Have you ever see someone take out a sheet music that they have never seen or performed and then play it flawlessly? Many students struggle when presented with new music; good sight-reading skills can make learning a new song less challenging and allow you to vastly expand your repertoire. Sight-reading is a difficult and valuable skill to master, here are 5 tips to improve your piano sight-reading.
1. Give It Time
If you are relatively new to sight-reading, then you need to keep in mind that it is a skill built over time; it doesn't happen immediately. While individual progress varies greatly, many say a minimum of 20 weeks practice is needed to notice a definitive improvement while taking closer to 200 weeks (4 years) to become reasonably proficient.
Whether you subscribe to Gladwell's 10,000 hours to mastery or not, we can all agree that improvement can't happen without putting in practice time. Remember to keep it feeling fun and not like an exercise. Try not to think of it as ‘time to sightread’ but instead a time to try something new that you might like. The more fun you make it, the more time will fly by.
2. Look Around
While sight-reading we take great care to keep our eyes on the written music but there is no requirement in sight-reading that you not look at your hands from time to time. A quick glance from the music to your keyboard for orientation is certainly admissible as long as you can keep the piece going at whatever tempo is necessary to do so without multiple mistakes.
Ideally, if you have to look at your hands, try not to move your head but simply look down with your eyes so when you look back at the score, your head is already in the right position. Many great sight readers have trained themselves to see the keyboard using downward peripheral vision while also keeping their eyes on the score. These can be considered advanced techniques and require a LOT of practice.
3. Read Ahead
Proficient sight-readers read ahead in the music so they are anticipating notes they haven't yet played. Even reading a note or two ahead helps, but great sight readers sometimes read ahead 2-3 measures.
Think about reading ahead like driving a car. You don't look at the road directly in front of the car, moreover you look down the road to prepare for what you will have to do next while you are currently doing something else. You will have to consciously work towards reading ahead and when you do, you should notice immediate improvement.
If reading one measure ahead is too much for you, try some simpler material and read only a half measure ahead of where you currently are playing. If you can't read ahead then you will inevitably be caught by some surprises that you weren't expecting and for which reading ahead would have prepared you. If you find that you ultimately cannot read ahead and also concentrate on the current measure, you may be trying to sight-read material that is too far beyond your sight-reading skills of the moment.
4. Read Lots of Music
There are no shortage of "sight-reading" books out there to practice from but a vast majority of competent sight-readers never used "sight-reading books", nor even practiced sight-reading in a structured way. They just enjoy reading through lots of music and discovering new things for themselves without necessarily intending to learn any of the pieces they read through for pleasure. You don't want to practice sigh-reading on a piece you know or have memorized because it won't be an accurate reflection of your skill level.
You can download lots of sheet music from IMSLP for free: maybe start with Schumann's Album for the Young, Bach's Anna Magdalena Notebook, Tchaikovsky's Album for the Young, Kabalevsky's Op.27 and sight-read through them for fun.
Whatever you do, just play LOTS of music and it doesn't have to be from your lesson books: books of Broadway show tunes, pop anthologies and classical are all on the table. Think of sight reading development as exploring—- and exploring is easy now because of the wealth of free scores on the internet. Love a band or a composer? Go hunt down their music and just play. Buy cheap music on eBay. Play the music from ‘The Great American songbook. Even the paid score sites have a ‘free’ section. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself reading and playing as much music as possible.
5. Dont Stop
It’s alright to make mistakes when you sight read, so don’t dwell on them. Rather than going back to correct your mistakes, carry on with the piece to avoid unnecessary interruptions. After you are done sight-reading, you can then revisit the sections where you faltered, identify why you made the mistakes, and think of how you can fix them, all of which make your sight-reading session a meaningful learning experience. Sight-reading is an advanced skill and takes a lot of time and patience, keep going and you will get there.