What is sight reading? Sight reading piano music is the ability to read and play a new song with ease. Learning to read music is as difficult as learning to read a new language. Most people will take piano lessons for years and never acquire the skill of sight reading. It’s laborious and painstakingly slow to read every note. And when finished, the song may not even sound like the song at all! Unless a student decides to make music their career, most students will eventually give up on learning to read notes fluently, and thus playing piano all together.
That’s a shame of course, because most people dream of playing the piano for their own enjoyment. I’ve spoken to hundreds of adults throughout my over 40 years of playing and performing, that dream of playing their favorite song with ease. What happened in their piano lessons or learning on their own that never got them to the place of reading music fluently? The following are a list of mistakes most students (and even professional pianists) make when learning to read music.
Don’t look at your hands
Students make the mistake of looking at their hands. I guess it makes them feel safer to look. However, there’s two problems with looking: 1) Your eyes stop reading the line of music 2) You never learn to “memorize” where the keys are. If you were reading a book, would you constantly look away from the words as you were reading? That would take three times as long to read a book and would be choppy reading. And since we rely on our sight more than any other sense, looking at the keys hinders the brain from knowing where the keys are. Playing the piano is like a blind person walking through their living room. They know exactly where everything is laid out, so they can effortlessly walk through without walking into anything. Some of the greatest pianists in the world have been blind. To name a few, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and my all time favorite jazz pianist, George Sharing. This proves that “looking” is not necessary, and actually stops the flow of reading and in the long run, accuracy when playing.
Too much information at one time
Most method books give too much information at one time and move to the next step too soon. If you think about learning to speak as a child, you only spoke a few words at a time. Adults would speak to you using simple words until you understood those, then slowly increased to more difficult words and longer sentences. The same should be done when learning to read music. I also compare reading music to eating a steak; one bite at a time with each bite fully chewed. The best way to learn to read fluently is taking a small amount of notes and rhythm at a time. The student should then play multiple songs within that set of information before progressing to the next level.
Common sense in reading
The monks in Italy were the first to take on the task of “recording” music in the 6th century. Up until then, music was handed down from generation to generation. Today we play composers of the past because of their genius ideas. It has evolved over the centuries, but the premise is the same. The notes on the staff simply ascend by line-space in alphabetical order. Students are often taught the lines for treble clef using the phrase Every Good Boy Does Fine (with variations on this). Then it’s followed up by the spaces which spell the word FACE. The student, in my opinion, will not read fluently since they’re not taught the logic of the staff. This method can also become a crutch. Rather, if the student is taught from the beginning how the notes ascend on the staff, he or she will understand and this may help in quickly identifying the notes.
Reading by intervals
Another aspect of sight reading is noticing the distance between the notes, called intervals. If one note is on the first line, and the next note is on the first space, the student simply plays the next note on the piano. Intervals are a great way to quickly read one note to the next even if the name of the note is not quickly remembered. When the student is taught how the staff works, it helps them to read by intervals as well.
Time and be patient
Let’s be honest, learning a language or reading music takes time. Anyone that claims you can learn to read music fluently in 10 lessons is fooling you. It’s just not possible, because sight reading means it becomes automatic. And being automatic means repetition….and lots of it! I let my students know to expect at least a year to be a fluent reader. It’s good to be realistic on how long it takes to lessen the frustration level. But the good news is, once reading is automatic, he or she can play a new song with ease. And when a student or pianist gets to that point, it’s actually FUN to sight read!
Piano method books
As I mentioned at the beginning, most method books offer too much information at one time and move too fast. In the 1990’s I wrote two workbooks to supplement the method books I was using, the Rhythm Workbook and Note Reading Workbook. Although my workbooks helped the student learn to read the notes and rhythm, I was still not happy with the progress students made…until now! In 2017, I wrote my signature book called “Drill It and Kill It-Read Music Like a Pro!”. I came up with the idea of having one book that would include rhythm drills, note reading, scales and exercises, and multiple songs within one set of notes and rhythm. This is the only way a student can successfully master each level before moving on to the next one. I’ve been so excited to see my students have the ability to sight read a new song well enough to progress to the next song in my lessons.
To summarize, get in the habit early in your playing to not look at your hands. If the student has been playing that way for a while, stop! This not only helps in following the music, but also trains your brain to remember the keys and the distance between them. Start out taking a small amount of notes and rhythm at a time, and drill them until it’s automatic. Don’t expect to learn overnight, but allow at least a year to sight read. And finally, choose the right method book that will help you best in your journey. At Melody Music Publishers, we offer books that are easy to follow, taught in the way students think and learn. Once you’ve learned to read music, the rewards will be great, and you’ll have the gift of playing the piano for a lifetime!