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

4 Ways to Make the Most of the Music Exam Mark Sheet

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably taken a music exam fairly recently. Congratulations! Whatever the outcome, I have a huge amount of admiration for any learner who puts themselves forward for any form of external assessment. To me, simply turning up to play or sing in front of someone else in an exam situation is an achievement in itself.

Students are rightly keen to know the numerical results of the exam they’ve taken, alongside which band (e.g. distinction, merit, pass etc.) the result fell into. But, there’s another piece of paper which comes with your certificate, the mark sheet, and this is something which, when used effectively, offers a lot which can help a learner on the next step of their musical journey.

Accepting that deciphering both examiners’ handwriting and language (special ‘examiner speak’) can be challenging, rather than being filed away behind the certificate, the mark sheet is well worth exploring further.

1. Celebrate!

Most exam candidates come out of the exam remembering all the things which went wrong: the words they forgot, the scale which had a false start and the incorrect answer in the aural tests. This is a natural response, and in some ways, it’s a necessary part of ‘moving on’ to go through that process of reflection.

When your mark sheet comes, there are usually a good number of positive comments and we should take time to celebrate those. Exam candidates are notoriously good at remembering all the things that didn’t go to plan, but it’s worth remembering that examiners see a much bigger picture. I know that following my own candidates’ exams this past term, many of the things they felt hadn’t gone well were, in fact, not even noted by the examiner.

Tip: make a list of all the positive comments. You may surprise yourself by how many there are. Celebrate them! If you like, stick your list up somewhere prominent where you can see it. There are many times on our musical journeys where we need a confidence boost, and these positive comments are something to return to. At the bottom of this blog, there’s a sheet to download to help you with this process of reflection.

2. Is the work you did before the exam reflected in the comments?

Before we enter for an exam, we’ll have almost always worked on specific things which we wanted to improve on. We might have worked on the tone quality of our scales, or the dynamic variation in our pieces. We might have worked on the tuning of our unaccompanied traditional song, or on the singing back the melody in the aural tests. Knowing what we’ve worked on in particular, it’s worth cross-referencing this against the mark sheet. Did the examiner pick up on any of these things? Is the work we put in reflected in the comments?

Tip: if you worked on something and it isn’t mentioned in the comments, don’t be disheartened. I take the fact that it wasn’t mentioned as a positive.

3. What can you learn from the comments?

I think the most important thing about the mark sheet is seeing how the examiners’ comments can help us take our learning forward. It’s easy to see the examiners’ comments as criticisms, but they can offer us some pointers for things we can work on next and seek to improve further.

Part of taking an exam is getting feedback on your performance. The examiners’ feedback can by hugely valuable as you start to learn new pieces, work on specific areas of technique, or seek to improve your skills further.

Tip: make a list of things that the examiner has identified which you’d like to improve and work on. See the comments in as constructive a light as possible. Use the examiners’ assessment to take your learning forward.

4. Reflect on the exam journey

Taking an exam can be a nerve-wracking and often stressful experience. We invest a huge amount of effort into preparing for exams, and we often underestimate the emotional input required. When you’ve got the result and the mark sheet, it can be a good time to reflect on the whole exam experience.

Think about the process you went through as you worked on your pieces, learnt your scales and sought to improve your sight-reading. Is there anything which you might have done differently? Not everyone who takes an exam goes on to take another one, but many do. That said, reflecting on the way we prepared for the exam can help us in areas of our lives beyond music.

Whatever your exam experience, remember that it’s a huge achievement to just put yourself through it. Remember, that as self-critical as we inevitably are, there’s much to celebrate about what we’ve achieved.


To help with your reflections, I have created a worksheet which you can download here. You are encouraged to adapt it to suit your own needs, but it offers a framework by which you can utilise the possibilities of the mark sheet and reflect on the overall exam experience.

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The Exam-Life Balance

I’m aware that a number of students across the UK are now fast-approaching their GCSE, AS and A-Level summer exams. I know how important these exams are and how stressful they can be. The pressure to succeed in them is immense. As I wrote in a blog post last year, I am, however, a firm believer that music can be a fantastic way to relieve some of that stress and provide a welcome break from both exams and revision.

Each music teacher will approach this differently, but with the above in mind, here are some guidelines  which I’ve offered my own students affected by these exams this summer:

  1. Personally, and I’m sure this will apply to other teachers, my 48-hour cancellation policy still applies: lessons cancelled with less than 48 hours’ notice will be charged for;
  2. We understand that with the stress of the school exams, practice will inevitably be limited (or non-existent). Please don’t let this put you off coming to your lessons though because there’s still lots we can do and enjoy;
  3. If you feel you have an especially busy week of exams coming up, or a heavy revision period, you might want to cancel the lesson that week. Remember though, it’s much better if you can shift the lesson to a different day or time, or maybe double the lesson length the following or previous week rather than missing the lesson entirely. The lesson could be that welcome break and breather you need;
  4. If you’re not in school during the normal school day, why not change your lesson time to a free daytime slot? There are always a variety of free slots available each week. My pupils can see these, book and switch easily just by logging on to MyMusicStaff;
  5. Above all, don’t let school exams eclipse everything you enjoy doing, especially music. There’s so much research extolling the benefits of music in terms of health and wellbeing. This is all the more important in times of stress;
  6. In the past, pupils have asked if they can take a complete break from lessons during the school exam period. I know that other teachers have been approached with similar requests, and sometimes, this ‘break’ can last up to eight weeks. Whilst we understand the pressure to do this, I don’t encourage it as I believe that there are always ways to work around the exams to keep music part of your life. Personally, with quite a long waiting list, I am not able to keep lesson slots open for pupils who wish to take such an extended break over this period.

I wish you all good luck with your exams, and I, like other music teachers, look forward to working with you to achieve a good exam-life balance in such stressful times.