At the end of February I delivered a sight reading masterclass to our adult students. These periodical masterclasses intend to provide a great opportunity for our adult learners to meet each other and share their experiences. They also provide a way for our adult students to learn about a particular area of piano playing in a guided and thorough way, with lots of opportunities for discussion and piano playing with (and in front of) others.
I was a little concerned how I would fill the time, as much of the research I did on effective sight reading pointed to the same things: sight read as much as possible! Repetition, repetition, repetition…
I shouldn’t have been worried – two hours were filled with lively discussion, demonstrations, duets, and Ipad apps. Not to mention, everyone did quite a bit of sight reading. The masterclass was delivered in 10 small sections with opportunity for discussion, demonstrations and questions throughout. This resulted in a seminar/workshop style session rather than a lecture. This is what one of our students had to say about it:
“I found the sight-reading masterclass to be very useful. Any questions I had were answered and I feel much more confident and capable of what I had found to be one of the harder aspects of practice” – Charlie, 26.
I thought I would a few points of the masterclass here, albeit in a slightly reduced and revised format. Anyone who wishes to see the full masterclass can contact me via the contact form at the bottom of the page.
What is Sight Reading, and why is it important?
Not necessarily a silly question. Adult students, particularly new learners, are less likely to be acquainted with sight reading in the same way students who are put through the examinations mill are.
Sight reading is the ability to read and play music at first sight. It refers specifically to a piece of music that hasn’t been seen before – which is why teachers do not instruct a student to practice a piece of sight reading or play it again.
However, even students who are acquainted with the process of sight reading don’t necessary make a connection between doing it, and why it is so important and beneficial. Instead, it usually elicits a painful groan from the student. But I think that without even being aware of it, students want to be really good sight readers. When I ask new students about their motivation behind having piano lessons, the majority say to me that they ‘just want to be able to pick up a piece of music and play it’. Therefore, most students want to be excellent sight readers.
Students who make sight reading a part of their practice schedule will typically learn pieces faster than students who sight read less often. This is because regular sight readers process lots of new musical information more often, which in turn improves their note reading, rhythms, and keyboard geography.
To become proficient in music reading, and to do so quickly, lots of sight reading is essential. But where to start? What kinds of material should a student use? Personally, i’m a fan of just picking up a book and picking a start and end point. However, there are certain books which are specifically focused on Sight Reading, and certain material which are undeniably very useful.
ABRSM provide Specimen Sight Reading tests for grades 1-8. These specimen tests provide examples similar to what a student would receive in an ABRSM piano exam.
Paul Harris‘s ‘Improve Your Sight Reading’ collection offers a guided approach to Sight Reading for the graded exams.
Build up a catalogue of music. IMSLP offers free sheet music that can be printed.
Pianist Magazine has 40 pages of sheet music with each issue (bargain!)
Music that is heavily chorded, like Bach’s Chorales is great for sight reading because the pianist needs to process a number of notes at once.
However, regularly using any material roughly around the student’s level (or slightly below it) will improve sight reading, and will help quicken the student’s learning of new material.
Why do I find Sight Reading Difficult?
In short, because it is very good at highlighting areas in a student’s piano playing that need work. Addressing these issues will go a long way to improving the student’s Sight Reading skills and playing in general. Examples of problem areas are note reading, keyboard geography, intervallic reading, theoretical knowledge, counting, and key signatures. Other difficulties are habitual hesitation and finding it difficult to look ahead.
I provided a number of ‘solutions’ to the problem areas, however habitual hesitation and looking ahead are slightly different issues. I think this is because it is difficult to disassociate the process of Sight Reading from the normal rules of practicing for exams and performance. With Sight Reading, a lot of these norms go out the window, which is probably the biggest challenge for students. However, once students get over the mental stumbling block of aiming for perfection they will be able to approach Sight Reading more confidently which will yield better results. See a good article by Fergus Black on the differences between practicing for performance and Sight Reading here.
Sight Reading and Exams
The way I incorporate Sight Reading into lessons is usually geared towards the Sight Reading test in graded exams and I assess students in the same way an examiner would. In this section of the masterclass we talked through the marking criteria from exam boards ABRSM and The London College of Music.
In short, three main areas are assessed:
Accuracy: How accurately has the student conveyed the piece? Are notes, rhythms, dynamics and tempo accurate?
Rhythm and Pulse: Setting a tempo and sticking to it, accuracy of the rhythm, keeping a steady pulse, and awareness of the time signature.
Continuity: Has the student kept going and got to the end? Was there adequate fluency? Were there hesitations/pauses? Has the student conveyed the musical shape and line of the piece?
Accuracy* and Rhythm
These are our priorities. However, these priorities are not in order. Here’s why:
In the masterclass I asked one of our teachers to demonstrate preparing and performing a piece of Sight Reading. However, I asked her to make the rookie error of focusing solely on playing the correct notes. It showed that too much focus on accuracy of the notes can have pretty bad results: hesitation, pauses, losing the shape and line of the piece, lack of steady pulse and incorrect rhythm.
We then did a second demonstration where one of our teachers prepared and performed the same piece of Sight Reading. However, instead of worrying about the accuracy of the notes, we thought carefully about the rhythm and counted and tapped out any difficult looking ones as part of the preparation time. We also decided on an achievable tempo which we based on the most difficult looking bar of the piece – this was intended to avoid slowing down and losing the pulse of the piece.
Even though the focus on keeping a steady rhythm and continual pulse resulted in many notes being incorrect, the overall result was much better than when we focused solely on how accurate the notes were. The rhythm was accurate, there were minimal pauses and hesitation, and the piece kept it’s shape – which would have been lost had accuracy of the notes been prioritised.
*Of course, accuracy does not just refer to the notes! Accuracy entails making sure the key, phrasing, dynamics, and articulation are correct.
This third demonstration really stressed the importance of rhythm and pulse, but more so continuity and keeping going. In this demonstration two students prepared and played a piece of Sight Reading as a duet. Unlike other musicians, pianists don’t necessarily experience the same pressures that come with performing in a group or an orchestra. So what better way to stress the importance of keeping going (and staying in time!) than by putting the students in that kind of situation?
I chose a little piece from a booked called ‘Elementary Instruction Book for the Pianoforte’ by Beyer, particularly because both parts clearly have three crotchet beats in each bar. Therefore, I hoped that it should be relatively easy for both students to listen to each other and maintain the pulse. The idea was to keep the steady 3-in-a-bar pulse even if it meant playing a few wrong notes here and there. The overall result was very good, because the students were very much focused on maintaining the pulse throughout.
We also used Wessar’s SightRead4Piano app for iPad. The app contains graded examples of Sight Reading for 30 seconds. It then allows the student to set a tempo and counts the student in for two bars and then begins. The bars disappear after the beats have passed. It is a great way to realise the importance of both looking ahead, and keeping going until the end – because you can’t go back.
Using a Sight Reading Checklist
Paul Harris’s ‘Improve your Sight Reading’ series contains a very useful checklist of things to consider and prepare and in what order. The series can be purchased here.