When I write my monthly practice corner article, I typically think about the struggles my students face in their learning. In many cases, I struggled with the same issues when I was a piano student. However, not in this case, since sight reading always came very easy to me. I began piano at age 9, which probably helped. Students who begin later tend to grasp the concepts in note reading a lot more quickly than their younger counterparts. However, both younger and older students often find note reading to be quite vexing. That’s why I make sight reading a priority in lessons!
What exactly is sight reading? Simply put, it’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score, and translate that to the piano on the first try. A great parallel would be to how well a student learns good reading comprehension. It’s important to be able to read a passage of text to summarize the main points while not getting bogged down by details.
Sight reading in music is just a first step. It’s great to quickly grasp what’s on the page, but it’s another to make a music from it. Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that can only be worked out by lots of practice. Plus, in certain styles of playing, like jazz and pop, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated. It’s up to the student to know the correct style of playing, manipulate the chords, and do a lot of listening to be successful.
How to Learn It
Now that we’ve identified what sight reading is and its role in playing piano, how do you best learn it? Music educators have learned that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be the best method, long term. If you learned piano back in the dark ages, like when I did, your teacher would have typically used a middle-C based book. I bet you remember these books, where your thumbs were constantly fighting for middle C! You would have been drilled on mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine, for the lines on the treble clef, and the acronym FACE for the spaces. It sounds great, right?
However, going back to the analogy with book reading: How effective would you be if you had to speak the alphabet every time you see a new word? As a kindergartner, it might work fine, but it would hinder a second grader! I’ve had an early intermediate student who cannot start a new piece without consulting that every good boy nonsense. I never taught this method; it’s something he learned from a former teacher several years ago.
The primary method books I use, the Music Tree and Piano Safari, both have regular sight-reading as part of the curriculum. I often use the Piano Safari sight reading cards even with students of different method books. They are helpful in developing good note-reading techniques. As a student progresses, he learns new landmarks, which cover all of the Cs up and down the staff, in addition to the Gs on the treble/G-clef and the Fs on the bass/F-clef. He then uses the small intervals like 2nds through 5ths to identify notes that are above or below those fixed landmarks.
I also have a student transpose certain pieces when she gets into the late beginner level. Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in a different keys. What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs! That’s really helpful, since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. Some of these instruments transpose (like the trumpet or clarinet) or don’t transpose but read in different clefs (like the viola and cello). You can’t work at your best with these musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!
Another benefit of being a good sight reader is to hear music without playing it. When I open a score, the music pops off the page. This has enormous implications when learning new music, shopping for new scores, and even for determining which pieces to program. I can quickly find pieces that will work for a particular occasion by scanning them with my eyes, not needing to sit down at a piano.
Now you know why I make sight reading a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture, and remediate when the level is not up to par. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct the best method for note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s up to the parent to help the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a really big thing!