By Dr. 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.*
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 environment—quiet, 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 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 authors—piano teachers themselves—were 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 1B. There 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.
It 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.
Activity 2—Play 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.
Activity 3—Rhythm Challenge
Tap rhythm patterns on the closed key cover or lap. The goal is to perform rhythm accurately while keeping a steady beat.
Activity 4—Play Without Stopping
Play a short piece that uses the Rhythm Challenge patterns. The goal is to keep playing without pause.
Activity 5—Play Expressively
Play a short variation of the Play Without Stopping piece. The goal is to play expressively without stopping.
Positive outcomes from using Premier Sight-Reading:
- 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 independently—a 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 building sight-reading skills.
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!
Dr. Victoria McArthur served as Program Director of Piano Pedagogy and Coordinator of Group Piano at Florida State University, Tallahassee, one of the leading Colleges of Music in the United States. Dr. McArthur has authored or co-authored more than 80 publications. Among her co-authored publications is the highly respected Alfred’s Premier Piano Course. She is Director of McArthur & Musical Associates, a thriving professional piano studio serving the Tallahassee, FL area. She holds the Permanent Professional Certificate in Piano and Music Theory from the Music Teachers National Association.
*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.