How to improve sight reading

It is undoubtably true that sight reading on the piano is much harder than on any other instrument – there are so many notes to read, often 2, 3 or 4 in each hand. So it is little surprise that it is most piano students’ least favourite activity.

However, the ability to sight read well is THE key to becoming a successful pianist. If pieces can be played pretty well on the first read through then more music can be learnt. Very hard music can be learnt much more quickly and the frustrating initial stages of learning new pieces are much briefer.

So, here are a few tips for improved sight reading:

1: Play single hand duets

For this you need two pianists: one who is practicing sight reading and one very experienced player (for example a teacher or parent). Now you need some music which the less experience player can easily sight read when playing just one hand. Play together for 10 – 15 minutes with no going back. Occassionally change parts, so that the learner can practice reading the right hand and left hand parts. The music should be easy enough that the learner can manage it easily enough to actually enjoy playing!


2: Learn more music

We live in an exam oriented culture. For young piano students this can mean that they expect to take a grade every year and judge their progress by how quickly they move from one grade to the next. Not enough music is played in between grades.

One way that many enlightened music teachers have addressed this problem is by giving their students the “40 piece challenge”. This is just what is sounds like it is – a challenge to learn 40 pieces in one year. The difficulty level chosen is up to you. Like any challenge, it should be achievable but not so easy that it is not really an challenge.

Another good way to encourage younger students to play more different music is to give them a copy of one of Paul Harris’s excellent books called “A Piece a Week”. They are available for students at grades 1, 2 and 3 and are just the correct standard for pianists at these levels.



3: Play more duets

The fact that pianists rarely play in ensembles can mean that they often give themselves the luxury of pausing when they are not sure of a note. They seem to lack the feel for the pulse that players of other instruments have. Therefore, when sight reading, they lose the overall shape of the piece.

Playing duets encourages them to keep going even when they are a bit unsure. This is one of the key skills of a good sight reader. Duet playing also develops the students ability to listen to another part when simultaneously playing their own part which is a key aural skill.

4: Study music theory

Over my years of teaching I have often noticed that, after a few lessons on music theory, my student’s sight reading skills suddenly leap forward. When you think about it, when we teach children to read words we do it by teaching them to read and how to write. So it is not really surprising that, if we teach students how to write music, their reading skills also improve.

There are lots of theory workbooks on the market and I find the ABRSM series “Music Theory in Practice” to be very accessible and very thorough.