I have a confession to make: I used to be a terrible sight reader.
Reading a new piece of music on the spot, without the aid of my ear, was a special kind of torture for me as a young pianist. My brain would shut down, my hands would freeze, and it felt as though I was trying to read a foreign language. (That 7-year-old pianist in the picture above? That was me in 1999, when learning a new piece at the piano meant doing as much as I could to rely entirely on playing by ear!)
I did not fully conquer this irrational fear until I was about 19, which was thirteen years into my experience as a pianist.
As a piano teacher, one of my primary goals is to help my students not only understand how to sight read, but how to feel good about it. Sight reading doesn’t have to be scary! But how do we wrap our minds – and our hands – around a skill that can be so intimidating?
Understanding the problem
In my experience, issues with sight reading almost always stem from fear of failure. Many students carry with them an internalized sense of inadequacy, which is amplified in response to a challenge like sight reading – “I’ve been learning piano for so long! Shouldn’t I know how to read anything by now? Shouldn’t I know every note by sight right away?” The answer is no. Putting this kind of pressure on yourself will only result in setting unattainable standards, and when you don’t reach these standards, you feel even less confident about your skills.
In the case of piano sight reading in particular, part of the issue is also the size of the task. Reading two lines of music at once, with correct notes and rhythm, is hard. There is no doubt about that! But there are many things we can do to repackage the challenge as something fun, accessible and rewarding.
Sight reading is not the enemy. Our mental blocks are. But believe me when I say this: those walls can be knocked down.
Start small, and start easy
So, you want to improve your sight reading! Where do you start? With something that is incredibly easy for you. Grab a book that you haven’t used in years, something that is so easy for you that it makes you laugh. I’m serious!
Next, pick a short section to focus on. Maybe just 8 measures, like we have above. That will be your practice selection.
Make note of your time signature (3/4) and your key signature (in this case, no sharps and flats).
Then, only look at the right hand.
Count aloud to yourself using the shortest note values in your selection. In this case, we have quarter notes. So we will be counting 1 – 2 – 3 for each measure.
Then, ghost play just the right hand while you count 1 – 2 – 3 aloud. Ghost playing is the act of moving your fingers along with the notes without actually making a sound. We only want to play the section aloud once or twice – any more than that, and it’s no longer sight reading. It then becomes practicing.
Once you have ghost played the right hand, play it aloud while still counting. Repeat these steps with the left hand alone, then both hands together. And once you’ve done that, the sight reading exercise is over! Leave this piece, and check out a different one. As a sight reading instructor once told me, “The only way to get better at sight reading is to do it. A lot.” Over time, try gradually more difficult selections. But always aim for something easier than your skill level.
Feeling the beat
Rhythm is the Achilles’s heel of many musicians, and complicated rhythms can make sight reading even more difficult. Dedicate some of your sight reading practice exclusively to rhythm!
Always count using the shortest subdivision you see.
In the above selection, we’re in 4/4, and our shortest note value on the page is an eighth note. So we will count 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and for each measure. Practice writing in each subdivision, then clapping the value of each note while you count aloud.
Specifically for note-reading practice, I am a huge advocate for intervallic sight reading. This refers to the practice of reading the distance from note to note, rather than reading each note on the staff individually.
Going back to The Horseman’s Night Ride, we can use intervallic sight reading to make quick work of our left hand. Always look for what changes, and what stays the same from measure to measure. The G at the top of each two-note slur is constant, like an anchor. From there, we only need to read the distance from the lower notes to the anchor G – a 5th, a 3rd, a 4th, etc.
In more difficult music, this practice will also apply to harmonic sight reading, which is the process of reducing a given beat or measure to the chord that the notes outline.
Attitude is everything
Lastly, I want to emphasize the importance of attitude. Sight reading is a challenge for everyone – and I mean everyone – regardless of your skill level. We have to approach the challenge with realistic expectations, a positive attitude, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor! Realize that you’re going to miss some notes. But what’s the worst that could happen? I promise Beethoven won’t haunt you from the grave.
The day that I started looking at sight reading less like an insurmountable task and more like a simple math problem was the day I started to improve. These days, I do it so frequently and fluently that I can’t even imagine the dread that I used to have for it. But with consistent, methodical practice and a lighthearted approach, you too can learn to read unfamiliar music as easily as a good book. Happy music-making!