Tips for Improving Your Sightreading – Sightreading Part 2

Piano Lessons / general / Tips for Improving Your Sightreading – Sightreading Part 2

Last week we discussed the importance of sightreading and why it’s a required skill for many musician. This week I will offer some helpful tips and tricks to improve your sightreading!

As a personal note, as a child I progressed to a fairly high level on the piano. By high school I was playing Beethoven Sonatas, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies, Chopin Ballades; overall very advanced music. However, even though I progressed to a high level, I always had something holding me back as a musician; I was not a very good sightreader.

My sightreading was on such a low level in high school that when the choir director came to me with a stack of music to accompany his choir when his pianist was unavailable, I had to decline. He probably thought I was being rude. But I simply didn’t possess the skills to get this done – I would have had to memorize all the scores and there simply wasn’t enough time!

So how did I change this? It really came to me in an “Aha!” moment. My father, Morton Estrin was set to perform the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor piano concerto at Carnegie hall and he needed to play the concerto with someone playing the orchestra part at the second piano. He handed me the score – which if you’ve ever seen, is a very thick book. I told him I couldn’t read it and I would end up missing half the notes.

I opened up the score to face a swarm of black notes splattered all over the pages; it was going to be a challenge for sure. I realized immediately that if I looked away from the page I would definitely get lost. So I decided to put my fingers at the starting keys and simply play what I could but never look away from the score. I counted like crazy staying with the party as best I could. We went through the entire concerto, all three movements, and I never got lost! Although I missed tons of notes, to my surprise it didn’t seem to matter. All my father needed was to run the concerto and that we did.

I learned something incredibly valuable that day. Keeping your eyes on the music and keeping the music flowing in time is critical to your sightreading success. But even more important is playing with other musicians and sight reading with them is essential for developing your reading. It will greatly improve your sightreading capabilities to perform as a group. Sure, you can practice every day by yourself (and you should) but it’s not until you actually start playing with other musicians that you will be forced to keep the music flowing.

With complex music sometimes it’s necessary to approach the score like a skeleton and flesh out the music. As your sightreading develops, you will realize more substantial elements of the score over time.

What’s more important than actually playing all the notes when sightreading is to keep the general character of the music going, keep the nuances of expression and timing; all of this is much more important than just playing all the notes. Especially when you are in a group setting, it’s more important to have a coherent, unified sound.

Practicing this way will enable you to become a much better sightreader over time. Practicing every day, playing with other musicians, and especially staying in time with the music will enable you to develop your sightreading. Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin at

2 thoughts on “Tips for Improving Your Sightreading – Sightreading Part 2”

  1. Hi Robert:
    I enjoy all of your articles, and many thanks to you for keeping this forum going.
    I have the same problem as you did, earlier in your career;
    I get fixated to notes and try to play everything correctly
    so you are proposing “just go ahead and play it” am I understanding you right?; I don’t know so any “pearls” or tips is greatly appreciated. I thank you very much in advance.

    Brandon Morad

    1. Brandon-

      You are right. In some situations, it is better to make your way through a piece getting a sense of it, rather than tear it apart as you go. Certainly this does not apply to practicing! It is vital that you make the distinction between sightreading and practicing. They serve different purposes and have completely different methodologies.
      So long as you are clear as to what you are trying to achieve, there is definitely a place for reading through a piece to familiarize yourself with it, or to run it with other musicians even when it is not up to a high standard performance level. Just don’t fall into the trap of reading through something with inaccuracies again and again.
      Best wishes,

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