How to Sight-Read On the Piano

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how to sight-read on the piano. Sight-reading is one of the most difficult things you can do on the piano. Sometimes it seems absolutely mind boggling that it’s even possible! An accomplished player can take a piece of music they’ve never seen before and play it up to speed almost perfectly. How can they possibly see everything on the page? It doesn’t seem possible.

When I was young, I was a miserable sight-reader.

Even in high school, when I was a fairly advanced player, I wasn’t good at sight-reading. I was playing Chopin ballades and Liszt Hungarian rhapsodies and Beethoven sonatas, but my reading level was almost that of a beginner. I couldn’t seem to crack it. I have a video about my personal story of learning how to sight-read. You can see that video here. I had a revelatory moment when suddenly I realized I could read anything! Of course, I couldn’t get all the notes. I worked for years to get more and more of the notes in my sight-reading.

Keep your eyes on the music.

You can’t look down when you sight-read. You can’t read what you’re not looking at! You have to depend upon feel to a great extent. You must make the connection between what you hear and what you feel. But what I’m talking about today is something even more fundamental.

When you’re sight-reading, you’re not seeing absolutely everything.

It’s virtually impossible to see everything. There’s so much in a score. All the notes, rhythm, fingering, phrasing andexpression, you can’t see it all. Even that person you think is reading everything perfectly, and maybe it sounds perfect, are they really seeing everything?

Hvae yeu eevr sein tohse wurd jmubles lkie tihs? Evon touhgh i’ts wrtiten inocrerctly, as lnog as tne frist and lsat ltteers are in the coerrct palecs, yeu can sitll reed it.

There are almost no words there at all! How is it possible to read that? Well, You’re not actually looking at every single letter. You’re looking at key letters that form the words, and you’re surmising what the words have to be in the context of the sentences. That’s exactly what you do in sight-reading! You actually look at what you can digest. You get a grasp of the sense of the harmonies. You surmise what the other notes must be based upon the ones you can see. You get an idea of where the music is going and you make many, many instantaneous decisions about what you can’t see. You flesh out all the notes based upon the skeletal image of what you capture reading quickly. Much like reading those jumbled words, you can make sense and you can even realize the music as it’s written without necessarily seeing every single thing in the score. It’s just like you were able to do a few moments ago, if you were able to read those jumbled words. It’s the same principle. So don’t feel like you can never read because there’s too much to see. There is too much to see, but you see what you need to see. Get the melody, of course. Get the bass and some of the inner lines. Get as many notes as you can, and make intelligent assumptions about what those inner voices must be.

Always look at chunks of music.

As I’ve talked about before, you don’t look from note to note. Just like when you’re reading text, you’re not looking at every single letter. It’s impossible to read that way. You look at words. You guess what the words are when reading text and you guess what the chords are when sight-reading music. You can get incredibly good at guessing if you’re experienced, particularly with composers you’ve played before, or styles you’re familiar with. There’s a certain formulaic type of notation that you can get your head around, and you can get pretty good at reading certain styles. There will always be some music where this breaks down, where you can’t even begin to decipher what the composer means. Maybe you’ve never even heard that composer before and you’re lost. But for a great deal of music, the more you do it, the more you’ll be able to assimilate into your fingers and be able to digest what you’re looking at and make musical sense. The key to sight-reading is deciphering the symbols you can grasp on the fly and fleshing out a performance on the spot. That’s what sight-reading is really all about.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with sight-reading. Share them in the comments at LivingPianos.com and YouTube. Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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13 thoughts on “How to Sight-Read On the Piano”


 
 

  1. In college, I listened to an NPR interview with Horowitz and he was asked what it takes to be a good player?
    He said “you have to have a good ear and you have to read well.” So that’s been my focus—do a lot of both types of training.

    But it also takes theory and a lot of technical ability to make it work. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    1. It’s amazing how many skills it takes to play the piano! The 3 macro skills are: memorization, sight-reading, and improvisation. Music theory and the development of finger and wrist technique also enter into becoming a good pianist.

      1. It’s been a slow, but fascinating process to study the individual puzzle pieces of music and slowly they start coming together to make a whole picture.

  2. Hi Robert,
    I always enjoy reading/listening to your information. I’ve been playing for almost 50 years now and teaching just piano for about 16 years. I have a pretty unusual background but I was also a miserable sight reader during the time I was a piano major. I would ask every good sightreader I met, how can I learn. They always said some variation of “do lots of sight reading”. I did exactly that for almost 20 years and worked myself up from miserable to lousy. At that point I discovered a drill book that spoke to me. That book was primarily about developing the feel that I think you’re referring to. About 10 years into my drilling I started working hard at solfegge.

    I experienced my sight reading improving and now I would say I’m somewhere between fair and good. I am looking forward to getting a sight reading job, church or choir accompaniment. Looking back on it all I remember teachers talking about the importance of hearing, but they never really explained it. And I would say as much as you did explain, you can’t really explain what it is about that connection between hearing and feeling and seeing that you tried to describe. I would say that there just aren’t words for it other than musicianship.

    I do have a question for you. I wonder how many or what percentage of pianists, and I mean everyone, professional/non-professional, are functioning sight readers? I’m guessing it’s a large percentage. Would your guess be?
    Thank you again.
    David

    1. Everyone can sight-read some music. It is the level of complexity of the scores people can sight-read that varies. It is rare for a relative beginning piano student to be fluent at sight-reading. Usually, someone either has decent reading skills, or commits music to memory. Having both skills developed is quite rare.

      As for developing the ear for the connection between what you feel and what you hear, for me, I was very fortunate to study with my father, Morton Estrin. Aside from private piano lessons which I started at a young age, I attended all of his theory/sight-singing/harmony/dictation classes he taught weekly which were offered to all of his students. I learned moveable “do” solfeggio from a young age. All the music I hear automatically goes into the syllables. So I can play by ear almost as effortlessly as someone with perfect pitch. This is an incredibly valuable tool, not just for sight-reading, but also for being able to recover seamlessly from any kind of momentary memory issues in performance. It also opens up a myriad styles of music other than classical, such as blues, rock, new age, country, folk and more!

  3. I do think some people are generally oriented toward aural-learning and the sight reading component may feel almost like a distraction. The person who may naturally hear everything may also get impatient with having to read notation. My first piano teacher never played any piece for me, so I had to sight read to figure it out. After 4-5 years, I could read music easily but I did feel insecure without the score. Over time, my ear caught up to my reading, but a lot has to do with how you learn piano. The other issue may be that some people may have visual challenges they don’t know they have, following small notation.

    Thanks for the video!

  4. Wow! Never knew there were people who might be jealous of my ability to sight read. I have always been jealous of those who can play by ear. I find the ability to sight read as a backup to the ultimate ability….playing by ear and memorization. Guess it all depends on how much you depend on one aspect of playing over the other which means those who can tackle and excel at both techniques are the ones with the true talent.

  5. Interesting example of reading the message with scrambled letters. Actually, I can read that, but I can also see all the letters, because I was phonics-trained (and I suspect there is some native talent involved). It is because I CAN see the individual letters that I am good at proofreading, and did proofreading for the documents of a company for awhile. I suspect a really well trained pianist who sight reads well does both as well. I can look at four notes for the left hand playing, say, Mozart, and see the pattern as a pattern, for example, so that is what you are talking about, and I do that. And you make a really good point about this. My problem with sight reading is a bit different. I have trouble translating the notes to my fingers, to get them to play the notes that are there. I’m not sure how to explain it better than that, and I don’t know how to fix that, which I see as a different problem. Any insights you have would be very welcome.

    1. One way you could help develop the connection between what you see and what you play, is to work on increasing the connection between what you hear and what you play. They are inextricably linked. Try singing a melody you make up while playing those same notes on the piano. Then, do the same thing with your eyes closed. This may help you.

  6. I agree with your advice in sight reading…if you’re talking to advanced pianists who have the experience to “flesh” out the music by making intelligent decisions based on past experience. However, for the more basic reader without tons of experience (below grade 9), you touched on some ideas but didn’t elaborate. I would advise: 1) keep eyes on pg 2) force eyes to read ahead 3) practice reading patterns (most simply explained, these are chunks of phrases moving up or down, similar or contrary motion), see the highest and lowest notes in the chunks, see the bass progression (which will lead to “filling” out the harmonies you mentioned), and work on your theory (if one understands chord progressions, it will help toward making educated guesses that you referred to). Finally, one gets better at sight reading by PRACTICING sight reading daily. It’s a difficult thing to convince students to do.

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