4 Little Sight Reading Tips

I started playing piano at an age where I had nothing more important to do, and I didn’t care that I couldn’t play much piano at all. One day, I found a sheet of music titled Good Morning to All placed in my folder by mistake. When I played it, as I tended to do with any sheet music, it turned out to be Happy Birthday. Ten year old Grace unlocked a new level of playing! It’s the feeling of accomplishment you get from playing the music to your favourite movie or video game.

In any case, sight reading takes deliberate practice and patience. The interesting thing about sight reading is finding the balance between almost feeling hopeless and being fully engrossed in the piece.

Today, I’ve put together a few sight reading tips I’ve come across during my time as a pianist and teacher. These are not exam-specific techniques, but intended for people who are learning a piece of music for the first time; if you’re looking for formal sight reading tips for music exams, leave me a comment and I’ll write a new article!

1. Start by finding tricky sections.

When I travel, the tricky section is always getting from the airport to the place I’m staying, because I’m carrying my entire life in my hands and I can’t lose a single piece of paper. I am terrified of being detained at the airport. I am also terrified of being caught in a drug trafficking ring and being stuck in a foreign country until the end of time.

So I normally look up how far I have to travel with all my luggage and I pack light enough that I don’t have to check a bag. Maybe some people are like, “DUH Grace, rent a car or hire a taxi.” Great idea, but sometimes I travel to places where they drive on the other (wrong!) side of the road, and sometimes there aren’t taxis. My back always aches from carrying luggage, I’m hungry, I’m sleepy, and it’s prime time for misplacing a passport.

The same goes for learning a piece of music. I will admit that this is easier said than done, because it’s more fun to jump in from the very beginning and attempt the piece straight through. Until I’m stuck at the tricky section and I have to press exit. So it’s a good idea to peek at the hard sections first, and sing the section in your head (or out loud) before you get to them.

2. Break the piece down.

If you are sight reading a longer piece of music, it can likely be broken down into smaller sections that have a similar style. Label them A/B/C, and if one section becomes too hard, skip to the next section. When you come back to it the next day, you would’ve made a lot more progress than if you’d stopped playing at the first point that it became hopeless.

3. Count out one bar of the music before you start playing.

This gets your mind into the swing of the music and what you’re about to play. You are your own conductor for this one!

4. Start slow.

I hated playing slow because I thought slow was for chumps. But slow is also for people who are learning a new piece and want to play in a steady rhythm all the way, without forming bad rhythm habits. That’s how you don’t get frustrated with your lack of speed.

5. Play by yourself before listening to recordings.

That’s how you learn the notes on your own by sight, and not play by ear. There is merit to both methods of playing, but right now, we’re trying to sight read.

Often, we form an idea of what the piece is supposed to sound like, and we get frustrated when we’re learning a piece and it doesn’t sound like the recording, so hold off on listening to others play for a while.

6. Keep going until your brain can’t handle it.

You’re learning the most when you’re teetering at the brink of giving up. When you pick the right pieces to learn, you will slip into the flow mindset, where all your concentration is on this particular piece of music you’re playing at the moment.

In the spirit of sight reading, I wrote a short passage (for piano) to sight read, for anyone who wants to flex their sight reading muscles. Click here to download it. Keep playing!

6 Comments

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6 Comments

  • Reply Bob May 3, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    Thank you Grace for sharing your insight about sight reading… I struggle with reading the bass and treble clef together.. I try to sight read everyday and have made progress …. the biggest hurdle to overcome is to not look at your hands only the sheet music… still working on parts that have jumps which will take time to get right ..

    • Reply Grace Lam May 4, 2018 at 5:41 am

      Hey Bob, have you tried playing pieces with treble and bass without jumps, first? It sounds like you may be trying to tackle many things at once—combining hands and jumps. It’s a good idea to nail combining hands first, then jumps, so you’ll end up with good technique. I might look into sight reading pieces that don’t involve the hands moving around too much to begin with.

  • Reply KUETE YANICK May 3, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    THANKS FOR THE ARTICLE. WELL, I’M LEARNING TO PLAY BY EAR…..COULD YOU PLEASE HELP ME WITH TIPS ON PLAYING BY EAR? I WILL BE GRATEFUL.

    • Reply Grace Lam May 4, 2018 at 5:43 am

      You’re welcome! I can keep playing by ear in mind for a future article. But have you tried playing out the melody to your favourite song? I would begin by playing melodies to songs you like. Then you can add in the accompaniment (often in the left hand).

      There are more rigorous training techniques, but it begins with listening to the steps in melodies and understanding chord structures.

  • Reply Pieter May 29, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Thanks a lot! I really like and appreciate your articles on technique, I’ve been playing for 35 years now but there is still so much to learn! Greetings from the Netherlands

    • Reply Grace Lam June 3, 2018 at 7:30 am

      Hi Pieter! Good to know you like the technique articles – there might be more down the pipeline. :)

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