How To Improve Sight Reading

One of the reasons that I love teaching adults is because they always challenge me as a teacher, which makes piano lessons interesting. Recently, I had an adult student who already played the piano well, but wanted to improve their sight reading. So, I made a list of skills that I think are the most important for a good sight reader which allowed us to tailor her lessons to work specifically on her sight reading skills.

One of the benefits of being a good sight reader is an ability to open a new piano book and play through the music. Adding some sight reading to your practice can be a fun way to increase your practice time, improve your general music skills, and develop familiarity with a broader range of piano literature.

So, what is sight reading? I like Keith Snell’s definition of sightreading from his and Diane Hidy’s sight reading book series, “Sight Reading – Piano Music for Sight Reading and Short Study”:
“Sight reading” means playing music you have never seen before. In other words, reading music “at first sight.” A good sight reader can play accurate notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations at, or near, the given tempo.”
Even better, Keith Snell also gives a very handy definition of the difference between “short study” and “sight reading”:
“Short study” is about the amount of time you spend on a piece (for example, 5 minutes a day for one week), whereas “sight reading” is about the number of times you play a piece (no more than three).
This definition is great for determining the music level for improving sight reading because if you can play the music nearly perfect after the third time through, the music is at the right level for improving sight reading.

Denis Agay in his wonderful book, “The Art of Teaching Piano” has a chapter on sight reading and describes sight reading in this way:
“Reading music utilizes a similar eye function to reading words. The eye does not focus on each individual note. Notes form recognizable visual patterns and musical units much like a group of letters form words.   To enable the mind to group individual notes into meaningful patterns, a knowledge of various musical elements, such as notation, harmony, and form, is necessary. A keen ear, quick perception, good muscle coordination, and an intuitive understanding of the logic in the organization of musical materials are assets in achieving sight reading fluency.”

So, you need lots of different musical skills to be a good sight reader. Below is a list of sight reading skills that I think are the most important.

  • Quick Note Identification
    • Flashcards
  • Quick Rhythm Identification
    • Flashcards
    • Use of metronome
    • Rhythm worksheets
  • Quick Identification of common musical idioms (this can vary with style of music being played)
    • Scales in all keys
    • Interval Identification
    • Chords and typical chord progressions
    • Arpeggios
    • Typical left hand accompaniments for piano music
  • Ability to Read Ahead
    • Concentrate on looking ahead of where you are currently playing
  • Improvisation Skills
    • Ability to read common musical idioms and make substitutions
    • Ability to simplify the music by picking out bass lines, melody, and chords and only playing the most important parts
  • Familiarity with music ahead of time can help immensely
    • Identify the key and time signature
    • Identify dynamics and tempo
    • Check any other important musical information from the composer
    • Look for the musical form of the piece
    • Identifying the melody and harmony to have good aural awareness of correct pitches

Simply doing a lot of sight reading will help with all these skills naturally, but being aware of which skills you are using will also help with improvement.

Finally, if you have an audience listening to you sight read, they will notice errors in tempo and rhythm more than wrong notes. Samantha Coates has a fantastic write-up of the seven deadly performance sins discussing this issue. So, keep going at all costs during your sight reading practice and your sight reading will definitely improve.

How To Improve Piano Sight Reading pdf

Music Note Flashcards

Flashcards are my favorite tool for my students to learn to read music notes. Years ago, I downloaded a set of free printable music note flashcards and have been printing them off for my students for both testing student’s note reading ability and for them to use during the home practice. However, I often like students to learn to read notes in a certain order, so I have been sorting the flashcards into groups of notes and handwriting the group on the back of the card. Now, I have created my own set of slightly smaller note reading cards (8 per page instead of 6) that have my note reading groups printed on the card to make my studio life easier.

Why I like to use music note flashcards

  • Flashcards can duplicate the note reading experience exactly. You have to read the note, then move your hand (body) to play the note, and then you hear the note being played. This accesses the multiple learning paths of visual, kinesthetic, and aural, just like when actually reading music. While note reading apps on your phone or tablet might be fun and engaging, they often don’t actually translate reading the note to identifying the location of the associated piano key very well. Sometimes, you are just learning the letter name of the note, which although useful, doesn’t actually matter when learning to translate written music to the playing of a particular piano key. For example, it doesn’t really matter if the note is an “A”, what matters is how that particular staff note associates with a piano key location.
  • These flashcards only have one clef for each note. I like that because I like to have my students learn to associate the Treble clef with the right hand and the Bass clef with the left hand when they are beginning to read music. In fact, I make them switch their hand use depending on which card is being displayed. Brent Hugh has a wonderful page on teaching note reading skills with flashcards. On his page, he does say that he thinks all piano note flashcards should have the grand staff on each card, because it can be confusing to the student to have only one clef. However, I haven’t had this experience with my students.
  • Music note flashcards can be easily arranged into strings of cards to check random note reading, steps, skips, intervals, etc. Music note flashcards are very flexible and the piano teacher can organize them in many different ways to promote different types of learning. I particularly like random ordering of the music note cards as a way of testing note recognition because that means that a student has no context for the upcoming note and has to recognize that note solely based on the staff position. In Tara Gaertner’s post about Flashcards and the Musical Brain, she mentions that flashcards actually test a student’s recall of a note and that you shouldn’t remove cards once they are learned well, especially as a beginning piano student.
  • Notecards can travel easily with a music student. I have some adult students who would simply keep their note cards with them at all times and go over the cards while waiting at the Doctor’s office, etc. So, I have also created a paper keyboard that student’s can take with them so they keep the physical act of locating a key to a certain extent for my flashcard Groups 1 and 2.
  • Notecards can facilitate a certain music note learning order. I like to teach beginning music students their note names in particular groups. I’m particularly fond of landmark notes and therefore try to make my students learn these important notes first. In fact, I like having my note name card groups so much that it was the main driving factor to me making my own note name cards. Having groups also mean that I can simple tell my students to only work on Group 1 and 2 for example, etc.
    Group 1: First Landmark notes – This is middle “C” for both hands plus treble clef “G” and bass clef “F”. Working on these notes first also allows me to introduce the clefs and discuss the history of the “G” clef and the “F” clef.
    Group 2: C pentascale notes – These are the in-between notes from bass clef “F” to treble clef “G”. I often find that these notes need to be introduced after the first landmark notes because then my students can use all the music in their beginning piano books.
    Group 3: Extended Landmark notes – I really like the idea of extended landmark notes. I love the rather mathematical symmetry of the extended landmark notes as mentioned in Igino Vaccari’s Landmark System post and think that only having the three landmark notes as mentioned in many method books is really not enough for intervallic music reading. Regardless of how well an intervallic approach to reading music works, it still makes a nice division for deciding the order of learning your notes.
    Group 4: Staff notes – This group includes all the staff notes that haven’t been learned in a previous group.
    Group 5: Leger notes – This group includes some commonly used notes that extend beyond the grand staff via leger lines.

Note Name Cards and Paper Keyboard for printing at home using card stock

DawnTM Piano Note Name Cards
(Make sure to print at actual size and not “fit on page” for your home printer or disproportionate scaling may occur) These cards designed for 8 1/2 x 11 inch card stock.

DawnTM Piano Paper Keyboard for Note Name Cards Group 1 and 2

Learn To Love Your Practice

“The glory is being happy. The glory is not winning here or winning there. The glory is enjoying practicing, enjoy every day, enjoying to work hard, trying to be a better player than before.” – Rafael Nadal, Professional Tennis Player

In order to learn to play the piano and perform, you must practice. In my experience, there are no short-cuts and the ability to play the piano well is the direct result of the quantity and quality of practice. Consequently, I believe the only route to success at the piano over the long term is to “Learn To Love Your Practice”.

Here are some of the ideas that I use personally to enjoy my practice:

  • Choose your music wisely and play pieces that you love.
    Piano students are extraordinarily blessed with the every conceivable type of piano music. The piano has been around for a long time (since at least the early 1700s – and other instruments with keys before then), so there is lots of music. It can be valuable technically to play certain types of piano music to develop certain piano techniques, but in general students should spend their practice time on pieces that they enjoy and have a desire to learn. Thinking about what genre of music you enjoy most can also help you enjoy both your lessons and your practice.
  • Make Piano Practice a Voyage of Self-Discovery.
    You should expect to figure our something new about your music and/or yourself every time you practice. Maybe that means that you just figured out to play a musical phrase just a little better by starting the phrase in a certain hand position, maybe it means that you tried a new practice technique and it helped, maybe it means that you visualized a setting and emotional mood for your piano piece, etc. etc. I often like to think of my music and sometimes technical exercises as a special puzzle that I figure out little by little through small moments of self-discovery.
  • Know why and what you want to learn on the piano.
    Adult and young adult students should understand their goals in learning to play music on the piano. Thinking about and understanding your personal motivation can help you want to practice. For instance, let’s say you want to learn how to play a specific piece on the piano like Alan Rusbridger in his book, “Play It Again” where he tries to learn the difficult Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor. His journey to learn that piece allowed him to write an entire book about his experience. Taking some time to carefully craft your goals and understand what you want to accomplish is very worthwhile and will shape what and how you practice.
  • Appreciate that you are building your “technique toolbox”
    In order to meet specific piano goals, you may need to learn certain piano techniques which can include scales, chords, arpeggios, etc. Learning to appreciate that you are building certain technical skills which will help you reach your piano goals makes technique practice seem worthwhile.
  • Figure out what time of day is best for your practice and make it your routine.
    Practice can be a very demanding mentally, and if you are tired or rushed, your practice will seem less enjoyable. I like to practice first thing in the morning (after my coffee) so I have the most brain power and patience possible. I do practice at other times of day when necessary, however, my routine is to practice before starting other projects during my day. Having a routine means I don’t think too much about whether or not I practice, I just know that it is my normal practice time.
  • Discover your successful learning strategies for music.
    Part of your “Voyage of Self-Discovery” should include paying attention to the best ways you learn to play music. For instance, maybe you are a “aural learner” and learn best by hearing a piece played before trying to learn it yourself, or maybe you have learned that helps if you memorize your left hand, or you like to flag the hardest parts of your music and learn those first so the rest of the piece seems easier. All of these are learning strategies that make your practice easier and faster, so your practice becomes more successful and more enjoyable.
  • Devote part of your practice to creativity and fun.
    A way to make practice fun is to incorporate sightreading new music, composing your own music, or learning to improvise into your practice. Sightreading new music can be very fun, help you develop specific sightreading skills, and help you develop familiarity with repertoire. Composing or improvising allows you to experience the joy of creating music all your own. I often find that when I spend a little bit of time learning to improvise that time seems to vanish because it is so absorbing and satisfying.
  • Find a piano teacher that matches your learning style and makes lessons enjoyable.
    It can be difficult to find a piano teacher that listens to what and how you want to learn and also makes lessons fun. However, it is worth the search to find such piano teachers that meet your needs and you will be more willing to practice for a teacher that makes learning fun. Don’t be afraid to change teachers if they aren’t a good fit for you.
  • Notice the small things that happen in your practice.
    Awareness and noticing small things that happen in your successful practice can make your practice more enjoyable. For instance, you noticed that if you put small accents in your scales every four beats, then your thumb doesn’t press too hard on the keys, or perhaps you noticed that if you count out loud slowly a difficult rhythm, then it is easier to learn. Noticing small improvements or even failures means that you are figuring out which learning strategies work best for you and will help you have a more successful practice session.
  • Have some days where you don’t practice to refresh yourself.
    It can be difficult for anyone to practice every single day. It is OK to take some time off to refresh yourself or get some other important task finished during your practice time. As long as you are practicing regularly, a day off will just help you be more ready when you do have time to practice.
  • Know that you are the only person that will play a piano piece quite like this.
    Everyone plays the piano slightly differently. There are physical differences between pianists hands and bodies as well as different artistic conceptions of the music. Music is an aural art and even though everyone reads the same music, no one actually plays it exactly the same. Developing your own vision for how a piece should be played in your practice can be very rewarding.
  • Make sure to congratulate yourself when you have achievements.
    Celebrating both small and large achievements are necessary and will help motivate practice. I like to give my piano students a little piano sticker on their music page if they play something particularly well in a lesson as a way to give them a “small” achievement”. Finding a way to celebrate your personal achievements both large and small in learning to play the piano will help you “keep the faith” that you will learn to play well.
  • Some amount of practice is always better than no practice at all.
    Sometimes, it can be difficult to block out enough time for your practice or your normal practice time was unavailable. At those times, it can be helpful to have some ways that you can just do a little bit of learning for that day. I sometimes like to just practice the beginning or ending of a piece as a small practice or maybe I just play the piece through once slowly as a short practice. Either way, I’ve sat down at the piano and thought about my music which is a way to practice even if I didn’t have time for a full practice session.
  • Record your practice time especially when you are first making practice a habit.
    Writing down your time spent practicing, just like writing down what you have eaten while dieting, can be eye-opening. Sometimes you feel like you have done a lot of practice, but when you look at your practice time record, you realize that it wasn’t quite as much as you thought. On the other hand, it can be satisfying to look at when you were able to have quite a lot of practice in a week.

Practice Time Log pdf
Learn to love your practice pdf

Making A Great Practice Space

The essence of learning to play music is practice. No one learns to play an instrument without a significant amount of time spent practicing and a typical student will spend many hours of time on their instrument in their practice space. So, having a comfortable and organized practice space can help make practicing easier and more productive. You can think of it as the work office for a music student. It can be quite difficult to get the optimal practice space in a home crowded with other family members, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to optimize a practice space to become a place where musical inspiration flows and lots of learning takes place.

A few years ago, I came upon a webpage of the key components of a great practice space from author Suzy S. I loved all the common sense advice and especially the opening comment, “If I had a dollar for every time a student told me, “I didn’t practice because my piano is stuffed away in a dark, cold basement,” I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d be able to buy something really nice.” I’ve thought about this article a lot and have printed off this article many times for my students. However, I always have to notate it to include a few other items that I deem essential and finally, I wound up drawing my own image of a great practice space with the following components…

1. Piano – The practice instrument should be a full length with weighted keys and at least one pedal (the damper pedal). I generally recommend a good quality digital piano or a nice sounding acoustic piano.

2. Piano Bench – A chair is typically not a good idea because they aren’t adjustable, so they will be at the wrong height and chair arms will impede arm movement at the piano. I recommend an adjustable piano bench so that you can be at the right height for playing the piano and prevent injury.

3. Music Stand – Almost all pianos will come with a music stand, but if for some strange reason there isn’t one available, a band instrument music stand can be used by standing it behind the piano.

4. Pencils – When practicing, it is important to take notes. On Noa Kageyama’s wonderful website, The Bulletproof Musician, he has a great blog post about “8 Things Top Practicers Do Different Differently”. Item Number 3 in this wonderful blogpost is “Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.” Give yourself a chance to have thoughtful practice by keeping writing implements handy.

5. Metronome or Cell Phone – One of the most important aspects of being a great musician is being able to keep a steady tempo. In fact, audiences will typically notice mistakes in rhythm and tempo more easily than wrong notes. So, having a metronome available to check your steady tempo is useful. Having a smart phone available during practice with a metronome app is even better as then you can also use the smart phone to make audio and video recordings of yourself and access any other useful apps.

6. Good Lighting – Effective lighting will allow you to read your sheet music easily and prevent eye strain.

7. Comfortable Temperature – Glenn Gould famously used to soak his hands in hot water to make sure they weren’t too cold prior to his performances. Maintaining a comfortable temperature in your practice space will make sure that you aren’t thinking about the temperature in the room instead of the music. It is also very important to have consistent temperatures for acoustic pianos, so they don’t go out of tune too quickly.

8. Cozy and Inviting Space – Having your piano in an inviting location in the home (I personally like having a window), means that sitting at your piano is not a hardship. Being at your instrument in a lovely location in the home is continually tempting someone to sit down and play or practice. However, think carefully about where you place the piano. Does the piano need to be near the kitchen so a parent can hear a child practicing? Is your best practice space really in the living room near a noisy TV? Carefully consider the options available before making the best choice possible within your home.

9. Glass of Water – I always have a glass of water near me when I practice, but not on the piano in case of spills. Being hydrated while practicing can help with cognitive performance according to the NIH study of Water Balance and Cognitive Performance.

10. Speaker – Many piano method books come with mp3 music demonstrations and accompaniments. It can be very useful to be able to play these files near your practice instrument. It can also be useful to hear professional recordings of your pieces from YouTube or Spotify. I like to keep a bluetooth speaker near my practice instrument so I can hear professional recordings or recordings of myself playing a piece for evaluation purposes. If a digital piano is being used as a practice instrument, it can also be used as a speaker through an audio input.

11. Music Book Storage – It can be very helpful to have music and lesson books near your practice instrument. Piano students tend to acquire music and music notes as they progress with their studies and having close access to their music makes it easier for them to practice without having to move too far away from their instrument.

12. Clock – Even though I have a smart phone next to my practice instrument, I still like to have a separate clock nearby to note the time. I always record my practice time at my instrument, so I know how much time I am spending on my practice every week.

One more thing….everyone is unique individual and what each person wants in a great practice space will accordingly differ. Use this list as a starting point, think deeply about what would make your own great practice space, and then make it happen!

Making A Great Practice Space pdf

Buying your first piano

A lot of my beginning adult piano students come to me dreaming of playing beautiful music on the piano. They love the piano and are committed to learning to play, but …… pretty soon reality creeps in with time constraints and the crushing weight of other responsibilities. They tell me that they love my teaching and wish that they continue, but they aren’t able to practice the way they had hoped. They then leave piano lessons behind along with a wish to continue in the future when their life changes just enough. So, this is my advice to my adult students who are starting piano lessons for the first time and need a practice instrument.

I recommend beginning students who haven’t studied music previously start with an entry level digital piano. It isn’t the type of instrument I would buy for myself because I know I want to spend a lot of time on my practice instrument, I care a lot about the sound of the instrument, and the complexity of the music I like to play demands a level of instrument responsiveness that even an expensive digital piano with the latest impressive technological advances still can’t provide me.

A digital piano is defined as a type of electronic keyboard instrument designed to serve primarily as an alternative to the traditional acoustic piano, both in the way it feels to play and in the sound produced. These instruments can take many forms such as a simple keyboard on a stand or table to a lovely spinet that looks, feels, and sounds a lot like a more traditional acoustic piano. However, for my beginning students I would recommend the cheaper simple keyboard on a stand simply because they cost less and will enable you to practice effectively until you figure out if you enjoy learning, playing and practicing enough to justify a more significant investment.

Characteristics of a starter digital piano that I think are essential:
* 88 weighted keys or a full size keyboard
* at least one pedal
* a music stand
* a dedicated stand for the keyboard itself
* an adjustable height chair or stool
* built in speaker so you can hear yourself play without headphones

My favorite digital piano brands are:
Roland
Kawai
Yamaha

There is a significant and dynamic used digital piano market and that’s a great place to look if you have the time and energy to sift through the ads. My students typically like Offer Up better than Craig’s List. Also, maybe you have a friend or relative that has a digital or acoustic piano gathering dust in their house that you can move in for free!

I do see quite a few acoustic pianos (the kind that don’t plug in and you have to keep tuned) that people are relinquishing very cheaply these days. An acoustic piano can be a decent starter instrument if you don’t care about being able to use headphones and the instrument quality is decent enough.

The NYTimes Wirecutter Magazine recently had an article with their entry level digital piano recommendations. Digital Piano Review Guide also has a lot of information about buying digital pianos. Here’s their article on the best digital pianos under $1000.