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

Piano TRACKS in Practice

In this guest blog post, Barbara Kennedy, creator of the Piano TRACKS Project, shares three pupil case studies which demonstrate how the framework can be applied in practice. We hope this is useful not just for existing users of the Piano TRACKS materials, but also for those who’ve not yet explored this fantastic resource for piano teachers.

The piano TRACKS (pT) project provides piano teachers with a formal, but flexible way of assessing their students, along with tools to help support their development. In this blog post I will be focussing on how I, the creator of the project, use the pT checklists to maximise student attainment. 

Our checklists provide a way to identify progress as students develop at the piano. They are based on the pT curriculum which has been designed to break down learning into manageable chunks. The curriculum has eight progressive levels (Stages A – H), and for each stage there are two checklists, one for skills development and one for knowledge acquisition. This helps students to build on their theoretical and practical skills concurrently. These eight stages take students from the very beginnings of their piano journey through to intermediate level (approximately Grade 5 standard). 

There is no right or wrong way to use these checklists, and teachers are encouraged to use them within their preferred approach to teaching, in a way that best supports the learning styles of individual students. Students are likely to span several levels of the curriculum at once, as they develop different skills at different times. The project is designed as a framework that teachers are encouraged to adapt, adding or removing items of learning that they feel are necessary. 

In the next section of this blog I will present some examples [real names omitted] of how I have used the checklists, and the wider programme.

1. Seven-year-old: shows potential, but lacks motivation.

I expect I am not the only teacher with a young student who has plenty of potential, but finds it difficult to concentrate in lessons, rarely practises at home, and often forgets their books. I have been teaching this particular student, Katie, for two years, and progress has been somewhat slow, although the student enjoys lessons. I thought the checklists might be a good fit for Katie as a motivational tool. It can take a long time for students to reach the level where they are preparing for a graded exam, but with the pT checklists there are three pre-Grade 1 levels which can fill in that gap. There are also certificates free to download from our website that can be presented to students when they complete a stage. 

Piano TRACKS checklist for Stage A knowledge

When I first introduced the checklist book to Katie, she could see almost all of Stage A was completed. Together, we agreed that there were some terms relating to the stave that she could be more confident of, and I sent her off with a worksheet (from the pT range) to practice the names. The following week she was able to name all the elements required to complete Stage A, and proudly left the lesson with her certificate

Since then, Katie has been more confident about her abilities, and more focussed in lessons. As a teacher, I have been able to get a better idea of what she is capable of. I have been impressed by the things she will now do independently because she knows she can, and what she is willing to try. 

2. Transfer student: who, what, and where? 

It can often be difficult to ascertain what level a transfer student is truly working at. Often, the student isn’t clear themselves, even if they have previously taken exams. Robert, 11, recently came to my studio from another teacher. He was playing pieces from the first Up-Grade book, so I estimated him to be around, or approaching, Grade 1 level. For the first term of lessons, I used different activities, games, and repertoire to subtly ascertain Robert’s knowledge and practical capabilities. This was an interesting process as it highlighted that he was able to work at a higher level than we had previously realised. 

As a teacher, I also found that the checklists helped me to plan lessons in a structured way, to inform progress. It allows me to easily identify what areas a student needs to work on, giving me quick ideas of what to include in a lesson. For Robert the checklists provided a crucial turning point, as he had been held back by working on material that was too easy for him. Being able to methodically assess Robert in this way meant that I was quickly able to see his real level of ability. 

For planning and logistical purposes, I keep hold of students’ checklist books. Robert will sadly be leaving me at the end of the academic year due to the family relocating. At this point, I will give him his checklist book to keep and to pass on to his next teacher. I hope that the next teacher will be able to use it as a starting point for Robert’s future lessons. 

3. Adult beginner: enthusiasm and pacing. 

The final student I am going to talk about in this blog post, is an adult beginner who recently started having lessons with me. In my experience, adult learners are some of the most committed and ambitious learners. They often sprint through the beginning stages of learning and then reach a plateau which can leave them feeling discouraged. I think this can often lead to adults giving up lessons quickly, which is a real shame. 

Piano TRACKS curriculum

I introduced the checklist to my adult student, Jamie, within the first few lessons. Jamie is a dedicated learner and his enthusiasm for the piano shines through at every session. The checklists gave Jamie a truthful insight into how much there was to learn from the start of his piano journey. 

Jamie has found the checklists useful because he has been able to visualise his progress. During weeks where he has felt that his achievement has been less than usual, we have been able to look back at how much he has already grown as a musician, and it helps us to concentrate on the road ahead. 

With all my students, I have found that the checklists increase motivation in students in a meaningful way. They like to have specific, bite-sized, goals to work towards (alongside their ‘bigger picture’ aims). It saves me time when lesson planning and helps me to plan solid activities and select appropriate repertoire that truly aids all-round musical development

I think it is fair to say that assessment within the creative arts is a tricky business. Questions are often asked about the appropriateness of current systems in popular use, or whether we should use assessment at all. I believe that the right kind of assessment, at the right time has a positive effect on student progress. These checklists provide a flexible, tangible, and meaningful way of showing achievement. 

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Piano TRACKS in Practice

You can find out more about the Piano TRACKS Project here, and read more about Barbara on her website.