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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