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Two secrets to better sight-reading

by Bruce Siegel on November 15th, 2010

I sometimes participate in the great forums at PianoWorld.com. Recently, one of the posters wanted to know how she could improve her sight-reading. I responded, and since I’m basically a lazy guy and this is easier than writing a new blog post, here’s what I said to her.

Good sight-readers see groups of notes instead of just individual notes. It’s like looking at a sentence in a book and seeing words instead of just a series of letters.

And that means, for the most part, seeing chords. So the more familiar you become with chords and chord progressions, the better you’ll be at grasping what’s on the page and playing it.

When I teach beginners, before we even look at notation, I help them to play simple pieces that are made up of chords that are easy to find and to play (as in my first online course). That way, right from the start, they’re thinking in terms of note groups.

Another key to sight-reading has to do with motivation. As with other aspects of playing, when you can find ways to make sight-reading practice itself a pleasure, you can’t help but succeed.

I’ll never forget the precise moment when I myself began to enjoy sight-reading. I was maybe 7 or 8 and had already been taking lessons for a few years. One day I opened up one of the beginner’s books I hadn’t touched for a long time. It was a large collection of simplified arrangements of classical pieces, only a few of which I had actually studied.

And suddenly I realized: wow, I can read most of the pieces in here and play them without even practicing them! And the book had some pieces in it that I loved (excerpts from symphonies, ballets, opera overtures, etc.) so that even though they were far below my current ability technically, I really enjoyed playing them.

Fo sight-reading, they were perfect.

I also discovered some of my father’s non-classical sheet music and songbooks lying around, and reading those tunes gave me a chance to see myself musically in a whole different light.

And from then on, sight-reading was fun, so I guess it’s not surprising that I kept getting better and better at it!

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