The ability to sight read well is a skill that every pianist should have. Below, piano teacher Ryan C. shares 9 piano sight reading exercises to help you master this important skill…
It’s the first day of rehearsals at your school’s choir. Everyone has been assigned new music that they haven’t seen or sung before. You can sing, but you definitely consider yourself more of a pianist.
Your teacher walks in and solemnly says: “Hi everyone, our pianist is sick today, so we’re going to have to work on voice parts one part at a time, because my sight-reading skills aren’t that great. Unless, of course, someone here can sight read all the parts?”
You waste no time in raising your hand and declaring “I can do it!”
What is Piano Sight Reading?
Sight reading is essentially what its’ name implies: the ability to look at a piece of music and play it with very little to no prior rehearsal time.
Sight reading is a skill in which every pianist needs to become familiar, even if it means that he or she is only able to sight read pieces that are at or below his or her level of repertoire-performance.
Sight reading not only involves reading notes, but also encompasses implied musicality. For instance, a pianist should be able to take musical queues and respond appropriately when paired with other instrumentalists or singers.
Overall phrase shape, texture, and mood should all be considered when sight reading a new piece. These concepts are often reinforced by the other people you’re playing with, who can help you interpret the way to play a new piece.
Why Piano Sight Reading is Important
As displayed in the introduction scenario, it’s easy to see why sight reading would be useful in a plethora of situations. For instance, a good sight reader will almost always have employment options available.
Options such as working as an accompanist, being a pianist for a choir, a studio musician, a church pianist, and multiple other options, are always in constant demand.
Additionally, a pianist who has strong piano sight reading abilities will often be able to learn music at a much faster rate than those who can’t read as well.
It’s essentially the difference between reading one letter at a time and reading one word at a time. Just imagine how long this article would take to read if you could only read one letter at a time.
It’s surprising to see how many new pianists unknowingly take the second, more difficult approach to reading.
With the 9 piano sight reading exercises below, I will give you some options to help speed up your reading and quickly get you to a higher level of piano sight reading ability.
But before we get into the piano sight reading exercises, take a quick look at this 5-minute video on the basics of sight reading from Pianist Magazine.
9 Piano Sight Reading Exercises for Beginners
Below are some helpful piano sight reading exercises. These will assume that you have at least a few minutes to look at a piece before you have to play it. Let’s get started!
Unfortunately, memorizing notes can seem really tedious at first; nonetheless, it’s an important step that everyone must take.
If you spend just 10 minutes a day working on it, you’ll have the majority of the notes that are within the lines (not on ledger lines) on both the Treble and Bass Clefs memorized within several weeks.
Using flashcards is a great way to memorize notes. Just throw them in your bag and review them whenever you have a few minutes; for example, while you’re on the bus or in between classes.
2. Always Think Musically
It’s very easy to get sucked into thinking that you have to play all of the notes perfectly and forget the innate musicality of what you’re playing.
Remember, this is music–it should be musical. When something becomes too “note-y” and ceases to sound musical, what’s the point of playing it?
Even in piano sight reading, therefore, think of the musicality that defines the piece and do your best to bring that out.
3. Think Contour, Not Note Name
After you have enough notes memorized to get the starting pitches on passagework, don’t try to read every note of a passage.
Rather, look at the contour (or direction) of the notes. Do they go up or down? By how much (whole-step or half-step)?
By taking this approach, you’ll be able to easily read passagework that would take significantly longer to read if you were trying to read every single note separately.
4. Remember Your Scales
In a particular passage, do you see a succession of notes that seem to be going way up or down the staff? Does it have any sharps or flats? What note does it start and end on? Does it skip any notes?
If you ask yourself questions like these throughout you’re playing, you’ll find that many of the scale-like passages within pieces use fingerings from scales that you probably already know.
5. Practice Easy Pieces Based on Closed Hand Positions
This is a great exercise for beginners to get their feet wet with piano sight-reading.
There are even some great piano sight-reading book series out there, specifically by Lin Ling-Ling and Boris Berlin, that utilize this idea.
In essence, students should practice pieces that use five-finger positions that don’t give them the note-names or finger numbers except for the ones at the beginning of a piece.
This forces students to look at the contour and internally distinguish what finger is playing each note.
Even if they don’t know the note names yet, this method of reading is highly effective and produces great results.
6. Read Ahead as Much as Possible
This is super, super important! When sight reading anything, you always need to be a few notes ahead of what you’re actually playing.
To paraphrase one of my faculty accompanist mentors at SDSU: “Read it, and move on!”
In essence, after you read something, you should already be reading notes ahead of what you’re playing.
7. Practice Reading Hands Separately
Practice reading each hand separately, but preparing the other hand for its section well before it actually needs to play.
This piano sight reading exercise is actually way more important than it sounds. While I don’t think that students should stay for a long time in the hands-separate world, I do think that the method of preparing the opposite hand early is extremely important.
I’ve noticed that the biggest obstacle my students often face in piano sight-reading is the lack of preparation of the opposing hand.
They are often reading one hand perfectly, then the other hand starts a melody and the student has neither prepared it or looked far enough ahead to know what the starting pitch/hand position should be.
8. Play Through the Piece Without Stopping
Piano sight-reading is as much about reading notes as it is about supporting the other people you’re playing with.
In many cases, a sight-reading pianist is often playing in combination with an ensemble of some type. Therefore, you cannot stop playing.
Even if you can’t read all the music, always keep counting and play what you can, when you can.
Play at a manageable speed in which you can read as much music as possible and continue to play and count even when you make mistakes, no matter how severe they are.
Try not to repeat pieces you’ve already played, because then it’s no longer sight-reading, it’s just practice.
As an important side note, don’t use this method when practicing repertoire – always try to avoid learning incorrect notes.
9. Familiarize Yourself with Note Combinations
Chords and triads are the building blocks of harmony. Make a goal to learn all the major and minor chords that can be played on white keys, (C, D, E, F, G, A, B Major & Minor).
Now memorize the letter combinations that make up each chord. For instance, E Major = E, G#, B ; E Minor = E, G, B ; etc. Eventually, move onto the black key combinations, inversions, and seventh chords.
This step is incredibly important for students who are more on the intermediate side of piano sight reading. There will come a point in your reading in which you’re seeing things more as chords, and less as individual notes.
By having a solid foundation in the notes that make up chords, you’re saving yourself tons of time down the line. It’s much like the difference described earlier – reading entire words at one time compared to reading individual letters.
Now You’re Ready!
The ability to sight read well is a skill that every pianist should aspire to do, as it opens up career opportunities for a pianist.
For a student, this skill set will enable you to learn music faster, more accurately, and spend less time working on trying to read every note.
I hope that some of these tips will be helpful and give you some new insight into the world of piano sight reading!
Photo by Frédéric BISSON