly and independently. These pieces are confidence boosters--which is especially important for students that struggle with sight-reading. Assign your students easy wins on a regular basis, and make sure that they go through the process of sight-reading them first, instead of jumping right into practice mode. As the name suggests, these pieces should be easier than students’ other repertoire--at least one level below their average playing level.
Tip #3: Keep your eyes on the music and ahead of your fingers.
This is the tip that I have found the most helpful for myself as I have worked to improve my own sight-reading. I sometimes feel like my brain can’t process the information on the page quickly enough for me to play accurately as I am sight-reading. Making a conscious effort to always keep my eyes on the score and at least one measure ahead of my fingers is a big help.
When my students practice sight-reading in our lessons, I take an index card and move it along the measures as they play. As soon as they play the first note of a measure, I move the card to cover the rest of the measure so their eyes are forced to look ahead. This helps students to stay focused on the music and prevents them from stopping and going back to a previous section of the piece.
Tip #4: Teach students to read in “chunks.”
Good sight-readers are skilled at looking for patterns in their music. Imagine how slow reading this paragraph would be if you had to sound out each letter separately, instead of recognizing the words created by combinations of letters!
Help students to recognize patterns in their music by drilling intervals and encouraging them to look for patterns across an entire measure or more--a series of steps or skips, for example. Pianists should be able to analyze chord patterns quickly and practice blocking broken chord patterns. Transposing easy pieces to a different key is a great way to encourage students to read using intervals and patterns instead of reading each note individually.
Tip #5: Help students get comfortable playing without stopping—no matter what!
I find that this is one of the most difficult habits to instill in many of my students. Their first instinct is to stop when they hear a wrong note--however, in sight-reading, just like in performing--this is not ideal!
I find that sight-reading duets are a great way to encourage students to play through mistakes. I tell my students to keep something in the music going at all times--even if they have to leave out a few notes here and there. I have found that the added security of having the teacher duet part there helps reluctant sight-readers to feel a bit more comfortable.
When students are practicing independently, sight-reading using the metronome set at a slow tempo can be helpful to prompt them to keep going, no matter what. Using backing tracks can also be fun, and backing tracks give students who are used to being solo performers the feeling of playing with a band. As I like to remind my students, when you are playing with a band or orchestra, the other players aren’t going to stop if you play a wrong note--so just keep going and jump back in wherever you can!
Sight-reading is a valuable skill, and, like many things, it can improve through practice. I hope these tips help you to fill your studio with super sight-readers!