4 Things Pianists Can Do to Improve Their Sight-Reading

If you’re a singer, you might be used to singing in choirs. Maybe you’ve been in shows, perhaps in the chorus where there’s been plenty of ensemble singing. If you’re an instrumentalist, you might play in a band or orchestra. Maybe you play in chamber ensembles, quartets or trios.

Being part of these groups, singing and playing with others means you’ll be sight-reading on a regular basis. You’ll also be used to keeping going. The choir won’t wait for you while you work out the interval in bar 9, and the orchestra won’t wait for you while you work out for the fingering for the trill in bar 11.

If you’re a pianist, then the situation is probably a little different. In general, many pianists don’t play regularly with others. Pianists are not used to playing in ensembles in the same way as the singers and instrumentalists mentioned above. By consequence, pianists are often not used to sight-reading and keeping up with an ensemble in the same way.

I’m certainly not suggesting that pianists are at a disadvantage when it comes to sight-reading, but maybe they have to work a bit harder and perhaps more creatively to hone those skills.

With that in mind, if you’re a pianist and you’d like to improve your sight-reading*, here are some things which I think can really help. Most of them are pretty fun too!

*My usual disclaimer that sight-reading is something we, as musicians, do all the time. Every time we start learning a new piece, we’re sight-reading. Sight-reading is for life, not just exams.

1. Play duets

In my view, playing duets is seriously underrated, not just as a skill, but as an enjoyable act of making music with others. I’ve blogged previously about the benefits of playing duets and also written an article for Piano Professional magazine on the subject.

Playing duets (also trios, music for two pianos etc.) can be a great way for pianists to experience some of the things which singers and instrumentalists encounter regularly in the ensembles they play with. Above all, you have to be able to keep going, particularly if you get to the point where you’re performing your duets in an exam, festival or other public arena.

If you’re a teacher, then I can highly recommend Paul Harris’ Improve Your Sight-Reading! Duets books. There are two available one for up to Grade 1 and one for Grades 2-3. Not only are the a great way to improve your sight-reading (particularly in conjunction with the other books in the series) but also improving it in the context of playing with someone else. This means both keeping up and keeping going.

2. Accompany

I have accompanied for a long time. Until you accompany on a regular basis, I don’t think many people fully appreciate the amount of skill that is required. Firstly, accompanists are often required to sight-read at short notice (often at no notice). This is something you have to get used to pretty quickly. I once accompanied an exam with only five minutes notice when the candidate’s accompanist didn’t turn up. In such situations, there is no time to learn, practise or seek to perfect the piece. You’ve just got to do your best: play it and keep going.

Secondly, as an accompanist, you realise pretty quickly that in order to make a success of it, keeping up with the soloist (or ensemble) trumps everything else. You also have to remain constantly alert to what they’re doing. You need to be prepared to skip a page when they turn two pages at once or shout out a bar number when they’re lost. All this means that you may play some wrong notes, you may be able to keep only one hand going or may need to improvise for a few bars, but you have to keep going.

If, as a pianist, you have to opportunity to do some accompanying, grab it. Start small though: you don’t have to rush off and accompany a concert soloist in public. Most singers and instrumentalists would be only too glad of someone else to play with.

3. Play with accompaniment tracks

Sometimes, as a pianist, it’s actually quite fun to play with other people, and playing with backing tracks is a good way to start. Backing tracks are much maligned, but they have their place. You can now get music in a whole range of styles and genres that you can play along too: everything from Disney favourites to the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. If you don’t have a duet partner or a willing soloist to accompany, backing tracks can be a good alternative.

Playing along to backing tracks is, once again, useful because it requires you to keep going, to keep up with the music. It also means you have to listen to what else is going on, much as you would in a duet of if you were accompanying. One of the biggest problems with sight-reading is that people either play far too slowly in pursuit of note-accuracy or people simply stop and start and the piece has no sense of flow or continuity. I find that pianists in particular are quite bad for this, so anything you can do which gets you used to keeping going, is vital.

You may also find it useful to find some pieces which have sections set aside for improvisation. Scary as improvisation may be, it can be hugely useful to the sight-reader (especially as an accompanist)!

4. Record yourself

Recording yourself has two potential benefits here. Firstly, recording yourself adds a bit of pressure to your performance. Rather like an exam or performance, you have to deliver in that moment; there’s no going back.

Secondly, try recording yourself sight-reading. Then, go back and listen to your performance. What do you notice? For example, can you tap a steady pulse whilst you listen back to yourself? Does it feel like a continuous flowing piece, or does it stop and start?

Improving your ability to play at sight will take time. It requires consistent work and a critical ear. Above all, one of the most important things about sight-reading is the ability to keep going. There are many instances, as cited above where a steady pulse, rhythm and tempo, by necessity trump note accuracy.


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4 Things Pianists Can Do to Improve Their Sight-Reading

5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing Programme Notes

Writing notes for a concert programme may seem daunting. It is a professional skill, but also required for some music performance examinations and for local amateur concerts. In this guest post, Ruth Carlyle shares her suggestions based on experience of writing programme notes for performance examinations.

1. What is the purpose of the notes?

The purpose of the programme notes will vary by context.  At a functional level, they provide the audience with details about each piece, including the composer and date. More widely, the notes tell the story of the concert: why the pieces were selected, how they link together, or where there are contrasting styles. For examinations, there will be specific criteria that need to be met and should be checked before starting to work on the notes.

2. What do the notes contain?

Programme notes inform an audience about what it is they are to hear, but may also introduce particular ways of understanding. Details for each piece include: the composer and, where appropriate, lyricist; the date of composition; and whether it is part of a longer work. Where a song is performed in a language that is not native to most of the audience, a translation is needed. Whether or not a translation should be included has to be established early, as it will need to be accounted for in the word count and in the layout. The copyright on any translation will need to be checked, which adds to preparation time. The notes also cover key features of a work that the audience may listen out for in the performance and indications of the period and style.

3. What research is needed?

Knowing about the background to a work helps you to select the key points that may be of interest to an audience.  If you are unsure how to describe a piece, it is sometimes helpful to look at notes published with music recordings to see how other people have described the work. Do not copy other people’s words, however: legally, they will be subject to copyright; and practically, they tell a different story for someone else’s concert or recording.

With the research, consider what it is that you need to know.

Sources on the composer and lyricist:

  • Biographical dictionaries (usually free online access through your local public library);
  • Biographies (available on loan from your local public library or through inter-library loan that your local library can organise);
  • Music dictionaries and encyclopaedia.

Sources on musical styles and periods:

  • Music dictionaries and encyclopaedia;
  • Journals and books on music;
  • Background notes in edited music volumes;
  • Your own experience of performance and listening to music.

Sources on the words (where appropriate):

  • Text of the full work from which an extract is taken;
  • Literary biographies;
  • Introductions to anthologies or collected volumes by that writer.

4. Where do I start with writing the programme notes?

You are likely to have a limited word count, based on criteria for an examination or the style and production costs for the programme. Knowing that you have only a few words should not stop you from starting to write. Tell the story of the programme. The story could be why the pieces have been selected, such as for a particular anniversary or on a set of themes.

Once you have introduced the story, you can start to add in the details of each piece.  You might choose to describe each piece separately, or to weave them into the story. Describe the pieces in the same order as they appear in the concert, otherwise the audience may be confused.

When you have a full draft, you can go back to edit the text to meet the word count and ensure that it is a balanced account, giving appropriate weight across the concert items.

5. How will I know whether I have produced good programme notes?

At the draft stage, ask a friend or colleague to review your text. Did it make sense to them? Did it make them want to listen to the music? Did they learn anything new or unexpected from the programme notes? 

Good programme notes should add to the enjoyment of a performance. They are not an end in themselves, but should inform an audience about what is being performed and inspire them to listen and to form their own views on the music.


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5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Writing Programme Notes

Setting the tempo: working with accompanists when there is no rehearsal time

David Barton Music student, Ruth Carlyle, has taken part in two local festivals and has also worked with many other accompanists on fairly limited rehearsal time. Thank you to Ruth for sharing her experiences of and tips for working with an accompanist. I’m sure they’ll be useful to you all.


As a singer or instrumentalist there will be occasions when you need to perform with an accompanist without the opportunity for a rehearsal, such as if you are performing in a competitive music festival. These are my personal reflections as a singer on working with accompanists in such circumstances; I would welcome thoughts from others, including pianists or others who accompany.

Preparing the music…

Providing a copy of the music is your first interaction with the accompanist, even if you do not know who will be the accompanist for the event. It is your opportunity to make the accompanist’s role as easy as possible, and to help them to promote your performance. These are my tips:

  1. Provide a clear copy: a basic factor, but if the music is difficult to read, it makes the accompanist’s life much harder.
  2. Label the copy: write your name, the date of the event and any relevant information (such as a time or a festival class number) that may help the accompanist to identify when the performance is taking place.
  3. Number the pages: you want the accompanist to be able to play the music in the correct order. I tend to follow the format 1 of 5, 2 of 5 etc. where 5 is the total number of pages.
  4. Remove any instructions that you are not using: if there are any printed instructions that you are not using in the performance (such as repeats) cross these out clearly and make a note at the top of the music to indicate that you have removed an instruction.
  5. Add any changes: if you are changing the dynamics (particularly if a forte passage is now piano) mark this on the copy.

Before you perform…

Arrange to arrive at the venue before you are due to perform, so that you have an opportunity to meet the accompanist. Introducing yourself before the performance means that the accompanist can identify you. It is also more than a simple courtesy, as it is your first interaction in person and establishes a working relationship. Introducing yourself gives you the opportunity to:

  1. Check that the music copy reached them safely and whether they have any questions.
  2. Let them know whether you will be introducing the piece before you start to perform.
  3. Let them know the speed at which you take the piece and any changes of tempo during it.

During the performance…

Once you come to the performance, it is a collaboration between you and the accompanist. It is important to stand where they can see and hear you. You should consider whether you need to be able to make eye contact with the accompanist, particularly if the accompaniment and the voice/instrument both come in together at the start of the piece.

At the end of the performance…

Do acknowledge and thank your accompanist. They have shared their skills to support you, and you may want to work with them again.