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Sight reading vs. memorizing

Posted By: MLT

Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/12/03 06:43 PM

Hi everybody,

Iím excited about this new learning forum.

Iím an adult learner and have been plugging away for about a year and a half. One problem I keep having is quickly memorizing music and so I stop actively reading the notes. That seems like it would not be a bad thing but the problem is when I move onto a new piece, itís like starting from day one again, as if Iíve never read music. The other problem is you tend to memorize how to play the specific piece in a certain way and I find that if I go off track, its nearly impossible to pick up mid way and get started again. Its like my hands memorize a certain pattern, done in a specific way and if its not done that way, then I might as well be staring at a map of Mongolia. My overall goal is to be a diverse player with the ability to learn new music in a reasonable period of time, and the way Iím doing it does not seem to be leading in that direction.

Does anybody else have this problem? How do you play a piece repeatedly to make it sound good while still actively reading the music. Iím sure that some memorization is a strong component of being able to play something nicely, but it seems like at this point I should be able to look at a note, know what note it is and quickly play it. If I take the time to do that on any semi-complex piece, then I play so slowly that it sounds terrible.

Advice anybody?

I have had some luck lately with simple drills. It seems like the advantage to these is that they are not very melodic. Iím not sure how I can translate that to actual music though.



PS, Im using the Alfred Adult Series, Book 1 and Iím between teachers right now.
Posted By: pianojedi

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/12/03 07:57 PM

hi kirk, i'm sure someone w/ more experience or a teacher will answer but i want to share my own experience with this.

I used to take piano lessons back in high school and college. after 6 years of piano lessons i learned to play well and memorized many pieces but i never learned to read music very well at all. I read music like a 5 year old reads a dr. suess book. ..pretty much having to sound out each letter of each word one by one... a slooow process, and frustrating!

now that i've started up again i'm doing things a bit differently and it has already started to pay off! I bought a book with new music that i'm unfamiliar with, it is early intermediate level book so they are not highly convoluted looking pieces. i sit down and play from this book by site reading. my goal is not to learn the music or memorize it but rather to practice site reading. I think if your goal is to learn the piece of music you're working on, you will just end up memorizing it. that defeats the goal which is to polish up on site reading.

so i think it would be beneficial for you to get a not-so-hard book of unfamiliar music to you, and just sit down and site read each day. without trying to learn it... you will get better at it in time.

i hope this helps in some way. we'll see what the pros have to say on this.

Posted By: RKVS1

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/12/03 09:32 PM

MLT, I'm no pro and I certainly relate to your problem. This has been discussed quite a bit over the last year or so and probably before that as well.

If you know how to use the "Search" function, it would probably be worth your time to hunt under "SUBJECT ONLY" containing "read" or "sight read" or "sight" or "memor" (gets memory and memorization) under "Pianist Forums" with Date set to "any date"

Later you might try the same search with "All forums" instead of just "Pianist Forum"

Brenden, Elpianist, Starmender, David Burton, and a many others that I'm not recalling right now all have spoken eloquently on this topic in the past.

I have a couple of things to say though. I agree with PianoJedi about forcing (or well, disciplining yourself) to regularly read a lot of new music. You don't have to get it into performance readiness, you're just trying to force your mind and fingers to more quickly recognize and position themselves. "It just takes practice", I guess. It sinks in and becomes familiar and more nearly automatic.

Heres one good thread, though its not RIGHT down the alley you're talking about.
This is topic How to learn to play by heart? in forum Pianist Corner at Piano Forums at Piano World.
To visit this topic, use this URL:

There are BUNCHES in the archives, I may go thru them later on and post the links of the ones I remember as being good.

Posted By: Archer1

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/13/03 12:40 AM

I'm wondering, you state that you are in Alfred's Adult Book 1, why do you find memorizing so important at the moment when you should be focusing on the basics? I have seen several beginners memorize pieces only because they have to watch their hands to make sure they were playing the correct keys. I solve this problem quickly by holding a folder over their hands so that they cannot see the keys. This frustrates most students, but it keeps their eyes where they should be - on the music. If this is the reason, make an effort to focus on the music.
However, whatever the reason is, how, are you memorizing? Are you memorizing measure by measure, phrase by phrase? I find one of the best things to do in memorizing is to memorize the piece out of order. Get slips of papers and put measure numbers on each slip, such as measures 1-6, measures 7-12, etc. Take these slips put them in a bottle and randomly select a slip. If you pull out measures 18-24 first, than thatís what you will memorize first. Once you have these measures memorized select another slip. Once all the slips have been used than play the piece from the beginning. You will be surprised at how more familiar and closer you are to the piece by using this technique. Another memorizing technique is to memorize the piece backward.

As for sight-reading. I feel this is an extremely important skill to learn. Some would consider sight reading more important than technique. Like in reading we go from


See Spot run.
(Basic beginners primer)


The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.
(Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat)


The house was really a small castle. It seemed to be all towers; little towers with long pointed spires on them, sharp as needles. They looked like huge dunceís caps or sorcererís caps. And they shone in the moonlight and their long shadows looked strange on the snow! Edmund began to be afraid of the house
(C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)


In her turn, Helen Burns asked me to explain; and I proceeded forthwith to pour out, in my own way, the tale of my sufferings and resentments. Bitter and truculent when excited, I spoke as I felt, without reserve or softening.
(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

When we learn to read, we begin at the beginning and hopefully progress to ďcollageĒ stage reading.

The same applies to sight-reading. If you do not sight-read, you will not progress very far in any type of piano literature. You will always remain at what I call a ďstagnantĒ level. Any teacher that does not teach a student any type of sight-reading skills or does not teach the importance of sight-reading is in my opinion giving a student only 1/4 of a music education. There is a rule that a person should sight read at least one or two levels below the level that they are playing at. I tend to agree with this. But I also believe that you should teach a beginner to sight-read within the first few weeks of their first lessons. These sight-reading lessons for a beginner can be as little as one to two measures per week. The idea is to get a student to sight-read habitually on a regular basis.
So MLT, I suggest that you try to do some type of sight-reading everyday. You can start with a page per day, work to 10 minutes per day, or you can choose one day during the week and spend 30 minutes to an hour sight-reading instead of your regular practice. In my studio, at the last week of the month, I have my students spend 30 minutes on regular lessons. Than during our last 30 minutes we sightread,sightread, and sight-read. My students love it because they get to work on new stuff, and when they come across a piece they liked, we add it to their repertoire collection to work on their own time.

Posted By: benedict

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/14/03 11:05 AM


Having worked for years with not much success on the goal of being a fluent sight reader, I just became lucky thanks to this book :

Super secrets of sight reading

I practiced it only a few times and I was amazed to see that I was beginning to sight read "mechanically".

By mechanically, I do not mean it is not musical. On the contrary, it is really musical.

What makes music is just pressing the right keys without effort and for the right duration.

The book is based on cognitive processes :
-training on reading rythm without caring about the pitches
- training to read the pitches and the fingering.

With four minutes a day of training for these skills (with Ana Magdalena \'s Notebook and The Joy of baroque music ), I found that I could sight read much much better than I ever have.

Actually, I would very much like to share experiences with those who want to experiment this method so as to exchange tips).

You have to separate first sight reading which is just reading a piece you do not know and sight playing which is playing a piece you already have sight read and that you want to play more and more fluently.

I hope this helps.

Sight reading is a very difficult technique. You can compare it to juggling, swinging a 6 iron or learning to read as an illiterate adult.

But with the right tools and a little help from your forum friends, it can be done.

And once you can do it, you will not understand why you could not do it before.

Posted By: MLT

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/14/03 04:50 PM

Thanks everybody for the great help.

Ruth, Im not trying to memorize it just seems like it happens without me doing anything. Part of the problem is that at my level the music is pretty basic and probably easy to memorize. The other part of the problem is my mind is just a lazy globe of squish, and it seems like its so much easier to just play from memory than to actively look at the notes and play them as the music moves along. Perhaps its the stress associated with looking at a note, knowing what it is, and then proceeding to play it totally wrong. I know if I work at it, things will get easier in time. Im just trying to figure out a good strategy to use.

Im working on actively reading the music now, even if I have it memorized. This is paying off now as Im seeing mistakes that I had not noticed before. Its also a little frustrating because Im having to revisit songs that I thought I had down pat. Its that whole need for external markers of progress I guess, but I know learning them the right way does more for progress than just moving onto the next lessson.

Benedict, thanks so much for the book recomendation. I searched out some old posts on the subject and it looks like you have shared some good advice. I especially liked how you diferentiated between sight reading a new piece of music verses sight playing one that you are familiar with. Im bad at both so there is alot of work for me to do.

Benedict, what do you do when you are so familiar with a piece that you can play it by heart? How do you force yourself to look at each note as you are playing? It seems like it would be so simple but I try it and my mind wanders or I get stuck through a section and rely on memory or whatever.

I dont want to beat this subject to death but Im getting the strong impression that the ability to sight read and sight play music is important if one wishes to be a diverse pianist.

Thanks again to everybody for the great tips.

Posted By: pianojedi

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/14/03 05:08 PM

kirk, i know what you mean about memorizing the music quickly even tho you're not trying to do it. I do the same.. which is why after i siteread a piece 5 times or so, i go on to the next one and practice sitereading it.. and when it's beginning to get too easy, i move on the next, and so on. it's beginning to pay off for me.

it seems a lot more people have this problem then you thought. good luck.
Posted By: ryan

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/14/03 05:09 PM

Learn scales, arpeggios, chord inversions, and cadences in all major and minor keys and it will dramatically improve your sight reading, not to mention your overall playing ability. It will help the correct fingers go to the correct notes automatically in the majority of things that you read.

Posted By: Bob Muir

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/14/03 05:15 PM

Kirk, I believe I'm at exactly the same place you are. The first time I work on a lesson, I'm slowly figuring out which keys match the notes on the staff. I usually go by 3rds 5ths, etc. I know that's what we're supposed to do, but it sure doesn't help to remember what the note is you're hitting a 3rd above the current note (whatever that is) smile .

I don't think I'm advanced enough yet to worry about sight reading. To practice sight-playing, you're supposed to work on music you're not familiar with at a level or two below your current level. Well, since my level is fairly close to the bottom, it would be difficult finding pieces that meet that criteria.

Plus, I think I have enough on my plate just teaching my fingers what they're supposed to be doing. Like you, I usually memorize the new (beginner) piece after a few run-thrus. Since I don't have to look at the score, I concentrate on making sure my technique is correct by looking at how my hands are moving in relation to my wrist and fingers. I can nip problems in the bud this way before they get too ingrained.
Posted By: WynnBear

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/14/03 05:56 PM

I'm in a different place from y'all. Returning to piano after a gap of 30 years. I used to be good at memorizing, but had problems with sight reading. During the time without a piano, I kept in music a bit via chorus and church choir. I don't know about other people's experiences, but in our church we do an anthem each week, which effectively means sight-reading or rather sight-singing plays a pretty large role.

As I get back to piano, I find I can sight-read much better than I used to. For example, I bought the Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Book (a very extensive collection of Christmas music and some good sounding arrangements) and find that I can sight-read everything in there without a problem.

But at 47, I'm not finding that memorization is happening as easily as it used to. help

At 47 I also find that I need to have a set of glasses made with the lower portion of my bi-focals carried throughout the lens. I'm getting a crick in my neck from tilting my head back to read music at eye-level through the bottom of my normal lenses. cursing
Posted By: katie_dup1

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/15/03 06:33 AM

I hear ya WynnBear....The eye doc says that I'll need those bifocals soon, so I had better re-learn how to memorize quick, b/c this crick in my neck is killing me.

-- 40+ yrs of age, & I think I lost my mind sometime b/t the epidural & the 6 week post partum checkup.... And that was a decade ago.
Posted By: benedict

Re: Sight reading vs. memorizing - 11/15/03 09:39 AM

Bob Muir,

I don't think I'm advanced enough yet to worry about sight reading
I have experience quite the opposite.
I concentrated on playing and then I discovered I could not sightread at all and as I was used to memorizing, I could not be patient enough to read at the pace it takes. I could not synchronize with the notes on the paper.

This is what most people who rely on memorizing experience : being out of synch.
It is a very painful experience.

You can train with a simple piece you do not yet have played or memorized.

I recommend using the tool of the book I mentioned because it is incredibly simple and effective.

Sightreading is essential.
Think of the progress mankind has accomplished since writing was discovered.

Please don't laugh. laugh

Good luck.

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