Sight reading is the skill that lets you learn a piece of music the first few times you play it.
Some genres of music rely so much on playing by ear and improv that a lot of musicians don’t find the need for sight reading until later on and the catch is that by then, they expect themselves to be just as good at sight reading as they are playing the instrument.
A lot of readers told me they’re looking to improve their sight reading, so I’ll share with you how I started sight reading in piano, and you might find ways to improve on your own sight reading journey. Please note that there may be affiliate links below when describing technique but I only recommend something that I would use, and Artiden may receive a commission when someone purchases using that link.
I played everything.
I was around 8 when I started playing piano and you know how people used to read shampoo bottles in the washroom when they were bored? (If you didn’t do this, pretend I didn’t say it) I played every piece of music when I was bored in the practice room. I sight read anything I got my paws on. If both hands were too hard, I tried one hand only.
Play anything and everything you can grab, and you will see that you’ll improve day by day.
I didn’t care that I sucked.
A lot of people who are older have benchmarks for how good they’re supposed to be, and the reality is that sight reading takes time and everyone sucks in the beginning. There is research that says perfectionists are less likely to try new things because they think they will suck at it. Don’t be a perfectionist.
I practiced small chunks.
You can practice sight reading deliberately and systematically, like any other skill. When I prepared for higher-level music exams, I had a line a day to sight read. Beginners might want to look into a series like the Bastien A Line a Day books. To prepare for RCM exams, I have used the Four Star sight reading books in the past.
I understood my strengths.
Music passages can be difficult with lots of accidentals, or have complicated rhythm, or both. It is almost always easier to master accidentals than rhythm, because to master accidentals, all you need to do is get a feel for whether the next note goes up or down, and you will get a sense for this the more passages you play. However, when you have complicated rhythm, you are under a time constraint and even one extra half-beat could throw off the entire piece.
So, every time I played something, rhythm was more likely to be my downfall than accidentals. In that case, I tapped out the complicated beat on my lap before playing the piece, which prepares my brain to play this beat when I encounter it. If you have great rhythm and accidentals are more likely to be your downfall, you can also play the tricky accidentals on your lap before starting to play the actual piece. It’s simple, but you wouldn’t believe how many musicians don’t bother skimming over the piece before diving in.
It takes a ton of practice to sight read properly, and I’ve spent years doing exercises to figure out how to play something right the first few times I look at it. I talk about music practice hacks a lot on this blog, but this is one of those things that takes consistent practice for even minutes a day. As long as you play the right passages for your skill level and style, you will see improvement.
Sight reading is also one of those things that you’ll never stop improving on, because there’s always newer and harder pieces to play. I’m currently working on some indie piano pieces and I’ll hopefully be able to share them with you soon, the next time I get my paws on an acoustic piano.