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Sight-reading is an appetizer to main course detailed practicing

I’ve often met very skilled sight-readers who were not necessarily adept at playing their assigned pieces smoothly with good fingering and well shaped phrases. It’s because they viewed the first “read through” as a primary goal. They had gotten so used to a superficial overview of a piece, that to go to the next step, buckling down to practicing each hand alone, counting carefully and observing phrasing with dynamics, required a load of patience.

From my perspective as a teacher, the biggest treat that comes out of mindful practicing in detail, is the joy of playing a piece with confidence and complete musical surrender.

The question is how to motivate students to go the distance from the starting line “read” to the finish line, deep layer absorption of a selected piece.


A teacher might play through a composition showing a student how she parceled out voices along the way. Singing a sample line while having a student READ another voice in slow tempo can spark interest in a more detailed approach. Or turning the selection into a slow motion duet, with individual lines shared between pupil and teacher is another strategy.

If you take a more advanced composition like the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor where the opening bass line ascends in 4ths from A to D to E to A, such a readily digestible path of notes could launch interest in a layered learning process from the ground up:

While the student played the opening measures of fundamental bass notes without after beat chords, the teacher could play the melody above framed by her counting. This “reading” would provide the sense of wholeness instead of fragmentation.

Hopefully, during the week, the student would follow through with separate bass line practice, imagining the beautiful melody above. In the course of time, the pupil might take the lead, playing the soprano line at the top, while the teacher traced the bass line. The after beat chords occurring on beats 2 and 3, could be separated out as NEIGHBORS, with their close alliance to each other. A student could play these slowly as the teacher provided the missing FIRST impulse of each measure.

The collaboration of part parceling would provide a modeling process that could build on itself.

Very young students love duet playing, and a teacher can capitalize on this engagement by doing the same kind of sharing that she applied to more advanced music.

For Primer pieces there is often a duet (secondo) part for the teacher. While a beginning student practices the melody, usually divided between the hands, a feast par duo awaits him, as rich harmonies expand his musical universe.

Along the learning path, a teacher can help a pupil understand the outline of a melody by fleshing out note repetition, echo phrases, and skip or step-wise movement.

Playing a Baroque of Classical era Minuet, affords the perfect opportunity to divide parts or voices between student and teacher, then flip them around for variety. Many beginning adult students also enjoy being able to trace one voice while the teacher “fills” out the texture, adding one or more parts.

Students who have the patience to learn their music in stage layers, generally end up playing compositions with more ease and agility than those who are eternal sight-readers.

It’s no big surprise. A patient approach underscores the whole music-learning process and applies to so many diverse areas of study.

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Sight-reading through two pieces: Putting myself in the hot seat! (Videos)

I vowed at some point to do a hands-on follow up to my sight-reading post, and tonight was my chosen time to brave the virgin territory of two compositions from “Anna Magdalena’s Notebook,” edited by Keith Snell. I randomly picked “Polonaise in G minor” BWV 119 (Anonymous) and another of the same form, BWV125 by C.P.E. Bach, that were by no means Evel Knievel leaps into finger-burning bravura landscapes. Nevertheless, they were still modest Baroque period excursions with unique technical and musical challenges.

Here’s the footage, unedited. I suggested that a visual scan of the score was a great helper before I laid my fingers on the keyboard–a necessary form of mapping the terrain. I noted the key signature and meter; I sight-sang a bit, which I’m always doing in one form or another when traversing a piece I know or don’t know. I scanned the fingering which was fortunately in abundance, where more often than not, it would be scant or in light gray tone. In those instances, the reader might need a magnifying glass or a pair of binoculars to make it to the final cadence.

The intervals on the page jumped out as singable and I could see melodic sequences in this process. Same held for pre-absorption of harmonic relationships/modulations just by LOOKING. For those with more extensive theory backgrounds, this type of screening would be a helpful jump-start to a decent read.

Okay, enough with what I did BEFORE I took the plunge into reading unfamiliar music. Let’s see what happened. In the first video, all you see is my hands, but trust me, I did not allow my eyes to depart from their focus on the score. If nothing else, this singular attentiveness, without head bobbing, or key-to-score shuffling back and forth, helped me get through both pieces without falling apart. I think the goal should be to keep the music going from beginning to end without stopping for this or that, and even if a hand drops out here and there, the sight-reader should still aim for continuity to conclusion. (one hand taking up the cause of the other missing in action)

Above all MEASURE GULPING is a major advantage when sight-reading. Looking ahead while simultaneously being in the present, if you can manage it, will boost your skills.
The being in the present part prevents you from having an overload of anticipatory anxiety and it GROUNDS you through the course. Basically, you have to be in two places at the same time without a worry in the world.



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The Ideal Piano Lesson as the main course

If I could devise a recipe for an ideal piano lesson, it would contain the following ingredients:

A 15-minute warm-up including a scale (one or two plus octaves in parallel and contrary motion) played legato and staccato–adding 3rds, 10ths, and 6ths depending on student level, with an additional assortment of arpeggios.

For a Beginner, practicing five-finger positions would be the routine: exploring Major and parallel minor keys with fingers moving in the same and opposite directions in Legato to staccato, Forte/piano. Such warm-up appetizers, nicely paced, would lead to the main course:

Repertoire learned in layers with separate hands, would keep a well-studied composition percolating. A student who’d thought he had thoroughly ingested a composition after weeks and months of study, might find it slipping away or going stale. Taking it apart as often as needed would restore its freshness.

Compositions of contrasting style periods, or pieces of diverse character, one lively and the other, somber, would tweak the ear buds. A memorized piece placed beside a newly learned one–and a composition on the back burner requiring more than a spot check would fill out a generous musical serving.

Sight-reading would be next on the menu–Choosing one or two short compositions from the current level, and another, a notch above would stimulate musical taste buds. (Include sight-singing as a sight-reading helper, with Solfeggio as the central ingredient: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.)

For the finale, the Theory portion of the lesson, (usually the tiniest serving) should not be a menu add-on. Instead, on a perfect lesson tray, the student should have composed a short melody that fulfilled the prior week’s assignment. Integrated into composing would be Ear Training experiences such as identifying skips and steps, major and minor progressions: listening for the outline of intervals in the melody that suggest a bass line and adding major/minor duality into the mix to widen a student’s aural palette. Theory indirectly spoon fed in this way would eliminate groans and grunts because feasting on creative activity would be a boon to learning.

In a perfect world, the ideal lesson would play out in this way but barely in the space of 45 minutes to an hour. Still, a teacher should plan on a sit-down for two including some of these menu items. It would go a long way to sustain a piano student’s learning appetite over months and years.




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How to Improve Sight-reading at the Piano

A universal complaint among piano students relates to sight-reading. They find themselves stumbling through the first playing of a brand new piece, not knowing if an end is in sight. The faltering, (wrong note, right note in treble and bass clefs) can keep a “reader” so contained in one measure at a time, if not one note at a time, that a crash and burn feels imminent. Psychologically, the player has boxed himself into an all or nothing retrieval of “right” notes, eye- jumping from the page to his hands and back, often losing his place in the process.

By the last bar of music, the “reader” may be a sum total of jangled nerves combined with a never again attitude. (especially if featured as the life of the party, pressured to play a pop tune that everyone wants to sing around the piano) Imagine the crush of cocktails, shuffling, cigarette smoke swirling around the poor sight-reader–A guarantee of night sweats, hand trembling, and an imminent emergency appointment with a shrink. (Might that, by chance, be the piano teacher?)

To avoid crippling anxiety associated with losing one’s musical virginity with each “new” piece of music, or with any score a teacher, neighbor, friend, colleague (at a cocktail party) places on the rack, I have a few suggestions.

1) Before “reading” the very first note of music, have the presence of mind to scan the composition starting with the very first notation of Key and Meter, found to the extreme left of the beginning line.

Review the content of sharps, flats, or “Key signature.” It’s always beneficial to know the progression of Major and minor keys around the Circle of Fifths, and to have explored all scales and arpeggios in these tonalities. But even without a solid background in this complex universe, knowing the key autograph of a piece or what sharps or flats permeate it, is a good head start. It’s a form of MAPPING that begins before the very first note sounds.

Knowledge of the Time Signature goes hand in hand with Key awareness–It’s an orientation that relates to a piece’s rhythmic framing.

With these two bits of rudimentary information consciously stored, the sight-reader can move forward with less trepidation, but still needing more assists.

Oh, and while visually perusing the music, the sight-reader should review it for sections that REPEAT themselves. That’s always a relaxant before giving it a roll.

2) Approach the “new” score with an attitude that you can enjoy the “spontaneous” adventure, without ever having rehearsed a herd of notes in a laborious practice session, congested with fingering, counting, and coordinating challenges. You should “let yourself go” to the moment, without making strict self demands to be perfectly accurate. Even if you’re crowded in by party goers, the background noise will probably drown out your clunkers, and the most important ingredient of your “read” will be to move along, and keep the festivities rolling.

Okay, so you’re not at a party with “noise” cover, and you find yourself in the light of day, “reading” the piano part in a chamber ensemble, or accompanying a singer who threw a score at you without notice. Back in the hot seat?

Same advice applies in these situations. Enjoy the ride, and hedge your bets for a positive journey by adding the following to your sight-reading skills arsenal.

3) Take big gulps of music. (in slow motion, if possible) Don’t play note by note, or even measure to measure. Ingest two measures at a time, by being simultaneously in the here and now and in the future. Of necessity this means you can’t look down at your fingers and up at the music as the piece moves along. Train yourself to focus exclusively on the printed page, “feeling” your way through the score with the guidance of notes mapped out on the staff for your visual disposal. In this regard, an understanding of SKIPS and STEPS, up and down, helps. If you can translate the motion of intervals between notes on the page into your fingers, you’re ahead of the game. Internalizing their sound helps. (More about this in the paragraph on EAR TRAINING)

Repeated notes are always a blessing amidst those accursed leaps of hemi-demi-semis (really scary fast notes) Take a deep breath with these, and ride the waves, gathering as many little devils as you can, keeping a steady, underlying beat.

A side bar: EAR TRAINING is of great assistance to sight readers. Take the time apart from your impromptu reading adventure, to play MELODIC 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. and listen carefully to them. For 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths, you can learn about their MAJOR and minor forms. Again, condition your ears to the content, sound and color of these intervals. These same distances can also be sampled vertically with a harmonic dimension, acclimatizing your ears to their sound, color and MAJOR/minor quality.

I recommend Solfeggio study that goes hand in glove with ear training. (Use Do re mi fa sol la ti do as syllables of a scale) Being able to sight-sing (to yourself) what is on the treble staff, if not almost simultaneously in the bass, helps with internalizing the shape of the melody and other musical lines. I use a movable DO, so as keys shift or change within the music, there’s a newly defined tonal center.

In an ideal world, a sight-reader should be armed with knowledge of theory encompassing chords, intervals, etc. and their relationships, (functional harmony) If he has studied piano in-depth, going around the Circle of Fifths playing scales, arpeggios, chords, and cadences, he would have had HANDS on EXPERIENCE with tonal geographies that would further enrich his reading experience, but the vast majority of sight-readers will not have had this deep exposure to music.

4) Without the benefit of substantial ear training and theory grounding experiences, you, the humble sight-reader can still move along with grace and dignity. If your particular weakness is bass clef note recognition, focus more on the lower staff as you “read” with a simultaneous gulp of the treble clef notes above. I like to flesh out the bass as a remedial step in my general practicing, but as a sight-reader, I might do the same, if I know this will hold the piece together without sacrificing a rich bass musical dimension.

5) Observe FINGERING as best you can. If the editor did a good job, it will help your “read” along. If not, any scale patterns or open five-finger positions on the printed page should lead you in sensible directions. (Better if you have had generous exposure to playing scales and arpeggios along the way in your studies–your fingers might flow more effortlessly and in the right directions)

6) Be attentive to phrase markings. These notations should help music flow in larger groups and not as compartmentalized note-to-note progressions. Throw in observance of dynamics, and you’re on the way to a nice listening experience for yourself and those in close proximity.

7) For the more advanced player and sight-reader, be aware of “voicing,” counterpoint and harmonic rhythm. Draw on fingering from scales, arpeggios, and chordal exposures. Be attuned to parallel and contrary motion of notes and attentive to overall form: A B A (ternary), Rondo, etc. Spot melodic and harmonic sequences going up or down. Scanning the piece prior to the sight-read with attention to all these elements, should go a long way in making it a continuous, satisfying flow from beginning to end.


Make daily sight-reading experiences for yourself. It takes PRACTICE to improve your skills. If you have the time and inclination, broaden your horizons with ear training and sight-singing activities, scale playing, and theory study. A firmer bed of knowledge in these areas should assist your whole musical growth process.

Enjoy your Sight-Reading by Paul Harris (Faber edition)
(in various levels)

John Kember – Piano Sight-Reading – Volume 1

A Fresh Approach
Series: Schott
Publisher: Schott
Composer: John Kember

An approach based on self-learning and the recognition of rhythmic and melodic patterns.

RELATED: Why Play Scales?