Sight Reading – Your Best Practice Habit!

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I fell in love with the sound of the piano at an early age. I hounded my mother for a piano and begged anyone I knew who played, to teach me. I learned the basics over time and had some great teachers. However, while I never lacked for scales, arpeggios, and pieces to practice, I wasn’t introduced to the concept of daily sight reading until much later in my training. You might say that I “came late to the party” so to speak and now I am determined that no one shall miss out on the opportunity to develop this excellent skill.

While most students learn to “read” a piece through constant repetition, the goal of sight reading is different: it is to play the piece as perfectly as possible 1 or 2 times. Any more than that is crossing the line into learning the piece, and therefore defeats the purpose of sight reading. To do this successfully, students need to be good information gatherers. They need to observe the key signature, time signature, intervals, phrases, possible fingerings, accidentals, the composer, and dynamic markings of the piece and play it in their heads before touching the keys. This sequence of learning helps set them up for success.

Let me share with you some of the great resources out there available for piano students that are worthwhile investing in.

For the younger students, I like the Faber “Adventures in Sight Reading” books, as well as the excellent “A Line A Day Sight Reading” by Jane Smisor Bastien. Bastien also has a collection of pop music, classical, hymns, folk songs, and Christmas songs at different levels suitable for sight reading. Having students read material that they are already familiar with from time to time makes it extra fun – and we like fun!  Another great series I recommend for both younger and intermediate students is: “Sight Reading and Rhythm Every Day” by Helen Marlais with Kevin Olson. They are marvelous! They have a rhythm exercise that may have the student clapping and chanting, some pencil work that gets them to further interact with the material, and then two four bar measures hands separate (H.S.) to read. This series also emphasizes theory and technique coupled with sight reading and is incredibly thorough. I also love and use the “Four Star Sight Reading and Ear Training” series recommended by the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM). I love the digital component – unbeatable!  As well, I like to use the higher-level Faber classical and pop collections for RCM levels 2-4. These books make it easy to assign daily exercises.

I do believe that playing a piece at first sight is the “ultimate skill” and one that will help to keep the student loving and playing music over a lifetime. Good readers also are equipped to become great accompanists, rehearsal pianists, and can handle the heavy demands of university level music study. Making it a habit now is just one of those great decisions your future self will thank you for!

Julie Boettcher, piano and voice teacher

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