Sight reading for some pianists is challenging. While every other instrumentalist reads music horizontally, pianists need to sometimes read several notes vertically at one time, and on two staves. However there are ways to make sight reading more enjoyable and manageable.
1. Where are you looking?
It is helpful to understand how the eye functions. Although you may feel like you are staring in a fixed manner at a piece of music, in reality your eye is constantly moving, performing large and small movements, about 4-6 per second. Your eye takes pictures, similar to a camera, and the brain hooks these together, so that it seems like a movie. Therefore, your eye moves ahead in a score, but may return to previous material. Some think that we must always look ahead, but it is not true for effective sight reading. It is essential to preview upcoming music, but the good sight reader must also be able to recognize vertical patterns and be able to increase their vertical span, catching the outer notes rather than simply reading in the middle of two staves.
Studies have shown that good sight readers possess more frequent eye movements, more vertical movements up and down, more movements away from the current notes, and greater ability to move to the highest and lowest notes in the score. Poor readers have fewer eye movements, hover in the middle of the score or on no specific note, have fewer movements away from the current notes, and frequently the eye is rather static, rarely attempting to reach the highest and lowest notes. This demonstrates the importance of vertical eye-span for pianists and reinforces the need to expand the treble to bass reading ability of piano students. To improve this type of skill, pianists should make a habit of learning music hands together at an early stage, as well as hands separately, so that they become used to reading two lines at a time. Studies also show that root position chords (arranged in thirds) are more easily recognized than inversions. Therefore, intervals of a fourth and sixth need more drill than thirds and fifths, and first and second inversion chords need more emphasis than root position chords. It's helpful in the first year of piano study to encourage students to scan for and then circle intervals of the fourth and sixth, as these are frequent stumbling blocks in reading.2. Do you see the bigger picture?
Good sight readers perceive phrase units. Better sight readers have a perceptual span of 6-7 notes of a single line melody, while poor readers have a 3-4 note span. Knowing this information, teachers should be encouraged to add phrase markings in elementary music when none exist. Phrase markings help organize the music for students.
3. How's your rhythm?
Research frequently shows that rhythm errors outweigh all other types of errors when sight reading. Previewing music by tapping and counting the music before playing is enormously helpful. Even with adult students, closing the keyboard cover and tapping the rhythm of the piece hands together not only insures rhythmic accuracy, but also helps to develop coordination before tackling note reading.In one study, sight reading improved for instrumentalists when students were allowed to tap, clap, or mark the beat while playing. Band students are frequently taught to tap their feet as a means to feel the pulse. A flutist or violinist, when performing, has great freedom to move, feeling the natural pulse of the music. Pianists on the other hand, are frequently taught to not pump the arm to the musical beat. Also, feet are occupied on the pedals, not on tapping the rhythm, and in general there is less freedom for pianists to overtly feel the pulse of the music in the body. Because of this lack of externalization of the pulse, young piano students should be encouraged to participate in rhythmic activities away from the piano.
Pianists can borrow another technique from instrumentalists: the “slash” technique. Sight reading improved the most for instrumentalists when students located primary pulses in a measure and made other notes subordinate. The “slash” technique, where students draw a line through the primary beats of the measure is frequently taught to band students and is widely used by professional orchestral musicians. Poor sight readers are unaware of this technique and can benefit enormously by marking or “slashing” primary beats within the measure. It's important to be precise in the slashes, as one then learns to read from slash mark to slash mark, or beat to beat.
Studies also show that following a definite, steady beat was a helpful aid to sight reading. While pianists don't have a conductor, they can make use of metronomes, CDs and the accompaniments that are included with much educational music. At lessons, it can be helpful to have the student clap the rhythm while the teacher plays, or in classes to have the group clap while one or several students perform. It's particularly revealing to have the student point to the music and count while the teacher performs the music. The student's ability to track the music, or read the music, is revealed.
4. Do you cope in a group?
Studies have shown that in piano performance majors, a predictor of sight reading proficiency was the number of hours in accompanying activities and size of accompanying repertoire. Hours of piano practice or a large solo repertoire did not predict good sight reading (however, it is great for technique, memory and performance skills!) . Piano teachers must consciously include ensemble playing from the first lesson.
5. Did you know that music theory helps?
Theory grades are the strongest predictor of improvement in sight reading, rather than previous piano experience. The importance of harmonic understanding was demonstrated in a study: students who memorized most quickly, memorized visually (hearing the music “in their head” and understanding harmonic structure) while looking at the score. They were composition students, not pianists. Because of the complexity of note reading in keyboard music, these studies reinforce the importance of students understanding how music is put together harmonically.
Theory study remains an important component of a piano student's curriculum. In my experience, I have found that the students I have put through theory exams are better sight readers than those who are lazy about it. To those who understand theory, I can help them in sigh treading by saying "that's a root position tonic triad" or "that's a G major chord" or "that's an ascending A minor scale" or "that note is a perfect 5th above the bottom one". Consequently, they learn to apply these concepts to their sight reading and memorization at home.An extension of harmonic understanding, pattern recognition or “chunking,” the ability to process individual notes as a unit, is one of the strongest predictors of good sight reading. Blocking broken chords, including alberti bass type patterns, is very helpful in building facile reading skills.
6. Do you train your ears?
Harmonic understanding includes the ear and ultimately affects good sight reading. Proofreader's error (oversight of a mistake in a highly familiar word), also applies to music. In one study, a piece of familiar music had several notes altered by a step. The better sight readers unintentionally corrected the altered pitches to match their expectation while the poor sight readers played the altered note, although it sounded incorrect. It was even found that auditory skills (the ear) and prediction skills (able to anticipate harmonically or hear in one's head what is “coming up”) are stronger indicators of skilled sight reading, over and above basic pattern recognition.
7. What about your technique?
Obviously, students cannot sight read beyond what they technically can play. The technical fluency necessary for fluid sight reading is developed through careful choice of repertoire, allowing the student to be successful while always providing a challenge that is attainable. The difficult aspect of piano technique, the coordination between two hands of complex movements, is primarily developed through repertoire. Also, research shows that good sight readers conform to the classical notions of fingering. I think that doing scales and arpeggios with correct fingering helps to improve fingering habits, particularly for the young/beginner-immediate level pianist.
8. Are you thinking enough?
In a study of expert pianists who spent two minutes scanning music before sight reading, they focused on meter, complex rhythms, and time signature. Better sight readers spend time previewing and evaluating musical material. As a teacher, guiding students to identifying key and time signature, the form of the piece, and familiar patterns as well as difficult spots, is particularly effective through the use of thoughtful questions that require the student to discover how the piece is constructed.
9. Is your practice inclusive of sight reading exercises?
Sight reading requires careful planning to consistently incorporate into a student's curriculum, as it's one of the easiest items to omit when repertoire, technique, and theory all compete for a share of lesson time. Deciding on a program of study is the most important step for the teacher. Materials that are constructed to include brief daily sight reading, rhythm and ear training assignments, are frequently the most successful with students.
I like to multitask when possible, so sometimes I will assign a weekly study (a piece of music that the student can learn in a week or two) to improve technique, add variety, and will also be great for improving sight reading. It is debilitating for a student to learn only 3-5 pieces per year. Sight reading well involves learning a wide range and large quantity of repertoire.
Waters, A.J. et al.. 1998, "Expertise in musical sight reading: A study of pianists Expertise in musical sight reading: A study of pianists", British Journal of Psychology, 89 (1),<https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232440811_Expertise_in_musical_sight_reading_A_study_of_pianists>
Kostka, M.J. 2000, "The Effects of Error-Detection Practice on Keyboard Sight-Reading Achievement of Undergraduate Music Majors The Effects of Error-Detection Practice on Keyboard Sight-Reading Achievement of Undergraduate Music Majors", Journal of Research In Music Education, 48 (2),< https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238436449_The_Effects_of_Error-Detection_Practice_on_Keyboard_Sight-Reading_Achievement_of_Undergraduate_Music_Majors >