Most students and teachers dread working on sight reading, but in the last year, my students have genuinely started to enjoy the challenge of making it a regular part of their practice. Best of all, they have started to see improvement in their reading. The practice is paying off!
Why is sight reading such a bore for students?
While it’s not possible to improve all these factors in the mind of a student, we can make the process as effective and enjoyable as possible through some of the following sight reading tips.
Read through to the bottom for my brand new free download as of 2019, a 10 Step Checklist for Sight Reading Success.
In my opinion, the factor that improves sight reading more than any other is a student’s ability to quickly recognise patterns in music: chord shapes, arpeggios, harmonic structures, scale runs, common accompaniment patterns, etc. etc. The faster a student can start reading music as blocks of patterns and not individual notes, the faster they will improve.
In this interview, Angela Hewitt talks briefly to the ABRSM about the importance of recognising chords and cadences and not having to read every individual note:
I’ve written about how you can approach teaching pattern recognition in my article Can Tetris help your sight-reading?
Without guidance, students often begin playing without any sense of pulse, without looking past the first bar, without considering the key signature and they’ll definitely stop and start as they struggle through each bar. In other words, without proper teaching, sight reading will generally be a disaster.
I often ask my students, what is the most important consideration when sight reading something effectively?
The most common response, in my experience, is “getting the notes right”. While playing the right notes is preferable, it is not the most important aspect by far. The most important aspect of sight reading (and music reading in general) is keeping a sense of the rhythm.
To clarify why this is so important, try this with your students: take any famous tune that the student knows well (eg. happy birthday, a nursery rhyme like 3 blind mice, twinkle twinkle little star, etc.) and play it on the piano with perfect rhythm but with all the wrong notes. Try it out next lesson and see what happens.
If they don’t get it the first time, play it again but this time keep a sense of the high and low notes (ie. preserve some of the intervallic structure but still play all the wrong notes).
Nine times out of ten, students will be able to pick the tune.
Why? Because rhythm is vital to getting a ‘sense’ of a piece of music and often more important than notes.
This is why I teach my students that once they begin their sight reading, “Whatever you do, don’t stop!”.
Here are some sight reading tips to help students get used to this:
The key to effective sight reading is to teach students an effective approach to the task. Make sure they stop and think before they play. During this time, my students know they need to:
While this list seems long and can take minutes at first, the more they do it, the shorter the preparation time will become. Think about what you do when you’re about to sight read something for the first time; you’ll probably find that it matches pretty closely with the above list, even though much of it is now subconscious and automatic.
There are heaps of great sight reading books out there including the ABRSM’s Join the Dots, and those by Faber, Hal Leonard, Alfred and all the main publishers, not to mention hundreds of apps and offerings from the exam boards themselves. However, my two main resources for later beginner and early-late intermediate students are: the Piano Adventures Sight Reading series and, if students are preparing for AMEB exams, Sight Reading Secrets by Australian teacher and author, Rebecca Stewart.
The Piano Adventures books are great because they are based around pattern recognition, they are written with five sight reads per week and students are encouraged to cross pieces out when they are complete. I like the Level 1 books (good for working towards Preliminary) and level 2 and 2A as students get better. The latter books cross over into approx. grade 2 exam level but are great for students of all levels and ages if they are new to effective sight reading.
These are just a couple of suggestions. I recommend you check out what works with your students and your studio and be open to new publications. Some students will benefit from a different approach and exam preparation may require different resources depending on the exam syllabus.
I encourage my students to do it by incorporating it into their 40 piece challenge (which I understand has just been picked up in by teachers and bloggers in the USA!).
Every piece they learn contributes to their success in the challenge and I award prizes at 10, 20, 30 and 40 pieces. Every week or two of sight reading they complete from a book like Piano Adventures Sight Reading books (which have 5-6 pieces per week), contributes to the equivalent of one piece learnt.
Obviously, this needs to be tapered to suit the level of the student, but I’ve found it to be a pretty effective motivator!
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Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.