Quick Tips for Accurate Sight Reading

Every pianist should be able to sightread.

In fact, the more you do it, the better it gets.

This post walks you through the sightreading process. :)

Sight Reading

Sight reading means playing a piece (that you haven’t seen or played before) for the first time.

Sight reading is different from “learning” a piece because you can’t restart once you’ve started playing.

The goal is to play from start to finish, keeping with the beat, with as little mistake as possible.

Sight reading is usually a graded part of the piano exam. (E.g. RCM and ABRSM.)

It’s a nice way to show off your playing too.

How can you sightread accurately?

Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way. (Also read How to Practice Sight Reading)

Before Playing

Prepare for your playing by following these steps before you actually play– these are the vital seconds when you first see the music. (Don’t start playing yet!)

  1. Notice small details— trills, endings, accidentals, signs, etc– when you first see the music.
    • Make a note in your mind– work out any ornaments with your fingers (put your fingers on the keys but don’t press; ‘playing’ on your lap works too).
  2. Find the darkest parts of the music to avoid trouble spots when you play.
    • More complicated rhythms and notes usually appear darker because the symbols are more complex– save time, energy, and frustration by working these out first.
    • E.g. Four sixteenth notes would look darker than one half note.
  3. Ghost play(have your fingers touch the keys, but do not press down on the keyboard) the darkest parts of the music first, then ghost play whichever parts look more difficult.
    • If you don’t have the keyboard in front of you, ghost playing on any surface is fine.
    • Remember to tackle the dark parts and hard parts first!
  4. Confirm complicated rhythms by either tapping or ghost playing.
  5. Tap a steady beat for your playing speed before you start to play.
    • I like to tap with my foot– tapping before you play is the same concept as counting yourself in.
      • The tapping will tell your body to synchronize and be alert for the playing, as if you were in a band.
  6. Watch out for endings— repeats,Da Capos, and cadenzas.
    • Make sure you know what to play. The ending makes the deepest impression.
    • If you’re at an exam and the piece ends with a repeat, make sure you ask your examiner what they want you to play– exams are always tight on time and the examiner might not want to hear you play the same thing over and over again.
    • Asking about the ending shows that you’ve noticed the ending (and you know what it means); ignoring it may result in point deductions and repeating the section may exasperate your examiner.
    • The best solution is to ask.

While Playing

1. Play at a steady speed— stick to the speed that you tapped out.
2. If you make a mistake, ignore it and move on.

  • Music is continuous.
  • For every tenth of a second you pause, you are making more mistakes. (Imagine a metronome ticking away.)
  • Others may not notice slight mistakes, but if you go back to make corrections, then they will definitely notice.
  • This is good practice for performance too.

3. Relax.

  • This affects your mindset and sound– hopefully, you’ve worked out the trouble spots and the “darkest” parts of the music, effectively preparing yourself for the playing.

4. Do not give up half way through because you’ve made lots of mistakes.

  • Keep on sight reading and ignore the mistakes.
  • Many “give up” part way through and stop trying– this is a common and deadly error.
  • You’ll never know how you’ll do for the rest of the passage unless you try it. And others may not have noticed your mistakes.

Speak Up

Do you have any rules or tips for sight reading? What is the hardest part of sight reading for you?

Share your thoughts in your comment below!

3 Comments

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  • Why isn't my sight reading improving? | Artiden December 22, 2011 at 5:32 am

    […] all, try these quick fixes to improve sight reading for common mistakes you might be […]

  • Kofi July 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    My fingering affects me a lot. I am learning the piano by sight reading hymns.

    • Grace Miles July 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Hey Kofi, sight reading hymns is great because it lets you focus on the notes and the intervals between them. Don’t be afraid to mix in some other types of music to play around with new rhythms (and different styles).