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Key Skills for Excellent Sight Reading

There is so much great music to play, but often pianists struggle to learn music quickly. Many would love to be able to open a book and just play or be confident enough to play new music with others.

Despite its many benefits, sight reading is rarely taught and is often thought of as something you either have or you don’t. However, it is possible to develop sight reading skills, but you need to know how to go about doing this.

In this article, Lona Kozik shares a few skills she discovered which helped her go from being hopeless at sight reading to earning a living as an accompanist and working in theatre!

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1. Rhythm first and keep going!

The first rule of sight reading is to keep a steady pulse and play accurate rhythms. It is worth developing this skill as a foundation for good sight reading.

2. Take a snapshot

Have you ever been advised to “look ahead” when sight reading and wondered – how, when I can just about read one note to the next to the next? The answer – don’t read from one note to another. Rather imagine taking a snapshot and take in as much as you can. In order to do that effectively, you must…

3. Read musical structures, not notes

Sight reading and note naming are two different things. Learn to read musical structures – identify intervals, chords, cadences and melodic patterns. If you were taught a mnemonic to identify notes on the staff, learn to locate landmark notes on the staff using clefs. If you can do this, you can take in much more of the music quickly.

4. Read from the bottom up

When reading two lines of music, train your eye to look from the bottom (bass clef in piano music) up (treble clef in piano music) in a continuous sweep. This prioritises the bass and helps you to read and think harmonically, which helps to…

sight read from the bottom up

5. Think in a key

To become a fluent sight reader at the piano, you need good keyboard harmony skills – a knowledge of how keyboard harmony works, how to think in a key and an ability to apply this in practice.

Ending Your Sight Reading Struggles

Although some of these skills will deliver some immediate improvements, it takes time to be able to put them into practice and realise the full benefits, especially the last one.

If you’d like a more in depth demonstration of these skills then please do join me on Thursday 25th January  for an online workshop in which I’ll be exploring these skills and showing you how to apply them. This workshop serves as a complement to my Music at Sight course on the Online Academy which provides daily exercises for developing each of these skills. Click here to find out more about my workshop and to book your place!

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The Music as Sight mini course is available with an Online Academy subscription as part of our library of 1000+ articles and videos on piano playing. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the course introduction if you are already a subscriber.

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Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on the BBC about how English history was forever changed by the civil war. The characteristics of the two opposing forces (the puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious Roundheads, and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavaliers) ended up contributing to the make-up of the national psyche, and we have each got a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in us.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the subject of developing piano performance, but actually there is a lot we can draw from it. “Practise like a Roundhead, perform like a Cavalier” would be my best advice. To practise effectively demands time, energy and discipline, a seriousness of purpose and an almost religious attitude to the work. But if we take this attitude on to the stage with us, we are likely to bore the pants off our audience. We need a sense of daring-do, spontaneity, bravado and display in its place. Perhaps we can leave our trusty Roundhead in the green room, and adopt a cavalier attitude when we walk onstage?

Youngsters generally have no fear about public performance. This tends to be something we learn later, if we learn it at all (there are those who seem undaunted, but they are few and far between). There was one first-year college student I had who came in with new pieces each week, learned and memorised. All his performances were fluent and confident until one week, during a studio class, he had his first major memory slip which he could not recover from, and only then did I need to give him the tools so he could memorise consciously.  As I suggested in the last post, it is mostly fear of memory – of losing one’s way and not being able to find it again – that is at the root of most performance anxiety. The first time this happens (and happen it will), confidence takes a beating and the negative experience can remain in the back of the mind the next time. The trick is to be as over-prepared as possible for any performance – be 200% prepared because as soon as you walk onto the stage, you will lose 100%. Confidence rises with each positive and successful experience, and the secret of really successful performing, where nerves and adrenaline serve a useful purpose, is to be doing it all the time. Then you can really be on a roll.

Maria Spelterini at Suspension Bridge

To use the tightrope analogy from the last post, here are a few scenarios:

  • Practice Room: when you play through a piece in your practice room, the tightrope is so close to the ground that falling off has virtually no consequences. After a while you may not even notice you are doing it.
  • Playing for trusted friends and family: more is at stake here, but not too much. About a meter off the ground?
  • Playing for a supportive teacher: there are consequences, as the teacher knows what they are listening to. If things don’t go according to plan, your sense of having failed yourself as well as possibly disappointing your teacher (although this will be more in your own mind) can be destructive. If I had a pound for each time a student tells me it went much better at home…
  • Playing in a festival: the situation is competitive and you find out how you stack up against your peers. There will be people in the audience who will want to see you fail (I am convinced our antennae pick up on this energy on some level). We may find nerves getting the better of us (shaking, sweaty hands, stiff muscles, etc), but with some positive experiences we can learn to deal with this. About two meters…
  • Examinations: the adrenaline might really kick in here as we know we are going to get a mark, to which our self esteem may be inextricably linked. If things don’t go well, this can seriously affect our confidence.
  • Playing in a masterclass or for a teacher we don’t know: the tightrope is still higher. Falling off might be positively injurious.
  • Carnegie Hall: the Big Top, all safety nets removed, and to make matters worse the ringmaster forgot to lock away the lions.

Like most other things in life, the more we do something the easier and more familiar it becomes. Smart piano teachers have regular student concerts where everyone gets up and plays – they are all in it together. Exams and (more usefully) festivals or eisteddfods are wonderful ways of developing performance skills. You are usually playing in a largeish hall on a grand piano, to a built-in audience and a professional adjudicator. I love my work as adjudicator, because I feel I can really make a difference by supporting and (hopefully) inspiring young performers.

At the conservatory level, there will be many opportunities for performance. Concerts in front of teachers and peers, as well as higher profile events where there will be a public audience. Outside of formal exams, there will be a portfolio of in-house competitions one can enter, and there will be weekly performance classes where you test out your pieces. The very best way to learn performance skills is to perform! Use as many opportunities as are on offer to you, or you can generate.

For myself and my college students, I have a rule whereby a programme needs to be aired three times in safe, smallish situations before it is ready to be presented to a paying audience. This could be an invited audience in a private home, a lunchtime recital in a church, etc., and these run-throughs are themselves prefaced by a week of playing the programme through in its entirety daily as part of the practice regime. Only then is the programme properly seasoned and ready to be taken on the road.

But what about the amateur pianist who wants to perform? There are plenty of adults for whom the piano is essential in their lives, and who want a safe opportunity to perform when they have something ready to play.  I know of a couple of piano circles in London, where players meet on a regular basis in each other’s homes. The London Piano Meetup Group meets regularly at a venue with an elite piano, and socialises afterwards down the pub.

If you are interested in setting up something like this in your area, why not contact your local piano dealership? They will relish the opportunity to build bridges and develop relationships with pianists in the area, who are, after all, potential customers. It will be a win-win situation for all!

Do you run a piano-themed group or event?

We’re in the process of building an online directory of resources for amateur pianists, including a listing of opportunities to play for and listen to others. If you run or organise piano-themed groups or events then we’d love to include your group in our listing! Please click here to tell us a bit more about your group.

Are you looking for opportunities to share your playing?

Click here to sign-up to our mailing list and receive a free video on dealing with performance anxiety by Graham Fitch in addition to several other resources that will help you deliver performances that are fulfilling to both you and your listeners!

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Developing Sight Reading Skills – Practising the Piano

I get a lot of questions about how to improve sight reading. Teachers don’t seem to find the time to cover it in lessons, meaning students have little incentive to practise it at home. And yet the ability to read and process information readily from the printed score is surely one of the most important skills they should be acquiring?

Players with weak reading skills often have good muscle memory, they are able to look away from the printed page quite early on in the note learning process – little wonder their reading skills suffer when their eyes are permanently focussed on the fingers. Sight reading involves assimilating information from the page and decoding it on the spot. The ability to do this presupposes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge (another area that is sorely neglected), but the single most important factor in getting good at it is to be doing it regularly.

With Other Musicians

Sitting at home ploughing through dreary sight reading tests just doesn’t seem to cut it. Even though you know you’re not supposed to stop for mistakes, you just hate getting it wrong. You’re not inspired and you can’t wait to move on to more interesting things – such as your pieces.

A great way to develop sight reading skills is to play with other musicians. Duets or music for two pianos, collaborating with singers, instrumentalists or choirs – I suggest finding any situation where you cannot stop under any circumstances (or you’ll be letting the side down). Singing teachers, instrumental teachers and choir directors who don’t have a pianist would be grateful for your efforts, no matter how rudimentary they may be to begin with. You will get better as you go on, I promise, but at the start you will play many more wrong notes than right ones. Swallow your pride, laugh it off and just get in there and do it.

Quick Studies

One of my diploma candidates, an advanced player with a high level of pianistic aplomb and polish, produced Tchaikovky’s January (from The Seasons) in her last lesson as a quick study. The plan is to bring one piece per month from the set, which will certainly beef up reading and comprehension skills by forcing the eye onto the printed page.

A quick study is a proper piece of music a couple of grades lower than the level of the player, assigned with no prior instruction and to be played in full at a predetermined date. If you are a teacher who gives out regular assignments through the year, you might consider a quick study once a month – your student will know when you expect to hear it, and their results can even be marked (if you’re into that sort of thing). Perfection and refinement are not priorities here, they get through the piece as best they can by themselves with no help from you. You might choose to spend a small part of that week’s lesson on one or two matters arising from the piece before signing it off and moving on to other things. In addition to helping the reading  your student will build up a repertoire of worthwhile music that is always being added to.

It adds value to have the results of your labour witnessed. After the allotted time, no matter what shape the piece is in, either play it for your teacher, at a piano group or record it for yourself. You might even think of your recordings as first drafts, laying down the foundations for future study when you might polish and finesse what you started.

List of Suitable Pieces

With the help of my friends on social media (thanks everyone!), I have compiled a list of pieces as a starting point. I have included slightly unusual works that are manageable for this purpose that you might not immediately think of. Of course, advanced players can take a book of Bach’s 48 and learn one or two Preludes a month (perhaps leaving out the Fugues). The same applies to the Shostakovich. How about taking a Mendelssohn Song without Words per month until you have built up a repertoire?

I will add to this list regularly, so please do send me your suggestions. I have tried to keep it to compilations of twelve (for those who want just one a month), but this is not so important.

Advanced

Tchaikovksy: The Seasons

Fanny Mendelssohn: Das Jahr

Ginastera: Twelve American Preludes

MacDowell: 12 Etudes, op. 39

Granados: 12 Spanish Dances

Henselt: 12 Etudes Caractéristiques, op. 2

Szymanowski: 12 Etudes, op. 33

Liszt: Christmas Tree Suite

Bizet: Jeux d’enfants (four hands)

Sibelius: 10 Pieces for Piano, op. 58

Intermediate

Bach: 12 Little Preludes and Fugues

Beethoven: 12 German Dances (very short!)

Schubert: 12 German Dances, D.790

Schubert: 12 German Dances, D.420

Schubert: 12 Grazer Waltzes, D.924

Tchaikovsky: 12 Pieces, op.40

Arensky: 12 Pieces, op. 66  (four hands)

Barbara Arens: Rendezvous with Midnight

Alan Hovhanes: Twelve Armenian Folk Songs, op.43

Rami Bar-Niv: Traditional Hebrew Songs

Adrian Vernon Fish: O’Donoghue’s Dozen (contact the composer via his site)

Richard Rodney Bennett: Partridge Pie

Sibelius: 10 Pieces for Piano, op. 24

Sibelius: 13 Pieces for Piano, op. 76

Easier

Gurlitt: Little Flowers, op. 205

Prokoviev: Music for Children, op. 65

Mozart: 12 Little Pieces (Book 1)

Mozart: 12 Little Pieces (Book 2)

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Developing Sight Reading Skills – Practising the Piano

Sight reading at the piano is the ability to process information from a score and recreate it to the best of one’s ability on the spot. To get a high mark for a sight reading test in an exam, you might be surprised to learn that complete note accuracy is not at the top of the list. Examiners are interested in the following criteria:

  • A performance that captures the musical essence and character of the test, with attributes such as phrasing and dynamics present
  • A performance that flows rhythmically, sticking to the pulse as priority while allowing note errors to go by without faltering or attempting to correct them
  • As many correct notes as possible under the circumstances; approximations, educated guesses and even omissions here and there are acceptable in the interests of unerring rhythmic flow and musical communication

A note-perfect mechanical rendition of a piece of sight reading is often less impressive than one that may have some note errors and omissions and yet which conveys musical character and meaning.

Over the years, I have noticed several attributes of good sight readers.

  • Good sight readers seem to be musically literate, with a solid grasp of theory and harmony.
  • They listen to music regularly, perhaps following along with the score, and are familiar with a lot of the standard orchestral, chamber and vocal repertoire in addition to the piano repertoire.
  • They work with other musicians on a regular basis. Playing for a singer, a choir or an instrumentalist or playing in an ensemble tends to develop the ability to learn new pieces very fast, thereby developing reading skills. Circumstances prevent them from stopping and correcting their mistakes, so they learn to carry on regardless.
  • They have a large repertoire, and have a keen interest in picking up pieces they don’t know and familiarising themselves with them. Sight reading is not a dry, boring activity connected with gaining marks in an exam, but a living, breathing activity that brings them joy and satisfaction.

Exam-based Culture

The enemy of sight reading and pretty much any musical or pianistic progress is the tendency to focus on three exam pieces for the best part of a year, polishing and refining these pieces along with the scales that go with the grade while doing nothing else in lessons or in daily practice. After the first stages of learning a piece you are no longer really reading the notes, but using the printed page as an anchor to remind you what you already know. The trick is to be reading new pieces all the time, to keep your reading muscle flexed.

Quick Studies

We all know the primary rule is to keep going while sight reading (and indeed during a performance of anything) – never to stop and correct ourselves – and yet it is so hard to do this (even with the best will in the world) when we are by ourselves. I am convinced that one of the best ways to develop sight reading skills in piano students who might not be playing too often with other musicians is to assign quick studies throughout the year, and for the teacher to witness the results in lessons. A quick study is just a repertoire piece, it might be a couple of grades below the standard of the student. Perfection and refinement are not the point here, they have to do the best job they can by themselves within the given time limit (a week or two, or even a day or two). Think of it like this – the 30 second time frame they would get to look through their sight reading test in their exam is expanded to whatever time limit the teacher sets. Let’s say this is between weekly lessons. During the week, they may practise the piece in whatever ways they need to learn it, knowing their teacher will hear it in the next lesson. They play from beginning to end, the teacher might then pick up on one or two musical or pianistic matters arising it before signing it off and leaving it. This could also take the form of duets, or teaming up with an instrumental teacher and having your higher-grade students work with some more elementary string or wind players.

Read Ahead

I am very happy to have discovered a new sight reading tool created by Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen, faculty members of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where Travis teaches music theory, and Ken keyboard skills for piano majors. They have been working together on Read Ahead since 2012. Read Ahead is a complete sight-reading curriculum based on high-quality music, carefully graded and supplemented with a wide variety of exercises to help instill the habits essential for fluent reading. The Online Academy will feature the first section (Section A) of each level. For further material, the complete levels (Sections B & C) are available from Amazon as a printed book, the Apple App Store as an iPad app and will also be published in eBook format at the Informance store.

Please click here to find out more and to view the available material on the Online Academy.