What is Sight Reading?
As the name suggests, sight reading is the ability to play music at first sight. For a pianist, it’s the ability to look at music they’ve never seen before and play the first time of asking.
Sight reading is a first-time occurrence, as any time you play the same music after reading it for the first time, you are simply reading the music.
So, sight reading is being presented with a piece of music for the first time and being able to play it straight from the sheet.
As you can imagine, this is an invaluable skill for a pianist yet one that requires a high level of skills in many facets of piano playing. You need to be able to read the notes, chords, time signatures, and key signatures, while following the appropriate tempo to produce an acceptable performance.
Sight reading is not the ability to perfectly play music that you haven’t seen before.
The Benefits of Learning Sight Reading
One of the main benefits of sight reading is being able to play alongside other musicians. It lets you work with people you’ve never worked with before, creating a spontaneous performance that is one of the main joys of playing music.
Even if you play solo, sight reading offers one huge advantage – its makes learning new pieces quicker and easier.
If you can sight read new music, you are grasping it much quicker compared to those that don’t. In fact, many players can play complex notes and rhythms but simply lack the ability to learn these at a quick enough pace.
You can save yourself hours and hours of practice trying to learn notes, chords, or certain scale patterns. Instead, you naturally learn how to play the entire music from the offset. This has a great effect on your overall technique, as sight reading naturally improves your fingering technique.
Those complex notes, rhythms, and patterns become much easier to read, meaning you can spend more time perfecting each piece of music rather than struggling to understand the music.
Tips for Improving Your Sight Reading
Let’s take a look at some simple strategies to help improve your sight reading!
Start at the Right Level
Many people struggle with sight reading because they give themselves too much of a challenge too early into their learning. They take a piece of music that is within their playing level and expect to be able to sight read this too.
That’s not the best strategy, as you should practice sight reading a few levels below your current playing level.
For example, if you are Grade 4 or Grade 5, then you shouldn’t be trying to sight read music at this level. It’s still too complex and will only lead to failure.
Instead, you want to choose a music piece a few levels below what you normally play. So, if you’re Grade 4 or Grade 5, practice sight right reading with Grade 2 or Grade 3 pieces.
Of course, we’re all different, so you may find sheet music close to your current playing level is suitable for sight reading. You may need to start from the beginning with Grade 1 music even if play at a much higher level.
The important thing is to start at the right level, taking it from there.
Get Lots of Sheet Music to Practice With
After establishing a comfortable level to start learning sight reading, it’s a good idea to get plenty of music to practice with.
Sight reading requires fresh music each time, otherwise you’re simply reading the music again, which won’t help develop the skill. So, you’ll want to have a large selection of music to help practice your technique.
While it can be difficult if you don’t own lots of sheet music, it’s certainly worth the investment to help develop this key skill. Consider researching any local libraries with music departments that have access to free sheet music for you to practice your sight reading.
Practice Reading from Start to Finish
This may sound obvious but set aside some time to sight read the music. Sit at your piano with fresh sheet music and read it from start to finish without any interruptions. Approach it like a book, where you read every line until you finish a chapter.
Don’t stop and pause, going back to look over a line again or try and fix a mistake. Just sight read from start to finish, then move on to another piece once you’ve finished reading.
This is a great way to avoid common mistakes of sight reading like trying to fix a missed note or repeat are part that you got wrong. You want to keep a consistent tempo above all else, so just keep reading the music from start to end without stopping.
The more you do this, the more natural sight reading becomes, so it’s good to start this early in your learning journey. Remember – keep playing and don’t stop to fix any mistakes!
Practice With Different Types of Music
It helps to practice sight reading with various genres. While you can focus on one genre, it will limit your ability to naturally sight read – you never know what type of piece you could be asked to sight read!
So, consider expanding your music genres to include all types, as this keeps you on your toes. You’ll need to focus on reading various styles, which naturally improves your sight-reading ability. Do this early and sight reading much easier going forward.
Try your hand at everything, whether it’s pop, jazz, classic, or blues – the more variety the better!