When I write my practice corner articles, I typically think about my students’ struggles 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 easy to me. Rest assured I struggled in other areas of playing like technique, sound projection, and memorization.
What exactly is sight reading? It’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score and translate that to the piano on the first try. It might be slow, a few notes played incorrectly, and there may be some hesitation here and there. However, the result resembles the piece in some way. A parallel would be how well a student can read a written passage and summarize the main points after a first reading. Both in music and literature, it’s important to get the gist while not getting bogged down by details.
Sight reading in music is just a first step to the finished product. It’s great to grasp what’s on the page quickly, but making music is another thing. Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that only practice can work out. Plus, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated in certain playing styles, like jazz and pop. Some extra work might be needed to add the details. Successful sight reading gives the student a good foundation.
It’s important to step back to discuss a bit about the old ways of doing things. Many methods popular decades ago, what I call the dark ages, because I grew up then, used a middle-C-based approach. These methods, which I consider inferior, stuck around for a long time, but are hard to find these days. If you remember your thumbs constantly fighting to play middle C, you learned piano in that type of book.
The problem? You’d get good at playing by finger number from line notes F in the bass clef to G in the treble clef. In order to go past that, your teacher would drill using mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine for the lines and the acronym FACE for the spaces on the treble clef. When you needed to move away from those nine notes in the middle of the piano, it would be really difficult!
Mnemonics, pronounced with initial m silent, refers to any device or trick to aid in memory. I use the skips alphabet from Piano Safari to map the notes FACE and GBD to the lines and spaces. It’s one tool along the road to aid reading, but it shouldn’t be the only one.
Music educators agree that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be superior to the old fixed-note methods. Most of the methods that are popular today use these tools as the primary way to train note reading. Piano Safari, the method I use, goes beyond that to make sight-reading a regular part of the curriculum. Their sight reading cards are so good that I sometimes use them with transfer students who come in using other method books. They help develop good note-reading techniques, and the student learns to read the entire grand staff and then above and below it.
From Sight Reading To Score Reading
I also have a student transpose certain pieces from time to time. Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in several different keys. What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs! That’s helpful since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. To read some parts in concert pitch, like trumpet and clarinet, you need to transpose. The viola primarily uses alto clef, and the cello occasionally uses tenor clef. You can’t work at your best with other musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!
Can You Hear It In Your Head?
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 scores, or determining which pieces to work on next. 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.
Hopefully, you’re convinced that sight reading should be a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture and remediate when necessary. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s beneficial when the parent helps the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a huge thing!