In most cases, a student's sight-reading ability will be confined to reading one note at once; there will be little regard for rhythmic structure and even less regard for musical conveyance.
Sight-reading is an invaluable skill for a pianist to have. Most piano teachers, myself included, can find at least one example of a very capable student falling short of securing a distinction in an exam because their lacklustre sight-reading mark was just a little too low to get them into the higher grade boundary. Sight-reading should be taken seriously and should be factored into the decision of when examinations are taken; if a student can tackle pieces of Grade 5 standard then they should have a similar sight-reading ability. 'I'm rubbish at sight-reading', is a phrase teachers hear too often. Many piano teachers will be guilty of just producing the practise tests and asking the student to play through them, hoping that by the time they've covered a significant number things are starting to sound more convincing.
But that rarely works. It certainly doesn't help a student to understand the concept of sight-reading and how to directly contribute to improving it. It is a very different skill to practising and performing a piece well, and one that will feature heavily for those who continue to play beyond graded exams. It will greatly increase a pianist's ability to play with other people as they will often be required to play through things at sight, and instrumentalists can find themselves sight-reading in orchestral rehearsals. Sight-reading is something people can either do, or they can't. But why is that? Why is sight-reading so hard, and more importantly, why is it so difficult to improve it as we would improve a piece?
Sight-reading a piece is like looking at a scene for the first time and describing it to an audience in real-time, but without the option to go over things you've already described to enhance them. Here lies the first problem - the sense of panic. If people were asked to describe something they were looking at, they would probably speak very quickly and try and cram in as many details in as possible in a short space of time. The result would be less coherent to understand, and the same is true of sight-reading. So, the first thing to convey to your students is the need to slow down.
The purpose of this article is to change the way pianists approach and read the notes in front of them when they are sight-reading. A bit like the 'describing the scene' scenario, you should focus on the bigger objects in front of you rather than the tiny details. With sight-reading, if we read the individual notes of an Alberti bass, for example, one at a time, the result is a lack of rhythmic awareness, cohesion and structure, and ultimately in an exam, a low mark, no matter how accurate the note reading is. Be brave and go for it!
1. Make sure you use any 'look-through' time efficiently. In ABRSM examinations, this only tends to be between 30-40 seconds. However, it is enough time to quickly access the key signature and to see if there's a change of key or added accidentals. From grade 3 upwards, this will usually be around 60% of the way through. Train yourself to look for these things and get your processing time down to a few seconds. Play anything that looks 'odd' - a chord with accidentals will naturally sound different to the rest of the music so if you try it out beforehand it will give yourself added confidence of what to expect. Be aware of your starting notes and also the final notes/chord of the piece so you know where you are ending. In some sight-reading tests, you will be given a starting finger. This is very important to follow as it helps you to orient yourself on the keyboard correctly.
2. Read intervals as well as individual notes. One of the most effective ways of improving sight-reading is to get used to reading intervals. The ABRSM commonly juxtapose 4ths, 5ths and 6ths in their sight-reading tests, and if you can discern between them just by how they look, you will only need to read the first note. It might take some practise, but ultimately, your rhythmic fluency will increase and you will be seeing the horizontal progression of the music.
3. Look for patterns. When a sight-reading test is broken down and analysed during a lesson, the student is often surprised at how much of it is based on patterns and repetition. Perhaps the difficult-looking swung rhythm of the final bars of the left hand will turn out to be a descending G major scale of one octave - if you can spot that, you can think more of the rhythm and whatever is happening in the other hand as you can play the notes from your prior knowledge of scales.
4. Practise the rhythm separately to the notes. Almost always, a student will prioritise the accuracy of the notes over that of the rhythm, but it is important to realise that both are required in equal measure for a good result. Students will always pause going over the bar lines or whenever there is a difficult coordination moment between the hands. You may not even be aware of it, but the rhythm will be sacrificed and the mark will suffer as a result. Practise playing the correct rhythm regardless of how inaccurate the notes are, as rhythmic continuity and shape of the music is very important to develop. Then, when this becomes more natural, you can return to improving note accuracy.
5. Work out chord positions based on how they look. This is similar to reading intervals rather than individual notes as listed above. For piano students, complex chords of three notes or more won't be introduced until grade 5 onwards, but for sight-reading beyond exams, learning to identify chord inversions quickly is a huge advantage. Three space notes or three line notes together, for example, is a triad, and we need only consider the key signature and read the bottom note, using our musical knowledge to fill in the rest. If the top note of the triad is increased by one, it becomes a first inversion chord. Practise playing some chords as triads and first and second inversions, incorporating your scales where applicable. You will find these chords become more easily recognisable.
6. Use rests and long notes to your advantage. Whenever you come upon a rest or long note, take the opportunity to look ahead in the music to see what is coming next.
7. Develop a good knowledge of the layout of the keyboard through your daily practise and repertoire growth. Good sight-readers need to keep their focus on the music in front of them, so practise playing your pieces without looking at your hands as much as you can. This will increase your familiarity with the layout of the keyboard immeasurably, and you can then be confident of where your hands are when you are sight-reading.
Although a lot of this advise is focussed on success for students in practical examinations, it can be applied to any musician of any age in any sight-reading circumstance. It is important to develop sight-reading skills at an early age but it's never too late to improve! Importantly, learn to like sight-reading; it's vital to open our minds to the challenge and to think and look horizontally through the music rather than blinkering ourselves to the notes we are playing. We will never be able to develop rhythmic fluency this way, and that is often the element that hinders sight-reading the most.
© Christian Dawson 2018