Teaching Pianists to Sight-Read Successfully.

Victoria McArthur“He can sight-read anything perfectly without practicing.” “She was born with sight-reading talent.”

Have you overheard these comments? Do you believe either statement can be true? Are some students born with special gifts making sight-reading easier for them? Can students sight-read without practice?

The answer is no.  All pianists start at the same place, with the same tools. Sight-reading skills must be developed over time and with the right kind of practice.

Music research has also demonstrated that sight-reading is a learned skill, not an inborn talent (Lehmann & McArthur, 2002).

To learn to sight-read, the following must be present:

  • Some time each day to specifically practice sight-reading (not performance, which is a different process)
  • A reasonable practice environmentquiet, well-lit and without distractions, (ideally) using an 88-key acoustic or digital keyboard
  • Sight-reading music materials chosen for their systematic progression in difficulty and their motivating qualities

Sight Reading 1A“Sight-reading is largely visual pattern recognition performed with a steady pulse.” Premier Piano Course Sight-Reading was written to teach pianists how to achieve this goal. The authorspiano teachers themselveswere mindful of efficiently using lesson and practice time while achieving sight-reading fluency.

The sight-reading materials in each level correlate with the equivalent level of Premier Piano Course Lesson Book, Levels 1A and 1BThere are 14 units per Sight Reading Book. Represented in each unit are five, short activities, each of which addresses an important component in sight-reading skill development (the Lesson Book correlation pages are clearly written in the upper right-hand margins). In addition, the Sight Reading Books can be used with other methods or as a stand-alone sight-reading approach.

Sight Reading 1BIt is suggested that pianists play one activity per practice day. Each activity is marked with a repeat sign; however, the activity should not be practiced with multiple repetitions.  Play it…then leave it! Accuracy will be imperfect (that’s OK!) but will improve as sight-reading skill grows over time.

In addition, a short direction to the student precedes each sight-reading activity.

Below are examples that show samples of the five activities in each unit of Sight Reading 1A & 1B.

Activity 1—Play the Note

Play individual notes using finger 2 (only) to break down any reliance on playing in set hand positions.

Sight Reading 1A, p.10

Sight Reading 1A, p.10
Play the Note using new notes
G & E, and previously learned notes.

Sight Reading 1B, p.20
Play the Note using notes the
interval of a 4th apart.










Activity 2Play from Note-to-Note

Play patterns with steps, skips, and repeated notes as well as Landmark Notes. The goal is to play notes by using the previous note as a reference. Conventional fingering is used.

Sight Reading 1A, p.10

Sight Reading 1A, p.10
Play from Note-to-Note using steps,
skips and repeated notes, as well as
a review of Landmark Notes.

Sight Reading 1B, p.20

Sight Reading 1B, p.20
Play from Note-to-Note using
melodic and harmonic
3rds and 4ths.










Activity 3Rhythm Challenge

Tap rhythm patterns on the closed key cover or lap. The goal is to perform rhythm accurately while keeping a steady beat.

Sight Reading 1A, p.16

Sight Reading 1A, p.16
Tap a Rhythm Challenge in
preparation for upcoming activity
pieces within the same unit.

Sight Reading 1B, p.24

Sight Reading 1B, p.24
Tap a Rhythm Challenge that uses
hands separately as well as
hands together.








Activity 4Play Without Stopping

Play a short piece that uses the Rhythm Challenge patterns. The goal is to keep playing without pause.

Sight Reading 1A, p.9

Sight Reading 1A, p.9
Choose a tempo at which the piece
can be played with a steady beat. Keep
going, even if there are wrong or
omitted notes.

Sight Reading 1B, p.29

Sight Reading 1B, p.29
An optional Challenge is posed
to play with a metronome
(quarter note = 92-112).










Activity 5—Play Expressively

Play a short variation of the Play Without Stopping piece. The goal is to play expressively without stopping.

Sight Reading 1A, p.9

Sight Reading 1A, p.9
Circle the tempo and dynamic
markings, then play, making the
music as expressive as possible.

Sight Reading 1B, p.10

Sight Reading 1B, p.10
Circle the tempo and dynamic
markings, then play, making the
music as expressive as possible.









Positive outcomes from using Premier Sight-Reading:

Students will:

  • learn to read ahead and not halt or “back up” while playing.
  • learn to keep a steady pulse and “throw away” missed or omitted notes.
  • learn to pre-scan before playing, noting rhythm and note patterns, as well as marks of expression.
  • improve note accuracy without cues, meaning notes at the beginning of the piece, at the beginning of new lines (systems) or new pages will be sight-read more accurately.
  • develop confidence in encounters with unfamiliar music.
  • enjoy their sight-reading skill, enhancing their ability to learn unfamiliar music more quickly, play duets with friends, and play for church and social gatherings, e.g.

Although sight-reading is not an inborn talent, it can definitely be developed and taught. Teachers who take time to teach sight-reading in the lesson perhaps give their students one of the greatest musical gifts of all:  the ability to learn music independentlya lifelong skill! What an exciting thought!

On a practical level (especially for thirty-minute lessons), sight-reading can be heard in the first couple of minutes of each lesson. Likewise, students can dramatically improve their sight-reading skill with only a few minutes a day devoted exclusively to sight-reading skill-building.

As a teacher, it is exciting to ignite, then to nurture the pleasure of sight-reading within your students, with the hope that hundreds of hours of enjoyment lie ahead for those who can work independently!

Victoria McArthur
Premier Piano Course Co-Author
Director Piano Pedagogy and Group Piano, Florida State University


Lehmann, A., & McArthur, V. (2002). Sight-Reading. In Parncutt, R. and G. E. McPherson (Eds.). The Science and Psychology of Music Performance (pp. 135-165). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, Inc.



5 responses to “Teaching Pianists to Sight-Read Successfully.

  1. While the article, books and exercises are fine the most important aspect of sight-reading has not been addressed. The eyes of the performer must be on the music, and the keyboard should be covered (my invention does this) so that looking down to find the keys is impossible. All the rest that follows are great exercises.

  2. Christina Toole

    I’m very excited for this new installment to the Premier series! I also love the easy but thorough step by step process- the authors thought of everything! Can’t wait to use this with my students!

  3. I love the lesson and theory books in this series and use it with most of my young piano students. I would like to see a small section on sight reading at the end of each lesson book, so children don’t have too many books to carry to class.

  4. Reblogged this on How do choristers learn to sight-sing? and commented:
    Some interesting ideas on learning how to sight-read.

  5. Reblogged this on Take Note and commented:
    This is a great article on learning how to sight-read from our friends at Alfred Music Publishing. Written with the pianist in mind, it does have implications for all instrumentalists. You can buy the Premier Piano Course discussed here as well as many of your favorite piano method series during our 20% Off Piano Methods sale!

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