Are you’re already familiar with reading music and navigating your instrument but feel like you’re hitting a wall?
Below are 6 tips that can help improve your sight reading for Intermediate Players.
But before we begin,
Let me validate you and say yes - Sight reading is a VERY difficult task. It may come more naturally to some than others, but that doesn’t take away from the difficulty because it is such a complex text.
Sight reading is the act of playing a piece of music for the first time while also reading the music for the first time. It involves immediately putting EVERY musical skill together without prior planning - reading, interpreting, coordination, looking ahead, good ear, well integrated technique etc.
Here are 6 tips that can help improve your sight reading:
1) Don’t look down at the keys. Eyes on the music and use your peripheral vision.
This was one of the smallest yet most impactful changes that immediately improved my sight reading abilities - and it makes sense!
When the eyes move around, your attention will also move around. So if your eyes are darting up and down and all around to find your place, it becomes disorienting for your eyes and attention to process what is going on. It’s also building in a bit of a processing lag with all the task switching - finding your place in the music to interpret the symbols and then task switching to find your place on the keyboard- and then repeat.
As a result, you need to keep your eyes steady on the music so that you know what the instructions are. Use your hands to feel around your instrument for the notes and also use your peripheral vision to help you.
You’ll REALLY get know you instrument by playing without looking. Bonus - your instrument will start to truly develop as being an extension of you- which will also help your technique over all ;)
If you really want to super boost learning this skill of playing without looking at the keys, lay a bedsheet over the keys to cover your hands. It will really develop your knowledge of the instrument and show you just how much you look up and down (and also how much you might not need ;) )
2) Read in groups/chunks, chords, scales, patterns etc. This is how you start to “look ahead”
When I had a teacher try to explain “looking ahead” I thought they literally meant that I should be looking at least a bar ahead while playing a bar behind.
I found this to be an impossible task.
Maybe some people are capable of this but I think what they were trying to get at was to not hyper focus on a single note.
Instead, you look ahead by seeing a bigger picture through recognizing patterns, scales, chords, intervals etc.
For example, instead of reading one note at a time (C-D-E-F-G),zoom out and take a “bigger picture” view of the music and recognize that you have a C major scale coming up. That’s much less taxing for the mind and your hands will know how to play a C major scale. That frees up your mental power to start looking beyond the scale to see what’s next.
3) Read notes in relation to each other - also known as directional or intervallic reading
Some readers might have been brought up with “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge”. Using these acronyms is a fast and easy way to read individual notes
However, this method has a limit.
Especially in Sight reading, its limit is dependant on how quickly YOU can process identifying a large number notes one at a time.
Directional or intervallic reading encourages to draw relationships between notes. This is where the foundational skill of reading ahead and reading in groups begin.
So if you see 5 notes - C-D-E-F-G. A reader that was brought up with the pneumonic devices might run through “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” for each note to figure out the notes. Almost as though each note is its own isolated event.
A directional reader would see that they start on “C” and just move up the piano by step for 5 notes.
As a sight reader, you need to be able to read directionally and individually when it’s appropriate so it’s very advantageous to develop both these skills.
4) Consider if your technique holding you back.
For some, you may be hitting a wall because you can read the music quickly enough but your hands don’t know what or how to do it at the same speed of your reading skills.
Consider this: Perhaps you have no trouble reading a second language but when it comes to actually reading it out loud or speaking it - that’s another story.
Music is very similar to a language in this way. You might be able to identify a C major scale easily when the tempo is at 60bpm, but maybe you trip up playing that scale at 60 bpm. If so, then you can’t expect yourself to be able to sightread faster than your hands can take you as well.
Practice those scales ;)
5) Pick music that is at least 2-3 levels BELOW your repertoire.
As mentioned before sight reading is a very complex task because you have to implement all the musical skills immediately.
When studying your own music, you can take your time and break down the necessary skills you need to be able to play it.
As a result, you can’t expect to be able to sightread read music that is already challenging for you,
Choosing music that is 2-3 levels below your current repertoire will give you the change to practice using all your musical skills as once in a fluid way. After all, you want to practice being able to use all your skills immediately (aka. sight reading) - not practicing how to practice; save that for your repertoire
6) Pick a slow and comfortable tempo and don’t leave it. It’s more important to keep a steady beat.
Going along with the previous tip about being able to use all your skill immediately…
Part of being a good sight reader is that ability to read and play smoothly. So in order to practice that, you need to practice being comfortable with picking a tempo that allows your mind and hands to move around that piano without hiccups. Finding that comfortable tempo also gives you mind enough time to be aware of itself and organize what it needs to think about in real time.
If you pick a tempo that is too fast for you to read the music, you’ll be practicing in a state of jagged panic. If you pic a tempo that is too slow, you will start to lose focus and make mistakes you wouldn’t otherwise.
When in doubt, turn on that metronome as a comfortable tempo to not only push you forward as you play, but also to help you become aware of what is a good tempo for you and the piece you’re trying to sight read
I hope these tips will help! A friendly reminder that sight reading is a skill that takes time to build - just like learning a new piece. So don’t be discouraged at your rate of improvement. I have found with myself and my students that sight reading often feels like silent growth. You won’t notice your improvement until one day, you go back to previous works you’ve read and you find it less challenging.
Have I missed any tips? What tips on Sight Reading could you share? Let us know in the comments!
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