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How to learn sight reading piano

Sight reading means playing the piece without having seen it before let alone rehearsed it. Just playing the notes from the sheet music paper. This is an art in itself. A lot of beginners are struggling with this – for many reasons. Read on if you want to learn sight reading piano music the right way!

 

Sight reading is a challenge. Not only for pianists but also for teachers who are trying to get their students developing this essential skill for everyone who is serious about piano playing. Some people don’t even try it because it’s too complex. But there is a path that you can follow to gradually get better at sight-reading.

 

To master sight reading, you need to master a number of other skills first. First and foremost you need to be familiar with the keyboard. This means you need to have a feeling for the keys and where they are based on your current hand position. So let’s say you’re playing a C then you should be able to play the next note with your eyes closed.

For some people, it takes a few years until they have a feeling for where the keys are without having to look. So if you are a beginner you will likely be looking at the keys almost constantly to make sure you hit the right one. In this case, you are probably not ready yet to learn how to sight read. Every pianist, even the best ones, have to look at the keys at some point. But the better you are the less you will have to look.

 

Another thing you need to know are the musical notes. You need to be able to quickly recognize/identify a note without any counting or other mnemonic that you might have learned at the beginning when you were learning/memorizing the different notes.

For piano music, in particular, you need to be very quick. As a pianist, you usually have two staves: one with the treble clef and one with the bass clef. So you need to be able to look at both staves at the same time and also identify the note instantly. This includes knowing the key of the piece (e.g. F minor).

It’s also beneficial to quickly recognize chords. A chord that consists of two thirds always looks the same in its structure. This means even if you don’t look at all of the notes in the chord, your fingers should be able to play the entire chord correctly because your brain recognizes the chord structure. The same applies to other chords and their inversions.

 

But not only the notes are important to know also everything else around it. This includes accidentals, dynamic marks, different accentuations, fingerings, etc.

Now let’s get started with the actual sight reading!

 

Skimming ahead

 

This is the most important skill you need to master!

First, you should skim through the entire music. This way you will learn the overall difficulty of the piece and what to expect. This can also give you some peace of mind as you will know if it’s going to be a slow piece or maybe there are some runs that you need to be prepared for, etc..

When skimming the entire piece you should also pay attention to the key. If the piece is in F minor, for example, you should mentally prepare to play the four black keys (Bb, Eb, Ab, Dd) that are in F minor.

 

Above said is skimming on a more macro level. You do that before you start playing the music. The real challenge comes on the more micro level.  If you want to know how you can learn sight reading piano you have to master this one in particular.

For this, you look ahead a couple of notes, up to a bar maybe, while you are playing.

If you are just beginning with sight reading, only focus on the next note. More could be too complex at this point. So whenever you play a note, the moment you play the note, already check out the next note. Your brain will remember that next note and tell your fingers where they have to move to hit the right key. This all happens subconsciously, especially if you are a more advanced player already.

You will not succeed in sightreading if you only play and think one note at a time. So if you play a note and only then, after successfully having hit the right key, start looking at the following note, you will not be able to play the piece in the right tempo and not develop sight reading skills.

That’s why skimming ahead is so crucial for this. The more you practice that the more you can skim ahead. Start with one note first and gradually include more notes. Depending on the piece it is sometimes even easier to include an entire run or other musical figures. When skimming ahead, pay attention to things like the rhythm, the pitch, the dynamics, and any other marks.

 

Don’t get discouraged if you find yourself struggling with it. It takes a long time to become a really good sight reader. Start small and practice regularly, preferably daily, on your sight reading skills. From month to month you will notice how your brain gets better at skimming ahead and correctly reproduce it through your fingers.

 

Being good at sight reading has many advantages:

It takes you less time to start playing a new piece. You also won’t need to practice endlessly to be able to play it. Instead, you will be able to play it confidently right from the beginning without having practiced at first. If you play in a band or orchestra it is beneficial if your sight reading skills are well developed in case someone like the conductor hands you new sheet music to play.

 

To sum it up, there is a clear path you can follow if you have wondered how you can learn sight reading piano. And besides it’s obvious advantages, is also a good practice for your brain! Besides that, there are also lots of other benefits of learning the piano.

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Eric Chang

Piano and music blogger

Hi, I’m Eric. I’ve been playing piano for 15 years and wanted to share everything I have learnt with the world.

Eric Chang

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