My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Avoiding sightreading derailments at the piano

For the next few weeks, as I prepare for a second semester of teaching folks how to improve their sightreading at the piano, I will be sharing on my blog some of the tips I've already shared with them. 

First off, my list of things to think about when sightreading: 

SCAN through the music first. Always scan through the music visually before your fingers even touch the keys paying attention to things like:

  • title of the piece and tempo indications, if any - these are helpful to know and can also get you focused more on musicality rather than your fear of sightreading.  For instance, if a title says "Funeral March," you'll know that a) it's not going to be fast (unless it's a happy funeral) and b) it's going to full of emotion, or it should be.
  • key - look at the beginning and ending notes and/or chords to help determine the key and whether or not it's major or minor.
  • time signature - it's crucial to know this.  And if you see that it's in 3/4, beware!!  3/4 is famous for messing people up because these days, it's not a meter you hear in everyday life.  (There's more info about troubles with 3/4 in my post, "A note of apology and sympathy to a time signature").
  • difficult rhythms - after a while of purposefully looking for tricky rhythms that tend to mess you up these will instantly jump out at you.
  • anything else that leaps off the page like fast-note passages, key changes, tempo changes, meter changes, etc...

FIGURE out those tricky rhythms you just spotted.  If you're not great at rhythm, now is a good time to start proving to yourself that you can, in fact, figure rhythm out.  It's simple math and is well worth the extra moments of computing how the notes are supposed to line up.  If you don't figure it out now, you're bound to crash and burn when you reach them in the music.  If you do figure them out, you may still crash and burn but at least you gave it an honest go! 

PICK a wise tempo.  Be thoughtful about the tempo you choose.  Pick one based on the tempo indication but also on the difficulty of the piece.  Keep the fastest notes you're going to have to play in mind.  You can be somewhat flexible with the tempo once you start but you want the tempo to be such that you never actually have to break the pulse of the piece.

TAKE a deep breath, let it out, and play.   

STAY in tune with your mind and body. Be conscious and respectful of your mind and nerves when you can afford to.  If you're by yourself or in a low-pressure situation use that time to allow yourself to work on being calm and loose.  Be sensitive to where your brain, muscles, and nerves are throughout the process.  If at any time you start to sense tightening or stress, slow down the tempo until you are comfortable again.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
LOOK straight ahead at the music, not down at the keyboard.  Don't look down!  When you look down, you're almost assured of missing even more notes and then getting lost when you look back up at the music.  Start to develop really good muscle memory instead so that you can keep your eyes on track in the music.  Remember, you've probably never seen this music before so you don't know what's coming.  Keep your eyes on the track or you will derail.  If there is a big jump in one or both of the hands and you need to look, make sure you don't tuck in your chin and move your whole head to do so.  Just move your eyes, keeping your head steady.  This will help you maintain your place in the music and your orientation to the keyboard.

LOOK for patterns.  Always be looking for patterns of all sorts so that your eyes and brain can process a whole bunch of notes as one entity rather than lots of individual notes.  Think about how you read a book.  You don't read l-e-t-t-e-r-- b-y-- l-e-t-t-e-r, you read chunks of letters as individual words.   (More about this in the post, "Reading words, reading music...observations from a musical mom.")  Types of patterns are scales of all sorts, chords, material that repeats, etc...

KEEP your eyes moving.  You're eyes should never stop moving.  If you've landed on a whole note or a rest, don't let your eyes rest too.  That's a perfect time to look ahead and keeps you on track.  If you stop, you're going to have to jumpstart your eyes and that usually causes a break in the pulse.  

USE your ears.  Turn your ears on even before you start to play and trust them!  Too many people rely solely on their sight but our previous experience with music can really help us out if we let our ears guide our hands along the way.  This takes some getting used to but is well worth the discomfort at first.  

DON'T stop.  Don't ever stop to correct something.  Just smile and keep going.  Sightreading isn't about being perfect, it's about being able to experience music that you've never played before.  And when you're reading with others, it's also about experiencing music in a social, spontaneous way.  In other words, it can be fun and downright entertaining.

COUNT out loud while you play.  What?!?  Isn't that asking a little much?  Well, perhaps but here's the thing.  If you can get to the point that you can count out loud while you're playing, you are going to sense a new level of rhythmic security and musicality.  Maintaining a steady pulse is also essential for good sightreading because it keeps you on track, keeps the eyes and brain moving, and makes it easier to read with others.  So keep working on it and just think of the sense of pride you'll feel when you can actually do it successfully!  

BE KIND to yourself.  Be very forgiving of yourself and just enjoy reading music.  Playing music is a good thing after all!

KEEP doing it.  Sightreading, like so many other things, takes practice in order to see progress and to gain confidence.  Keep doing it, especially with others, if you can.  Read with a sense of adventure, curiosity and pride and you'll soon be looking forward to reading music just for the sheer enjoyment of it.  

Any other thoughts or ideas?  I'd love to hear them! 


  1. Erica,

    Excellent observations and advice, as usual.

    One thing that has helped me tremendously is sightreading rhythms. I played percussion in high school and a little in college. It was quite the boys club so I didn't want to look like a stupid girl by missing a rhythm. I know not everyone has this kind of 'rhythmic motivation' but it did wonders for my sightreading. Syncopation can be tough and is used a great deal in arrangements of popular vocal pieces. These rhythms can look like something horrible on the page but usually don't sound as complicated as they appear. Consistently reading syncopated rhythms can make a choral teacher's (or any musician's) life a lot easier.

    I think I've told you this before, but I never even thought to scan a piece prior to sightreading it until I returned to finish my degree. I always thought 'sightreading' meant 'you've never seen or played a note of this until now'. Once I heard about sightreading prereading I never went back to the cold turkey approach :)

    One final thought about sightreading but this one is a little more situationally specific. In addition to keeping my eyes on the music, reading ahead and counting, knowing what is important for the choir or soloist I'm accompanying helps so much. Ideally one should never accompany without learning a piece, but circumstances arise that require sightreading. Things like dropping a potentially complicated piano countermelody in favor of maintaining chord structure and support for a choir or only playing the stronger beats of a rhythm to keep the choir on track. Sometimes we have to know when to have faith and when to yield to the greater musical good.

    You rock :)


  2. Brandy,
    You rock too! So many great comments!!

    Maybe we should all have a stint in a percussion group at some point in our lives, preferably early on in our junior high/teen years...when it's most painful...and most urgent to look good ;-)

    And I have to say, I love you're first definition of the word "sightreading." That's terrific, ha ha! I'm guessing that there are many others out there that think they might be struck down by a bolt a lightening if they cheat by peeking before they play.

    Finally, I love your suggestion about remembering/realizing what is most important in any given sightreading situation, especially when it pertains to playing with another instrumentalist or with a choir. I need to keep that in mind as I work with these students on actually applying what they've learned to accompanying situations.

    Many thanks, as always, Brandy for your comments and your encouragement!


  3. Easily, the publish is really the greatest on this laudable topic. I concur with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to your future updates. Saying thanks will not just be sufficient, for the fantastic lucidity in your writing. I will instantly grab your rss feed to stay privy of any updates. Solid work and much success in your business enterprise!

  4. Thank you so much for your kind comments, Piano Teacher from Belmont. And it's very nice to meet you. I just took a look at your website and am looking forward to learning more about you. Please do keep following this blog and feel free to jump in at any time to contribute any thoughts you might have! The more the merrier.

    All the best,

  5. What a great article, thanks so much for sharing your wisdom on this important area. I'm an accordionist and lately I've been working to improve my sight-reading as it's always been weak. So I bought lots of old music books from the second-hand shop and every day I set aside some time to read from these. It was very hard at first but is gradually becoming easier and more enjoyable.

    This has had unexpected benefits because spending more time sightreading has improved every area of my playing. I'm less nervous about performing because I have a better chance to recover forgotten bits by reading. I've become more comfortable with playing in various keys and with different rhythms and musical styles and harmonies. It's become easier to make jumps and to find notes by feel. The old books that I bought to practice reading are often things I'd never thought of studying before, so I'm discovering musical treasures that I never knew existed.

    Your tips in this article are very helpful and I'll certainly be applying them to my practice. Thanks again.



    1. Terry,
      It sounds like you are doing a lot of great things to improve your reading skills! I especially think the ear-training aspect that you seem to be incorporating is really important and will prove to be very helpful in improving your musicianship in a lot of ways. That's fantastic!

      Best wishes as you continue to work on it! It's a life-long journey :-)