The Process of Sight Reading

Sight Reading, sight reading, sight reading! One of my students this week seemed more than a little irritated when I pulled out the sight reading book we’ve been working through in each lesson. “But I know you can be an excellent music reader,” I said, “so we’re going to keep learning a little sight reading every week.” I don’t know if I convinced them or not, but I’ll keep trying.

Becoming a good sight reader is primarily about process and commitment to the process over time. While I wish there was a magic, single-step solution for improving one’s sight reading, there is only diligence. Maybe this is a good thing, after all. As the old proverb says “Diligence is a person’s prize possession.” I treasure my own process of learning to be a great sight reader in my 20s. It’s a part of my musical development I remember very fondly, as I hauled new materials to and from my practice room (or office) each day, followed a step-by-step process I’d been handed, trained my eyes to keep going and my body to maintain a constant pulse. As Philip Cranmer writes, “the good sight-reader is made only by regular practice. This practice must be consistent and it must be frequent. Ten minutes a day is better than two hours once a week” (The Technique of Accompaniment, 39). Amen.

We must find ways to get our students to buy into such a long process. This year, I’ve been going the encouraging route. “Hey, I know you’re a really fine musician, but wouldn’t you like to be able to read these notes quicker?” Or, “I think that you are going to develop into an excellent sight reader, and here’s the process.” Maybe I should be a little more demanding and a little less encouraging when it comes to this course of action, but I’m more a cheerleader than a task master.

Anyway, the point is that we need a process and we need to communicate that process, in small steps, to our students.

Maybe you were a naturally good sight reader. I hear those exist, though I was definitely not one. It may be even more essential for you to research and hone a list of skills and behaviors for your students who don’t share your natural predisposition (as most of them won’t).

Most sight reading curriculums (and books with sections on sight reading) outline processes that share many common traits. Here are some of the most familiar:

Algernon Lindo (in The Art of Accompanying):

1. Notice all the preliminary details (clefs, key signatures, etc.)
2. Read something unfamiliar every day
3. Keep something going (i.e. learn to play with a steady pulse, even if it means eliminating notes or rearranging the score)

Patricia Carter Zagorski (in Sight Reading Homophonic Texture at the Keyboard)

1. Reading with Confidence
2. Tension Prevention
3. The Crucial Constant Pulse
4. No Eyes on the Keyboard
5. Creating Musical Skeletons with a Constant Pulse

Jane Smisor Bastien (in A Line-A-Day)

1. Locate and articulate the preliminaries (key signature, time signature, etc.)
2. Locate beginning hand positions
3. Set a tempo and maintain it, using a metronome, if necessary

John Kember (in Piano Sight-Reading: A Fresh Approach)

1. Look at the time signature
2. Clap or tap the rhythm before you attempt to play
3. Check the key signature and keep the key in your head while playing
4. Locate correct starting positions
5. Look at the music, not your hands

Philip Cranmer (in The Technique of Accompaniment)

1. Develop the habit of playing in strict time
2. Don’t “back correct” (Cranmer’s actual phrase is “no incorrect note or chord is to be played a second time with a view to correcting it”)
3. Think ahead, don’t look ahead
4. Read more than one note at a time. More specifically, read chords, arpeggios and other musical devices as complete entities, not individual notes

Gerald Moore (The Unashamed Accompanist)

1. Sight read collaboratively (i.e. with a singer, violinist, etc.)
2. Don’t read haltingly
3. Keep your eyes a beat or two ahead of your fingers
4. Avoid tunnel vision
5. Consistent tempo takes precedence over correct notes
6. Take in all necessary preliminaries (tempo, meter, etc.) as quickly as possible

You can see how many of these lists have similar items (maintaining a pulse, make sure you look through the preliminaries before you start playing, etc.). This week’s challenge is for your discover your own process, write it down and begin communicating it to your students. Think critically about your successful sight reading. What did you do? How much time did you take with preliminaries? Where did you keep the pulse (internally, in your big toe, with your tongue behind your teeth)? Were you able to overcome the urge to back-correct (stop the pulse and fix something you missed)? If so, how? Knowing our own processes, and the ways we developed them are key to helping our students find their own successful sight reading track.