Self-Training in Sight-Reading (Piano)

Mar 9


Emily Sigers

Emily Sigers

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A good musician should be able to read music as easily as the newspaper. With adequate technique, good eyesight and persistent practice, any pianist may become a good sight-reader. In this case, practice means not the study of music for performance, but the playing at sight of hymns, accompaniments, solo pieces, duets - anything that is within the technical grasp.


Many good performers are poor sight-readers for the reason that mastery of large compositions, Self-Training in Sight-Reading (Piano) Articles which requires many repetitions of small sections at a slow tempo, tends to create an inability to grapple with music in any other way. Here the effort towards accuracy predominates. Thorough study of master works is, of course, indispensable; but the ability to play at sight is equally necessary for the practical musician.

In training one's self, the first condition is that all the music to be read shall be seen for the first time. The secret of success is to be able to manipulate the keyboard while the eyes are steadily held to the page. If one memorizes easily, and is accustomed to play with the eyes upon the keys, the temptation is, at even a second reading, to look away and depend somewhat upon the memory. It is this feeling of dependence or non-dependence upon notes that differentiate between the good sight reader and the good memorizer.

If you play from memory and have the habit of watching the keyboard, confine your reading for a time to music that lies close under your fingers. Or, tie the strings of an apron around your neck, spreading out the skirt over the rack, with the music holding it there, so that your hands are completely hidden. When you cannot see what they are doing, you will not be tempted to look at them; and gradually you will learn to gauge the intervals over which the fingers must pass without the aid of sight.

Getting the Right Kind Of Music:

For sight-reading, always select music well below your technical acquirements, so that the whole attention may be concentrated upon the notes. Look it over carefully before attempting to play. Determine the key and the mode (whether major or minor) and make a mental picture of the scale and the principal chords of that key with reference to the keyboard. Look at the signature, and beat out (surreptitiously, if you are to play before listeners) the rhythm. Note accidentals and changes of key or tempo.

Then, without hesitation or slackening of the time, play straight through with the fewest mistakes possible. Although the ultimate aim is, of course, no mistakes at all, that aim is not furthered by stopping to pick up a lost chord. Keep looking ahead, and follow St. Paul's advice as to forgetting the things that are behind.

Even a foundational knowledge of harmony helps. If one if familiar with tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords in all keys, it will be comparatively easy to grasp the general harmonic scheme; and in playing the bass of duets, or accompaniments for singers, this is the main thing.

But it is not enough to be able to play at sight what is prescribed for the composer. A real musician should have a mental apprehension of the sounds indicated by the printed symbols without hearing them. If you can read and understand a book without saying the words aloud, you can surely become sufficiently familiar with notes to read and understand music in the same way.

Try to cultivate this real musicianship. Take something very simple, but unfamiliar. Play over the scale and the opening harmony, so as to be sure of the pitch. Sing in your mind some of the melodic intervals, and test them at the piano. Form a distinct mental picture of the sound of a chord, and test this in the same way. Try a succession of melodic intervals, then of chords, then a whole phrase, melody and harmony together, endeavoring first to comprehend the effect away from the piano, but finally playing them to verify or correct your impression.

Eventually the printed symbols will come to represent definite sounds; and when your brain so understands the music, your fingers will unhesitatingly obey its promptings.

To acquire facility in sight-reading there is just one all-comprehensive prescription: read. Read all the music you can find that is within, or, still better, below your technical grasp. It is not necessary to play it in the prescribed tempo, but go through to the end without hesitation. Try to get at least the initial notes of each measure, but trust to the future for ability to get them all. It is sure to come with time and perseverance.