Sight reading is reading an unknown score while performing the music. The skills for sight reading are different than the ones that we use for performing music that we have spent time practising. For amateur musicians sight-reading is the most significant step towards musical independence. They can keep learning and enjoying music-making even after they stop taking lessons.

Last piano season, my studio-wide goal was to develop and improve everyone’s sight reading ability. I read a lot of research papers. In November I attended an ORMTA Information Sharing Session on the topic of sight reading. [Information Sharing Sessions are a great resource for me. They are informal meetings of teachers from the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Registered Music Teachers' Association. We get together to discuss how to teach a topic and share our insights, successes, and resources.] And coincidentally, RCM released a new edition of the 4 Star Sight & Ear books in 2015.

Some things I learned:

  • Sight reading relies primarily on short-term memory, while performing rehearsed repertoire relies primarily on long-term memory.
  • Research confirms that a reliable predictor of sight-reading ability is sight-reading experience. The single best predictor of sight-reading achievement was the number of accumulated hours of sight-reading practice up to the age of fifteen.
  • Quantity, frequency, and range of experience (solo pieces, accompanying soloists, accompanying ensembles, etc.) were factors for improvement.
  • Eye movements in sight reading are not the same as in reading language. In sight reading music our eyes move left to right, right to left, vertically, and zigzag. It turns out that experts look further ahead than less skilled readers do.
  • Aural imagery [the ability to imagine in your head what the music sounds like] was the strongest predictor of sight reading ability.
  • Good sight readers had well-developed visual and kinesthetic imagery of the keyboard.

While I am an excellent sight reader, I needed to break down the skills for my students who are still acquiring knowledge, fine motor skills, and keyboard geography. Here are some of the things we did that worked:

  1. We gained experience. Nearly every student completed their 4 Star book last season. I had several contests and competitions running during the year to keep our momentum going.
  2. We planned ahead. Before beginning to play a sight reading piece at lessons, the student and I spent a significant amount of time preparing to play. In fact, I guided students in what to look for: patterns of scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythms. We planned and wrote in fingering for some patterns and circled any flats or sharps as indicated by the key signature.
  3. We worked on keeping up with the beat. Many new sight readers stop and backtrack at every mistake. One of the tenets of good sight reading is being able to keep the music flowing forwards. So, after the student had had one attempt to play the sight reading piece at a steady beat and as correctly as possible, I gave them a second turn but with a different focus - I played the piece along with the student. The goal was for the student to finish together with me by the last measure, no matter what happened or what had to be skipped over. I allowed for unlimited errors, but no additional attempts.

Item 3 had the most dramatic improvement. Item 2 was very valuable as well. Students are still acquiring knowledge and abilities. The hierarchy of things I pointed out in the music were not always the same things they focussed on.

This is just the beginning. There is so much more to come this season!