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Hello! I am an early advanced piano student, and I've always felt vexed when faced with sight-reading anything past a beginner/easy level. It's not that I can't sight-read some intermediate material-- I pull it off sometimes-- but I still feel like I don't know what I'm doing overall when it comes to sight-reading a piece. The procedure as I've been taught and as I understand it, is as follows:

[*]Determine the key
[*]Consider the composer/time period
[*]Analyze dynamics, tempo, character, articulation, fingerings, etc.
[*]Analyze rhythm/harmony/melody in sections that look especially difficult

.. and go!

This is how I was taught to sightread, and to be completely honest, if you sat me down for 5 minutes straight in front of a piece and let me dissect it on my own, I'd probably produce quite an exceptional sight-reading of the piece for my standards. Does that really count though? To go through all these steps in earnest could honestly take me somewhere around 1 min, maybe 2 for longer pieces. But I understand that the proper way to go about sight-reading is to analyze the piece for only a few seconds or so before playing.

I have more uncertainties about sight-reading, so to any exceptional sight-readers looking through this post right now, it would be great if you could maybe answer one of my questions:

[*] Is my aforementioned procedure correct? Is it missing anything notable?
[*] When did sight-reading become one of your strengths? How did you get there?
[*] How often do you look at your hands while sightreading?
[*] I've heard that trying to see music in intervals is the best way to sight-read. Is this accurate? How does this translate to chords?
[*] I can't sightread much past moderate tempo at the moment. Any advice on sightreading faster pieces?
[*] Any sightreading materials / methods you would recommend?

And anything else on-topic and notable would be of great help to me.

I used to practice sight-reading daily, and I'm trying to get back into it now. I'm hoping that I can make even better strides this time with some advice from others. Thank you so much for reading smile

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I mentioned this in the other thread about reading backwards, but by far the greatest step-function improvement in my sight reading was to work with a vocal teacher and accompany her students during their lessons (something I did in college). I'm sure it would work just as well for teachers of other instruments.

The pressure of having to maintain tempo, provide some sense of the music, and not cause any problems for the vocalist or interfere with the lesson in any way is the most aggressive way to improve sight-reading that I can think of. The first few weeks I did it I was exhausted afterwards, but after a while I became pretty comfortable, and could add more and more detail to my sketch of the piano part as I was sight-reading for the fist time. It's a great forcing function to force you to drastically improve your sight-reading rather quickly.

The trick she taught me first was that the left-hand is paramount. It's the foundation of the music, and even if you have to simplify it, continuing to play some aspect of the left hand is key to good sight-reading, and then you try to keep as much of the right-hand intact as you can. This is mostly for accompanying, but I found it (slightly) useful when sight-reading piano solo music as well.

In terms of sight-reading for yourself, I think the main thing is just doing a lot of it over time. If you always sight-read a piece once a week, your mind simply has to get used to trying to work quicker at parsing the music and deriving enough of it to get some sense of the music. You end up with a sort of hierarchy of needs for the music — if the piece is hard and totally unfamiliar, you're not going to get more than some of the basic contours of the piece out, but the easier or more familiar the piece is, the more nuanced an interpretation you might be able to get in your first pass.

I would alternate between sight-reading music that you know fairly well (from listening to it), and sight-reading music that you've never heard before. Both are different skills, and both are useful for the overall ability to sight-read.

Also, sight-reading atonal or even 12-tone music occasionally is useful, as it takes away some of the pattern-matching your brain is accustomed to and really forces you to exercise the core reading skill quite aggressively.

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Originally Posted by Curious Lad
Hello! I am an early advanced piano student, and I've always felt vexed when faced with sight-reading anything past a beginner/easy level. It's not that I can't sight-read some intermediate material-- I pull it off sometimes-- but I still feel like I don't know what I'm doing overall when it comes to sight-reading a piece. The procedure as I've been taught and as I understand it, is as follows:

[*]Determine the key
[*]Consider the composer/time period
[*]Analyze dynamics, tempo, character, articulation, fingerings, etc.
[*]Analyze rhythm/harmony/melody in sections that look especially difficult
You asked a lot of questions but for starters I wouldn't worry much about the last three items on your above list. Sight reading isn't very much about having a prepared list of what to do before starting. It's mostly about the ability to read and play the notes/rhythms. In some sight reading exams I think one is given some time to look over the piece beforehand and one should, of course, take advantage of that using some of your last three items.

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+1 to everything pianoloverus said.

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Thank you very much for the reply

I find that especially in classical / homophonic pieces, with easy to read underlying chords, that just trying to maintain the lower left-hand chords while doing my best at the melody would usually create a desirable sounds.

Also, what kind of music was the choir / vocal ensemble that you were accompanying practicing? Might there be any benefit to me picking up similar music and trying to sight-read it to tempo on my own to replicate such an experience (albeit unfaithfully)? I heard that hymns are good for practicing chord progressions, though I haven't tried it out myself.

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Thank you very much for the reply

I suppose that I should treat sight-reading more as a literal exercise in "reading on-sight." Maybe I'm not allowing my on-sight recognition abilities to develop because I am trying to look too far into the piece before I play it.

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Quote
. . .
[*]Analyze dynamics, tempo, character, articulation, fingerings, etc.
[*]Analyze rhythm/harmony/melody in sections that look especially difficult

I think you're right -- if you're analyzing dynamic markings before you play, you're "looking too far into the piece".

The "look-forward" distance is going to be less than a measure, I suspect. But it should be more than a note.

The nice thing about hymns (for sight-reading practice) is that they're usually slow enough so that "one note look-ahead" is adequate. The hard thing is that they're 4-part harmony, and the pattern recognition that you use for piano music --

. . . "Oh, Alberti bass, G major, in this measure"

doesn't help you.


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If the piece is fairly easy, I can read forward about 3-4 measures. But keeping a 3-4 measure buffer in my head is very strenuous and I don't recommend it. It's exhausting. And it is impossible if the piece is anywhere near difficult. So as @Charles Cohen says, about 1 measure is about right.

I do sort of "sense" if there's a big change coming up. I'll usually notice a "f" a few bars ahead, or a change in tempo or key signature, and that gives me just enough time to figure out what it is without having to stop. But that's more subconscious that anything — it's not something I look for, but my brain spots it for me anyways. If it's after a page turn, then I'm pretty screwed, but if I'm accompanying someone during a lesson, they'll generally forgive that.

Originally Posted by CuriousLad
Also, what kind of music was the choir / vocal ensemble that you were accompanying practicing? Might there be any benefit to me picking up similar music and trying to sight-read it to tempo on my own to replicate such an experience (albeit unfaithfully)? I heard that hymns are good for practicing chord progressions, though I haven't tried it out myself.

It was arias, Italian art songs, Purcell, Dowland, few other things. You can pick it up and try to sight-read it to tempo, and there's some value in that, but I think the majority of the value is the pressure of having people depend on you to get through it. Obviously, if you're helping them out, you're doing them a favour and they don't mind if you're doing your best, but the desire to be the source of as little friction as possible is a tremendous incentive to sharpen your skills.

Or on a more casual note, if you know someone that can sing, then just sight-reading folk songs or something like that (Beck's Song Reader?) with them as they sing will serve the same function. The desire to not be the reason the music stops is a great incentive.

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The kind of sight reading one must aim for when playing with other instrumentalists or accompanying a singer is not important to work on unless one does that with some frequency. One doesn't need to worry about not stopping or slowing down or leaving out notes to simplify the piece when one is sight reading a solo piano piece for oneself. On some piano exams, those skills would be important because that's one way they can evaluate sight reading skill.

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Originally Posted by Curious Lad
This is how I was taught to sightread, and to be completely honest, if you sat me down for 5 minutes straight in front of a piece and let me dissect it on my own, I'd probably produce quite an exceptional sight-reading of the piece for my standards. Does that really count though? To go through all these steps in earnest could honestly take me somewhere around 1 min, maybe 2 for longer pieces. But I understand that the proper way to go about sight-reading is to analyze the piece for only a few seconds or so before playing.

Why is that important to you ? Unless you are training for specific exams which will put you under particular constraints, you can spend as much time as you want before playing. You seem like you are training for a wordwide competition ...

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Originally Posted by Curious Lad
I have more uncertainties about sight-reading, so to any exceptional sight-readers looking through this post right now, it would be great if you could maybe answer one of my questions:

[*] Is my aforementioned procedure correct? Is it missing anything notable?
[*] When did sight-reading become one of your strengths? How did you get there?
[*] How often do you look at your hands while sightreading?
[*] I've heard that trying to see music in intervals is the best way to sight-read. Is this accurate? How does this translate to chords?
[*] I can't sightread much past moderate tempo at the moment. Any advice on sightreading faster pieces?
[*] Any sightreading materials / methods you would recommend?

And anything else on-topic and notable would be of great help to me.

I used to practice sight-reading daily, and I'm trying to get back into it now.
You are overthinking things.

Sight-reading piano music is seriously not complicated - and I should know, because I did all eight ABRSM grade exams which require sight-reading, and always got close to maximum marks each time. No tricks involved (and none were forthcoming by my teachers either): I just sight-read everything I could get my hands on for pleasure, regardless of its difficulty level. I had no idea what 'grade' the pieces I sight-read were: they were mostly all in big volumes with titles like "Bach: French Suites", "Selected Scarlatti Sonatas", or "complete Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven/Schubert Sonatas", or "Complete Chopin Waltzes" etc. If there was any tempo or expression indication I didn't understand (the ones in German and French usually foxed me, as most of the terms I had to learn for my ABRSM theory exams were in Italian), I looked it up.

I could sight-read stuff that I couldn't play successfully because my technical skills had yet to catch up. And, as I mentioned in another thread, I often played duets with a violinist as well as another pianist, both of whom were at the same (grade) level as me, and with similar sight-reading abilities, so we never thought that what we were doing as anything unusual. That, plus singing in my school choir (for which all choristers had to be able to sight-sing) helped to ensure that I always kept strict time, regardless of any mistakes.

When I needed to look at my hands, I did. If not, I kept my eyes on the score. Familiarity breeds....not contempt, but fluency and speed. Patterns - scales and runs, and arpeggios and chords - could be easily recognized at a glance once you've become familiar with reading them. Did I mention "familiarity breeds fluency & speed"? Same for developing position sense with your fingers & hands, including jumps, wide arpeggiated chords etc.

The best advice anyone can give you is to sight-read a wide range of real music by real composers (i.e. not computer-generated tosh such as you might get from so-called 'sight-reading books' and videos) - and read, not memorize your pieces. Every piece you learn that you don't have to memorize for performance etc. If you find yourself having to memorize before you can play your pieces at tempo, there's something seriously wrong with your reading skills.

BTW, when you start learning to read, you'd be using intervals: learning to recognize thirds, fifths, octaves etc, but you should be well beyond all that by now.


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Overanalyzing is an understatement. A lot of this has nothing to do with sightreading (analyzing... whatever).

I sight read very well just like I read books very well. No one taught me any of those methods that I can remember, I've always been able to sightread well since a child, just like I could always read well from age 6.

It's just like reading a book to me, nothing special. Once you learn the alphabet and how to read, you don't need to do all that stuff when you pick up a new book to read, you just read because you know how to read. Music on the page is no different to me than reading a book. I know what the notes represent on the staff and notation terms/jmarks, so I just read them. I don't do anything to prepare in advance. not a single thing. Of course when I look at the piece, I notice the key so I know sharps/flats that are required, that's part of sightreading to me.

What you are describing isn't sight reading to me.

The rest sounds like when you practice and want to polish a piece to play it well.

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@CuriousLad, I gave this a bit more thought, and I think you can break sight-reading down into a few distinct components. There's a bit of a triangle between the score, the interpretation, and the physical performance, and each edge of that gives you:

* Developing an understanding of what the music should sound like, on-the-fly, from the score
* Understanding literally which notes you should be playing, based on the score
* Understanding what to do with your fingers based on your understanding of the piece (executing an interpretation)

I suspect each of those is a different part of your brain working — together, of course — and then producing a single output. My suggestion of sight-reading different things (familiar works, unfamiliar works, unfamiliar atonal works) allows you to exercise different edges of that triangle by putting a focus on it, which should improve your overall sight-reading ability by removing some of the friction in each area.

If you sight-read a piece you know very well from listening, but have never played — your brain is going to lean more on getting your fingers to execute an idea (interpretation) of the music that is already quite developed and the score is mostly just there to help, and this is a great skill to work on. If the piece is really familiar, then this becomes sort of halfway between sight-reading and playing by ear.

And if you sight-read an unfamiliar piece of music, your brain has a lot less to work with and you are going to spend a lot more brain cycles trying to understand what the music should sound like and whether you are doing it right. In this case, my brain tends to reach 100% CPU pretty quickly with music of any complexity as I am simultaneously trying to parse it as instructions, construct an interpretation on the fly, and then listen to myself and match it to my emerging interpretation.

But even there, I rely heavily on familiar patterns in baroque, classical, and romantic music. If I take less tonal music (or music that relies less on familiar tonalities, chords, chord progressions), it really forces me to spend a lot more energy on the lower-level parsing, which bogs me down significantly. While that can be frustrating, it's also a great way to improve my speed on lower-level parsing in ways that are beneficial to sight-reading other music. I wouldn't go for computer-generated music, but something like Hindemith, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ives, etc. — in this case, it's not immediately obvious whether I played the right note, but as I build out my understanding, it does start to fit into place and the right notes matter — something that doesn't really work for randomly generated notes.

I think it's good to do a bit of each from time to time, though as everyone points out, the main thing is to just keep doing it.

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I consider myself a pretty good sight reader. The most helpful thing you can do is to read a lot of music and familiarize yourself with all the patterns.

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Originally Posted by Jun-Dai
@CuriousLad, I gave this a bit more thought, and I think you can break sight-reading down into a few distinct components. There's a bit of a triangle between the score, the interpretation, and the physical performance, and each edge of that gives you:

* Developing an understanding of what the music should sound like, on-the-fly, from the score
* Understanding literally which notes you should be playing, based on the score
* Understanding what to do with your fingers based on your understanding of the piece (executing an interpretation)

I suspect each of those is a different part of your brain working — together, of course — and then producing a single output. My suggestion of sight-reading different things (familiar works, unfamiliar works, unfamiliar atonal works) allows you to exercise different edges of that triangle by putting a focus on it, which should improve your overall sight-reading ability by removing some of the friction in each area.

If you sight-read a piece you know very well from listening, but have never played — your brain is going to lean more on getting your fingers to execute an idea (interpretation) of the music that is already quite developed and the score is mostly just there to help, and this is a great skill to work on. If the piece is really familiar, then this becomes sort of halfway between sight-reading and playing by ear.

And if you sight-read an unfamiliar piece of music, your brain has a lot less to work with and you are going to spend a lot more brain cycles trying to understand what the music should sound like and whether you are doing it right. In this case, my brain tends to reach 100% CPU pretty quickly with music of any complexity as I am simultaneously trying to parse it as instructions, construct an interpretation on the fly, and then listen to myself and match it to my emerging interpretation.

But even there, I rely heavily on familiar patterns in baroque, classical, and romantic music. If I take less tonal music (or music that relies less on familiar tonalities, chords, chord progressions), it really forces me to spend a lot more energy on the lower-level parsing, which bogs me down significantly. While that can be frustrating, it's also a great way to improve my speed on lower-level parsing in ways that are beneficial to sight-reading other music. I wouldn't go for computer-generated music, but something like Hindemith, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ives, etc. — in this case, it's not immediately obvious whether I played the right note, but as I build out my understanding, it does start to fit into place and the right notes matter — something that doesn't really work for randomly generated notes.

I think it's good to do a bit of each from time to time, though as everyone points out, the main thing is to just keep doing it.

This is such a great post. You break it down so well- thank you for your analysis and your tips!


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