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Piano Sight-Reading Strategies for Beginners

Updated: Apr 26


This post was inspired by a recent inquiry and a former student response in one of my social media postings. I think this is one of those many areas of interest for teachers and students as well. Consistent patterns in inquiries suggest that some students and parents would have misconceptions about reading. Commonly asked questions related to sight-reading skills are:

- Do I need to learn how to read the notes before I can play the instrument?

- Why is sight-reading so hard?

- Why do I need to read the notes when I have a good ear to play music?

- How does one read that fast?

- Are there any "secrets" in being able to sight-read any piece?

While we have unique perceptions about learning music, we cannot disregard the fact that this is an essential skill that we want ourselves and our students to develop. Making it fun and relevant are our challenge so that this skill does not create too much stress on our students to the extent that they will quit because they no longer enjoy learning music.

The strategies that I will share here will focus on how we can facilitate the learning process through concept-based teaching.

Here are some primary CONCEPTS that can promote a sense of context and not isolation when reading musical notes. In teaching all these concepts, I work differently with each student. Auditory students would enjoy hearing these first before the visuals come in. On the other hand, visual learners like to see something first before their ears can connect to what they are playing. The use of visuals can further support the connection between sounds and symbols especially for young learners.

1. REPETITION

I would always start playing the whole, then repeat by playing the piece in parts. The parts should then be explicitly articulated and scaffolded to the student.

If the student has yet to develop that ear for recognition, the use of visual symbols would be helpful. Simple shapes used as labels can help learners develop association with the sounds heard.

Image Source: "Hal Leonard Piano Lessons Book 1"

2. UP and DOWN

There are several ways to do this:

a. Without looking, students just listen and identify after

b. Allow students to listen while watching your hands (this informs us of one's keyboard layout awareness)

c. Use the handy up and down arrows to show the direction of the melody

3. SEQUENCE

Introducing and practicing this concept would enable students to:

a. play by ear faster

b. apply this technique in their compositions

c. transpose songs

Image Source: "Piano Adventures" Level 2A by Nancy & Randall Faber

Explicitly allow the students to identify these within any pieces that they play.

4. STEPS, SKIPS, LEAPS

This concept is in progression and its importance quite often ignored. These concepts will serve as a foundation not only for reading melodic parts but for playing scales, arpeggios and chords later on. Again, EXPLICITLY show and allow students to be familiar with these so that they can build on to this knowledge later when complex concepts are introduced.

5. PHRASE

I use this concept a lot in helping students understand the overall form of the music. I highly encouraged them to read through in groups of notes rather than individual notes. Being able to recognize and identify the types of phrases also allow students to predict succeeding patterns and recall these patterns when they have to. For students who are good with words, poetry or stories, this could be a great tool in facilitating how musical ideas are developed.

Focusing on concepts will correct common mistakes when teaching kids how to read. Similar to reading texts in books, music follows a syntax wherein our eyes and brain can process understanding better. This recent video blog by Michelle Lau clearly explained the connection between reading and music.

SIGHT-READING skill can be advantageous to collaborative performances that require score reading or music accompaniment.

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