Help me learn how to sightread!
February 27, 2007 1:33 PM   Subscribe

After 12 years of memorizing piano pieces, how do I learn to sightread well?

Here's the background:

I'm 18 and I've been playing piano for something like 12 years. Despite this, I am a horrendous sightreader. I attribute this mostly to the fact that I learned via the Suzuki method, which stresses listening over reading, so I memorized all of the pieces I played. I started playing whatever I wanted, but my teacher still basically just played and I copied her--I never made a solid connection between what is on the page and what I do with my fingers.

Any ideas on how I can improve my sightreading? I'm trying to teach myself a piece right now and it's really tough going. Pieces, techniques, anything that may help me improve is more than welcome.

posted by deansfurniture5 to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I passed a test to get into music school because I'm a good sightreader (I didn't attend, though). Just keep trying several times a day to get it right on the first try. You have to read stuff you don't know, of course. At first, you will hesitate and screw up on the first bar. If it's too frustrating, try sight-singing first, a good way to practice and learn, without the instrument getting in the way, and there are loads of sightsinging books out there with exercises with increasing difficulty. Once that's easy, the piano will be one step to add.

The page notation has two main aspects, rhythm and pitch. You can study them separately. I noticed a lot of people find the rhythm part quite challenging, but if you didn't do rudiments yet, now is the time, and there are lots of rhythm examples there.

Probably my amateur answer here will not be the best, though. If you are good at picking up a phrase by ear, you will quickly learn to read whole phrases and "sentences" from the page, I bet.
posted by Listener at 1:49 PM on February 27, 2007

Find a book of etudes that you've never seen before. Open to a random page.

Start playing one of the pieces SLOWLY. Stupidly slow. So slow you know you can't make any mistakes at all. Now don't stop until the end of the piece. Sightreading is all about recovery - keep your wits about you and don't let the mistakes bother you.

Lather, rinse, repeat until you've gone through the whole book. Don't ever sightread at a speed that makes you uncomfortable. The stress will only trip you up. Speed will come with practice.
posted by tylermoody at 1:56 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I learned piano with the Conservatory method, and I have no ability to play anything by ear. I think being able to hear the music is the far greater talent.

That said, the best way to learn to sight read it to practice, a lot. You can buy sight reading exercise books (example*) that give you lots of short phrases to practice with, and that get progressively more difficult. This is better than trying pieces that are at your general ability to play, because your playing probably far outstrips your reading, and it just gets frustrating.

*(that example is probably way to simple, given the sample page, but the series has lots of books in it... look on the side bar)
posted by carmen at 1:58 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Listener is right that both rhythm and pitch are important for sight reading. To drill rhythm, clap or tap or "1-and-ah-2-e-and-a-3-and-a-4" out the piece beforehand, just concentrating on the rhythm played by the right and left hands. Keep doing this every time you play a piece - you should be able to just look at a measure and know the rhythm right away.

For pitch, it's important to be able to read music, period. I'm unclear as to your exact skill level when it comes to reading music - do you still have to work out where notes are, or do you have your scales memorized? If you can read music, then sight-reading is just reading music quickly, which takes lots and lots of practice.
posted by muddgirl at 2:18 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Good ear-training skills are useful here. As others have said you need to concentrate on rhythm and the pitches. Are you a good sight-singer? If not I would recommend trying some sight-singing and rhythmic excercises as well as practicing sight-reading easy pieces very slowly...
posted by ob at 2:25 PM on February 27, 2007

The book Super Sight-Reading Secrets is supposed to be one of the best books on sight reading.

I completely agree with tylermoody, but I'll add this: The best way for me was to use a music book that was a grade or 2 easier than my current level of skill.

Good luck!
posted by Bearman at 2:40 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

muddgirl: When reading music, I routinely have to think "Every Good Boy..." etc., if that answers your question. And no, I don't really know scales.

Thanks for everyone's responses so far!
posted by deansfurniture5 at 2:42 PM on February 27, 2007

Some very good observations in the book Playing the Piano for Pleasure, including advice on sightreading. Bottom line: like any skill, you learn it by practicing it, gradually improving your ability. But the book is definitely worth reading. (Because of the cost, might be best to find the book in a library.)
posted by LeisureGuy at 2:50 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

credentials: seven years at music camp; multiple degrees in music; 6 years as a paid church musician; have taught beginning piano, grade school choir, college music theory/aural skills.

How to you learn to sight read? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, man. Practice.

Something that may help you is a good grounding in music theory. After all, if you can look at a set of 4 notes and think "A7" instead of thinking "a, c#, e, g" that makes you "read music" 4 times faster. Since you already have the Suzuki grounding in aural skills, you will also hear it in your head as your fingers hit the keyboard.

Otherwise, yes what everyone else has said about finding unfamiliar piano music (a couple grades *below* what you would normally study) and starting slowly is good. But your goal should be to sight read at speed. Because you seriously never know when somebody's accompanist is going to get sick right before the performance. Or when the preacher is going to suddenly say "You know? I feel the Holy Spirit moving us to sing the hymn on page 354!" Really.
posted by ilsa at 3:19 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I played the piano for over twenty years. I had a childhood friend who grew up with the suzuki method. I never much understood the mechanism behind learning this way, but I very much looked down upon it. Ironically, I moved on to other things, while it was my friend who went to conservatory and ended up a professional pianist in germany.

I think the "rhythm and pitch answers" are completely misleading, but I may be wrong. As someone alluded to earlier, reading comes before sightreading. If you do not innately have a sense of reading rhythm and pitch - that is to say, if you have a problem distinguishing notes on a staff, or identifying note lengths (is that a quarter note or a half note?) - then you most certainly should have somebody help you read before even contemplating sightreading.

You probably know all this already - but the suzuki method and the "reading music" method are polar opposites. So I'll get to my more important point that nobody mentioned. Without question - without question - in the long run, the most important, and often overlooked, aspect to playing the piano is correct fingering. Learning scales, for example, has much less to do with pitch than it does with proper fingering. The better your understand of proper fingering, the easier it will be for you to pick up pieces on the fly without getting bent out of shape.

An additional tip, from the habits of one the best teachers i ever had, as she sight read some passages of pieces that she was teaching me, is that if you jam up and want to maintain tempo of the piece you are sightreading, its perfectly okay to drop one or two notes of a three note chord in the bass clef if the passage is very complex (usually you maintain the lowest note).
posted by phaedon at 3:19 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Full disclosure: I am not piano-trained. I did, however, play violin for 10 years, which included competitions, which included sight-reading evaluations.

I think that your problem is incorrectly formulated, since you can't really read music at all (if you have to look at the note, mnemonic your way up the staff, then find the note on the keyboard, then play it, well I'm not surprised you can't play music quickly!). The most important step is to be able to look at a note and then play it straight away. I would go back and buy a first-level sightreading book like the one linked upthread. Perhaps getting professional help isn't a bad idea.
posted by muddgirl at 3:29 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

muddgirl: My current situation isn't quite as bad as that--when reading simple melodies, I'll find the note, and then I can generally (albeit slowly) figure out the rest by looking at the intervals. It's when I start having to play chords or with both hands that things get tough.

Interestingly enough, I played saxophone ~5 years and could sightread pretty well. I guess it's just a different connection to be made with the piano.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 3:39 PM on February 27, 2007

Be very, very patient. I also learned by the Suzuki method and then tried to learn how to read music at age 10 or so. I got very frustrated because I almost felt like I regressed -- I wasn't able to play at the same level I could when memorizing music. But piano lessons were more my mom's idea than mine, so you'll likely have better luck sticking with it than I did. Just be prepared for a certain level of frustration.
posted by awegz at 3:42 PM on February 27, 2007

I walked away from the computer before thinking again. A hymnal is a great thing for sight reading (and music theory practice). For under $15 you get sheet music to 300-700 songs, mostly in 4 part harmony, mostly tonal, a lot of it simple block chords, some of it even familiar. You might even find a used one for less.
posted by ilsa at 3:52 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'll find the note, and then I can generally (albeit slowly) figure out the rest by looking at the intervals.

That's the key, I think. I sightread by picking one note of the block chord (easiest) or look for sections that are essentially arpeggiated chords, and just kind of know what the chord is from the shape. It's tough to describe, but I just recognize the chord shapes, then all I have to do is read the rhythm and sequence of the individual notes.

When I first started playing, I wanted to be a jazz player, so I drilled myself with the chords in every key (major, minor, M7, half-dim 7, m7, dim7) (and later inversions of the same), with them written on the staff. You learn to pick out the tonic and read the shape of the intervals, rather than each note.
Bonus - if you get behind, you can just make something up in the chord you recognize. Unless it's a classical piece, nobody will notice.

So I guess I'm suggesting the least fun thing of all: scales and chord drills.
posted by ctmf at 10:58 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm seconding the hymnal. That's what my piano teacher told me to use to improve my sight reading, and I did well enough to pass secondary piano. Hymns are fairly easy and predictable, but you're still having to play something you haven't seen before.

(Of course, now I doubt I could read a melody line if you put a gun to my head, but at the time I was good enough.)
posted by Violet Hour at 11:20 PM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Since everone above has covered the "you must practice" angle of learning to sight read, I'll leave that bit alone.

The thing that helped me learn the notes on the staff was constantly and consistently writing the notes out. We had piano competitions when I was taking lessons that would test your ability to write ascending and descending scales and arpegeggios; chords and chord progressions; intervals and key signatures in both treble and bass clef on command. The practice is a bit mind numbing, but I found it very useful.

When I'm sight reading well, I find that the connection I make between notes is their relative position to each other, not their individual values and muscle memory tells me where my fingers should go.
posted by oreonax at 1:47 PM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

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