How to Practise (and Teach) Sight-Reading

In sight-reading, we take a piece of music we have never played before, look it over quickly, then play it straight through as best we can, without stopping to correct mistakes. If we play it a second time, we are already beginning to practise the piece rather than sight-read it. How then do we practise sight-reading itself, if we are not allowed to go back and fix our mistakes? Must we simply keep sight-reading new pieces, and just hope for improvement?

In reality, sight-reading is not a single skill, but a combination of several inter-connected aural, visual, physical, and cognitive abilities that all come together in the act of reading an unfamiliar piece of music. To improve our sight-reading, therefore, it is not enough merely to play lots of new pieces, although we must do this too. We need to work individually on all the component skills that contribute to fluent sight-reading, and we need specific things to think about as we work on these skills.

In my sight-reading class for piano majors at the Peabody Conservatory, we break sight-reading down into twenty of these component skills, organized into four broad categories: training the eyes to move efficiently, developing flexibility, working on rhythm, and tackling various complexities of musical language. In this way, we concentrate on specific issues, one by one, challenges that range from keeping our eyes on the score, to reading ahead, making harmonic reductions, simplifying difficult textures, improvising, playing by ear, mastering dotted rhythms and polyrhythms, reading in difficult keys, and much more.

Concentrating on specific challenges, one by one, prevents sight-reading from becoming an overwhelming experience in which there is too much to think about all at once. At the same time, it avoids the repetitive drudgery of simply sight-reading one piece after another without knowing what to work at. Moreover, looking at the same activity through these varied lenses, as it were, is both highly instructive, and enjoyable. With such focused attention on specific skills, students get to know themselves, musically speaking, and develop new abilities that strengthen their general musicianship.

For teachers, sight-reading is sometimes seen as something separate from repertoire study, and often as something there isn’t enough time for during the lesson. But if we consider sight-reading a collection of skills, rather than a single activity, we can find countless ways to implement these skills in our lessons. Learning to scan a score, hearing it inwardly, recognizing patterns, keeping a steady pulse, outlining or simplifying difficult passages, responding to the expression in the music – these and many other components of sight-reading are also important elements of repertoire study. For in the end, it is impossible to separate reading from practicing. The skills that go into sight-reading are essential not only to that particular activity, but to all musical activity.

Ken Johansen is a writer, pianist and associate professor at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. His new sight-reading curriculum for advanced pianists, in addition to other resources on sight-reading and learning pieces, is available from Informance. ISM members get 30% on individual purchases or £30 off annual subscriptions (click here for further details).

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