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I keep hearing people talk about sight reading on here and it always confuses me a little. Why do people go on about practicing sight reading so much? How else would you read a piece of music? If you're painstakingly picking it out it seems like a problem unless you're an absolute beginner or attempting pieces way beyond your skill level. Or does it mean the ability to play something through with no mistakes the very first time? It seems like it should be easy to play something through the first time if it's at your level, but playing something through with zero mistakes is difficult before you've gotten a feel for it (esp fingering). I feel like I must be missing something.

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Sight-reading refer to reading any piece of music the first time. Depending on how proficient someone can read music, the accuracy varies. It is not a requirement that you play every note accurately the first time unless you drop the tempo way down. If you already played the piece through at least once, it's not considered sight-reading.

Being able to sight-read means you can learn a piece faster. When trying a difficult piece you're not going to pick up all the nuances the first time. You may even be dropping notes in between.

When you practice a piece at home, sight-reading skill may be less critical. People like myself tend to work on a piece in small sections and memorize more than reading the sheet. When you're playing with other musicians in a duet, trio, quartet, etc., being able to read becomes more critical. You're keeping up with other people, the flow of the music and try not to miss a beat even when you don't play every note on the first time through.

In general, most people can read 2 levels below the most difficult pieces they can play. People practice sight-reading to be able to recognize notes faster. Teachers encourage students to read new pieces regularly to improve on their sight-reading. If you go for a piano exam (ABRSM or RCM), there is at least 1 unfamiliar piece you'd be asked to read through and reproduce the notes as accurately as possible. You can't take the sheet home to practice and have to play it during the exam.

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I understand your confusion, it seems to me, too, that the difference between reading and sight reading has been emphasized too much lately on the forums, so much that it may seem that reading and sight reading are different skills. But in fact they are the one. Sight reading is just a pure form of reading. It is also the best indicator of how well one can read. In most situations these terms can without problem be used interchangeably. The questions, 'How well do you read music?' and 'How well do you sight-read music?' are essentially the same question.

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Originally Posted by Csj24
I keep hearing people talk about sight reading on here and it always confuses me a little. Why do people go on about practicing sight reading so much? How else would you read a piece of music? If you're painstakingly picking it out it seems like a problem unless you're an absolute beginner or attempting pieces way beyond your skill level. Or does it mean the ability to play something through with no mistakes the very first time? It seems like it should be easy to play something through the first time if it's at your level, but playing something through with zero mistakes is difficult before you've gotten a feel for it (esp fingering). I feel like I must be missing something.

Normally before you play a piece, you first analyze it, determine the proper fingerings, etc etc, and practice small parts of it thoroughly, then carefully glue together the parts before trying to play it through. Then you may still have to do more work to get it up to speed.

With sight reading, you don't do anything of this, you play it through right away. You can leave out some notes as needed but you go through at the right speed without hesitations. This is a lot harder than normal. The piece has to be well BELOW your level.


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The usual definition of sight-reading is that you read and play a piece which you dont know (ie havent played at all). How well, fast and how many mistakes you make while doing it does not matter. It only measures your proficiency. The better you are at it, the closer you get to a clean performance, but even if you are miserable at it, it is still sight-redaing.

Now and I said that in another thread, reading/playing for the first time or doing it subsequent times is not that different. Of course once you have read the piece once, the second time or third time it is easier (and then only if you do it within a relatively short timeframe), but it still help to develop one's reading abilities and it is using the same skills. So basically sight-reading and reading are essentially similar, as long as you are not playing a piece which you have been practising at lenght. But even playing a piece which has been practised, while reading the score, even if only partially, also involves similar skills. So sight-reading in its purest definition is just an extreme situation of the general reading skills where one attemps to play a completely unknown piece. It can be usefull in certain situations, but for most amateurs, good reading abilities are more important.

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You can buy books with stand alone sight reading exercises. From beginners to advanced

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If I may just add what sight-reading means in my life:

Often when I'm asked to sight-read a song it tends to be from a singer who has brought in a piece of music I've never seen before; this is usually a pop/rock song or something from the world of musical theatre. The singer is always the focus in these sessions.

If it's pop/rock I can generally use the chord charts to make a good fist of it, and so more focus can be afforded to listening to the singer. This is harder to do when it's a MT piece as, not only is there no guarantee of chords, but there's often three (or more) staves to read, whilst still the focus is to support, and guide, the singer: it's not on the pianist.

This situation I'm describing is usually in a one-to-one environment, but can also be in an audition setting where a myriad of pressures, and emotions, can be in the space. Mistakes/wrong notes can throw the singer and you have to play at tempo - there are consequences for your poor sight-reading skills.

There is often a time restraint too: very rarely do I get the luxury of exploring the piece in any detail.

Yesterday I sight-read Jason-Robert Brown's A Summer In Ohio

https://www.dropbox.com/s/6e7unot04jkw88a/A%20Summer%20In%20Ohio.pdf?dl=0

You'll note three/four staves, condensed chords, a guitar part, American-style chord notation, octaves, syncopated rhythms, tempo changes, key changes, dynamic markings etc.

In a moment you have to decide what to play in order to support the singer who, chances are, will be expecting you to sound like the cast recording they've been learning from. In this particular piece there's little point playing the piano part at the start, so you have to read the guitar staff.

I think where there is a degree of pressure is when sight-reading, and decision making, are most exposed; whether that be from an audition, exam, or just playing with someone. You can play from sight in the comfort of your own home/studio and work on your general reading but it's the decisions that you have to make in a heartbeat which determine how good a sight-reader you are.

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Originally Posted by Sidokar
The usual definition of sight-reading is that you read and play a piece which you dont know (ie havent played at all). How well, fast and how many mistakes you make while doing it does not matter. It only measures your proficiency. The better you are at it, the closer you get to a clean performance, but even if you are miserable at it, it is still sight-redaing.

Now and I said that in another thread, reading/playing for the first time or doing it subsequent times is not that different. Of course once you have read the piece once, the second time or third time it is easier (and then only if you do it within a relatively short timeframe), but it still help to develop one's reading abilities and it is using the same skills. So basically sight-reading and reading are essentially similar, as long as you are not playing a piece which you have been practising at lenght. But even playing a piece which has been practised, while reading the score, even if only partially, also involves similar skills. So sight-reading in its purest definition is just an extreme situation of the general reading skills where one attemps to play a completely unknown piece. It can be usefull in certain situations, but for most amateurs, good reading abilities are more important.
This is the best explanation IMO.

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Originally Posted by fatar760
If I may just add what sight-reading means in my life:

Often when I'm asked to sight-read a song it tends to be from a singer who has brought in a piece of music I've never seen before; this is usually a pop/rock song or something from the world of musical theatre. The singer is always the focus in these sessions.

If it's pop/rock I can generally use the chord charts to make a good fist of it, and so more focus can be afforded to listening to the singer. This is harder to do when it's a MT piece as, not only is there no guarantee of chords, but there's often three (or more) staves to read, whilst still the focus is to support, and guide, the singer: it's not on the pianist.

This situation I'm describing is usually in a one-to-one environment, but can also be in an audition setting where a myriad of pressures, and emotions, can be in the space. Mistakes/wrong notes can throw the singer and you have to play at tempo - there are consequences for your poor sight-reading skills.

There is often a time restraint too: very rarely do I get the luxury of exploring the piece in any detail.

Yesterday I sight-read Jason-Robert Brown's A Summer In Ohio

https://www.dropbox.com/s/6e7unot04jkw88a/A%20Summer%20In%20Ohio.pdf?dl=0

You'll note three/four staves, condensed chords, a guitar part, American-style chord notation, octaves, syncopated rhythms, tempo changes, key changes, dynamic markings etc.

In a moment you have to decide what to play in order to support the singer who, chances are, will be expecting you to sound like the cast recording they've been learning from. In this particular piece there's little point playing the piano part at the start, so you have to read the guitar staff.

I think where there is a degree of pressure is when sight-reading, and decision making, are most exposed; whether that be from an audition, exam, or just playing with someone. You can play from sight in the comfort of your own home/studio and work on your general reading but it's the decisions that you have to make in a heartbeat which determine how good a sight-reader you are.
This post talks about a very specific kind of sight reading situation that most/many people don't encounter.

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
This post talks about a very specific kind of sight reading situation that most/many people don't encounter.


Originally Posted by fatar760
If I may just add what sight-reading means in my life:

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Thanks, this is very helpful. Seems like it's not very different from reading music in general. If you play it slowly and don't worry about mistakes, then it really seems like if someone can read music they should be able to sit down and attempt a piece that's around their level even if they've never played it before.

I guess what confused me is the number of people saying they are terrible at sight reading. To me, that sounds like being terrible at reading music, in which case you're clearly doing something wrong.

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Originally Posted by Csj24
I keep hearing people talk about sight reading on here and it always confuses me a little. Why do people go on about practicing sight reading so much? How else would you read a piece of music? If you're painstakingly picking it out it seems like a problem unless you're an absolute beginner or attempting pieces way beyond your skill level. Or does it mean the ability to play something through with no mistakes the very first time? It seems like it should be easy to play something through the first time if it's at your level, but playing something through with zero mistakes is difficult before you've gotten a feel for it (esp fingering). I feel like I must be missing something.
The way I look at it is that how you were taught as a beginner makes a world of difference.
I say "taught", because from posts in PW, it's evident that self-learners - whether or not they eventually get teachers (and often only if - and when - they realise that progress has come to a halt) - usually have poor sight-reading skills, and more often than not end up memorising pieces because they cannot play from the score.

Whereas those who started with decent teacher, especially when they were young and had no preconceptions about what they "should" be playing after one week, one month or one year in the future, usually never get problems with poor reading skills commensurate with their actual playing ability.

You obviously had a good teacher who taught you good habits (for classical that is - I can't speak for other genres), though you only had lessons for one year as a child. That one year was enough to set you up for a lifetime of being "able to read what you can play" - and that is very much my own experience of adult restarters that I know of personally.

Like you, I started with a teacher as a child beginner (but probably rather older than when you started) and never knew anything but playing from the score. The only 'music' I ever memorised for nearly ten years was scales & arpeggios, required for the ABRSM exams. Sight-reading - and sight-singing - was taken for granted, because all my fellow students could do it. If we played anything without music in front of us, we were either playing by ear (pop, mainly) or improvising - never playing classical from memory. (At least, not properly - sometimes, we'd start playing the beginning of a classical piece from memory, then rapidly go into improv mode because we couldn't remember anything beyond the first few bars...... grin)


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Originally Posted by Csj24
I guess what confused me is the number of people saying they are terrible at sight reading. To me, that sounds like being terrible at reading music, in which case you're clearly doing something wrong.
Sight reading and general reading(meaning any time one uses the score although the first time is usually called sight reading) are closely related skills. People who are poor at one would generally be poor at the other but perhaps not to the same degree.

I think it's possible to be a poor sight reader and at least an OK reader. I think it would be rarer to have great difficulty the first time one reads a piece of music and play it very well by, for example, the third time. For most people I think the ability to play it well by the third or fifth or tenth time is the more important skill.

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Originally Posted by Csj24
Thanks, this is very helpful. Seems like it's not very different from reading music in general. If you play it slowly and don't worry about mistakes, then it really seems like if someone can read music they should be able to sit down and attempt a piece that's around their level even if they've never played it before.

I guess what confused me is the number of people saying they are terrible at sight reading. To me, that sounds like being terrible at reading music, in which case you're clearly doing something wrong.
While 'sight reading' is a pure form of decyphering notation, the 'reading' is not. 'Reading' is a mix of notation decyphering and playing from memory. Right from the first playing of a piece an unintentional memorization of it occurs involving all types of memory: motional/tactile, visual, aural. The more we play a piece, the more memorization occurs no matter if we want it or not, and relying on notation decyphering decreases. Up to the point when a pianist needs only a brief look at the score from time to time to continue playing. At this point decyphering notation almost doesn't occur and the piece may be considered almost fully memorized. So if someone is a poor sight reader and at the same time a good reader it means that he or she is not good at decyphering notation but has a strong memory of one or several types that helps them memorize the piece unintentionally after fewer number of repetitions.

(And this is why it's most efficient to play every piece just a few times when learning to read/sight read, because first few times is when most decyphering of notation occurs and the memory plays smallest role.)


Having said that I must add that I'm a great opponent of reading music for solo piano performances. In my opinion reading the score is always musically inferior to playing from memory and it concerns all pianists, from beginners to the greatest. The main reason is that we all have limited cognitive resources and the more resources we spend on decyphering notation the less we have for everything else: musicality, sound control, technique. It especially concerns faster pieces. A very important thing was noted by a pianist King, his book was cited here on the forums some time ago, he said (my words, my notebook is not with me at the moment) that when reading a score we need to read ahead and it's impossible to play one measure with full musicality when your brain is in fact playing mentally the next measure. It's absolutely true in my opinion. Besides, reading the score is limiting motional freedom at the piano, that is not good for technique and in turn it limits the overall sense of freedom when playing music, which I think is very important, too.

Certainly I don't mean that you need not learn to read music, I mean that reading and memorizing must be balanced in your practice, with accent on memorizing in the beginning of your piano journey.

My two cents.

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Originally Posted by Csj24
Thanks, this is very helpful. Seems like it's not very different from reading music in general. If you play it slowly and don't worry about mistakes, then it really seems like if someone can read music they should be able to sit down and attempt a piece that's around their level even if they've never played it before.

I guess what confused me is the number of people saying they are terrible at sight reading. To me, that sounds like being terrible at reading music, in which case you're clearly doing something wrong.

IMHO it's really simple, not confusing.

If you are playing a piece much slower, and/or with lots of mistakes, it's not sight reading.

If you are reading slow, you can never sight read a harder/faster piece because you can not read the score at the speed required for that piece. It's only sight reading if you can play it through at speed at first sight.

But if you can not sight read, you can still play the piece at speed, but after (possibly partially) memorizing it. In which case you don't play at first sight but after practicing.

Why do you think it's wrong to be terrible at reading music? Are you thinking terrible means "slow" or something else?


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I have read with interest these recent threads about sight reading. I have loved sight reading since I was a child and it is interesting to see such different perspectives (and confusion!) on the topic.

I have never heard that it doesn’t count as sight reading if you are playing below tempo or if you make lots of mistakes. I took lots of sight reading exams as a child and if I did these things I would have received poor marks but I would have still been sight reading.

There are three ways I’ve experienced sight reading. For exams, with others, and for pleasure alone.

In the exams I took as a child, I aimed to play at tempo, without mistakes and following the dynamic etc. markings in the score. The pieces in exams were always below my level which made the above possible.

I have done sight reading while accompanying and playing in groups of many sizes. In that case of course you have to keep tempo. This leads to the kind of playing that fatar760 writes about, in which you may have to drop notes or improvise to keep things moving along, especially if the music is complicated. The degree with which you play fast and loose with the score depends on the situation.

When I sight read for pleasure alone, I would of course love to play at tempo, mistake-free, etc. But that would limit the music I could play and I see no reason for that. Since childhood I have happily sight-read music of all kinds of levels and styles, and my success depends on many factors. But I am not worried if I have to occasionally pause and count ledger lines, if I hit a few wrong notes, even if (gasp!) I think I could play that much better and go back and replay a few measures! I don’t care! There is no judge watching me. I’m positive that sight reading in this way is why I’m good at it…because I’ve done this for countless hours with all kinds of music.

I think the idea that sight reading has to mean that you are pulling off some kind of performance the first time you read a score is perhaps detrimental. Of course this is lovely when it happens, and it will happen eventually if one persists in learning sight reading/reading music. But when you are with your piano, alone, who cares? Mistakes are how we learn (I am always telling this to my seven year old child who, btw, also loves sight reading).


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Originally Posted by Saan
I have never heard that it doesn’t count as sight reading if you are playing below tempo or if you make lots of mistakes. I took lots of sight reading exams as a child and if I did these things I would have received poor marks but I would have still been sight reading.

When I sight read for pleasure alone, I would of course love to play at tempo, mistake-free, etc. But that would limit the music I could play and I see no reason for that. Since childhood I have happily sight-read music of all kinds of levels and styles, and my success depends on many factors. But I am not worried if I have to occasionally pause and count ledger lines, if I hit a few wrong notes, even if (gasp!) I think I could play that much better and go back and replay a few measures! I don’t care! There is no judge watching me. I’m positive that sight reading in this way is why I’m good at it…because I’ve done this for countless hours with all kinds of music.

I think the idea that sight reading has to mean that you are pulling off some kind of performance the first time you read a score is perhaps detrimental. Of course this is lovely when it happens, and it will happen eventually if one persists in learning sight reading/reading music. But when you are with your piano, alone, who cares? Mistakes are how we learn (I am always telling this to my seven year old child who, btw, also loves sight reading).
That is it, exactly.

When people put all sorts of strictures on what they consider to be 'sight-reading': "must" play at performance tempo (including prestissimo - really??), no wrong notes, every note must be played, every articulation and expression mark observed etc - they are putting brakes on themselves and what they can achieve.......and well, why bother, since you're never ever going to able to pick up a score you've never seen before and just play it perfectly from beginning to end?

Basically, if you're playing a score for the first time, you are sight-reading. End of. (Yes, even if you hesitate before a gigantic chord with twelve accidentals; or even if you play a wrong note every third note, even if you leave out several notes: you're not very good or the piece is far above your reading level, but you're still sight-reading.)

Just have fun. For instance, subscribe to Pianist Magazine, where you'll get plenty of obscure but enjoyable music that you can have a go at sight-reading, whatever your standard. (There is music for every level in it in every issue.) Re-play the pieces. You're no longer sight-reading, but you're still improving your reading skills each time, and the piece will flow better and more accurately with each subsequent play-through. You are 'recognizing' more patterns and imprinting them into your 'pattern memory' each time, and the more you do that, the easier it is next time when you see similar patterns in new scores.

For instance, any good reader of intermediate standard can just glance at the first two bars of Rachmaninov's G minor Prelude and sight-read it:


.......but not necessarily play it at anything approaching performance tempo without having a bit of practice. Maybe a lot of practice, maybe not even then. That's what I meant earlier when I said that good sight-readers can often sight-read music they can't play properly, because it's above their technical standard. Those first two bars are just the chords of G minor, which a good sight-reader can recognize instantly even if he couldn't actually play all the right notes in the right order at the right tempo with the right rhythm.

(On the other hand, if he was given Bach's Prelude No.1 in C, it's likely that he could not only sight-read it easily, but also play it perfectly at performance tempo, because it's technically easy for his level.)

So - just have a go, and have fun. No more self-imposed limitations: with sight-reading, and the development of reading skills, the world is your oyster (or whatever shellfish of your preference).


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Originally Posted by Iaroslav Vasiliev
Certainly I don't mean that you need not learn to read music, I mean that reading and memorizing must be balanced in your practice, with accent on memorizing in the beginning of your piano journey.
This is key.

When we engage a teacher and start lessons the typical approach to practise during the week involves going over the assigned material. The pieces typically take weeks to reach the standard expected by the teacher and the amount of time spent actually reading them, as opposed to just following the score, means reading practise isn't getting done.

There is a need to also practise reading unfamiliar material every day. It doesn't need to be a new piece or extract every day but when the reading transitions from deciphering and processing to just following it's time to put it away and move to a new piece, ideally a different style, composer and period. Those that naturally memorise quite quickly will have to change pieces sooner than those that don't. You might read the same piece the next day but transpose it and play a fifth higher or a fifth lower (changing one accidental). Another valuable reading skill.

Barenboim's advice is to memorise as much as we can as soon as we can because it gets harder as we age but learning quickly needs good reading and comprehension skills. Until you reach 'critical mass' with your reading it is a perishable skill and needs daily practise.

Originally Posted by Saan
There are three ways I’ve experienced sight reading.
Good post!


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Originally Posted by Iaroslav Vasiliev
Having said that I must add that I'm a great opponent of reading music for solo piano performances. In my opinion reading the score is always musically inferior to playing from memory and it concerns all pianists, from beginners to the greatest. The main reason is that we all have limited cognitive resources and the more resources we spend on decyphering notation the less we have for everything else: musicality, sound control, technique. It especially concerns faster pieces. A very important thing was noted by a pianist King, his book was cited here on the forums some time ago, he said (my words, my notebook is not with me at the moment) that when reading a score we need to read ahead and it's impossible to play one measure with full musicality when your brain is in fact playing mentally the next measure. It's absolutely true in my opinion. Besides, reading the score is limiting motional freedom at the piano, that is not good for technique and in turn it limits the overall sense of freedom when playing music, which I think is very important, too.
1. If one is reading while performing a well studied piece, the amount of "decyphering of notation" is by your own admission quite minimal so any resources used on that will be minimal. But more importantly, you omit the anxiety provoking fear of a memory lapse which could certainly cause a far bigger problem and bigger use of resources compared to minimal looking at the score.

2. Even if one is not reading ahead because one is playing without a score one has to be thinking ahead so one cannot be concentrating fully on what one is playing in the moment.

3. If playing without a score is better, why don't solo pianists playing contemporary scores, vocal accompanists, chamber musicians, and orchestral players perform that way?

Bottom line: I think for a big majority of amateurs and many professionals performing with the score will give a better result. In terms of not having to spend an inordinate amount of extra time memorizing the score and being able to use that time learning more repertoire, it is undeniably better. For some, playing without the score gives a better result for a variety of reasons but I think at least a majority of amateurs and many professionals play better and have other benefits from using the score.

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Originally Posted by zrtf90
Barenboim's advice is to memorise as much as we can as soon as we can because it gets harder as we age but learning quickly needs good reading and comprehension skills. Until you reach 'critical mass' with your reading it is a perishable skill and needs daily practise.
I think Barenboim's advice was clearly for professionals who by tradition are mostly forced to play from memory. And, of course, he is talking from the perspective of a musical genius for whom memorizing was probably far easier than for most people. I think most amateurs don't memorize most of the music they study. They memorize mostly only the few pieces they occasionally perform.

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