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On a mission to improve my piano sight-reading, I've been systematically working my way through all major and minor keys, 'living' in a given key for a few weeks before moving to the next.

Whilst living in each key, I practice its scales, arpeggios, chords, exercises, compose something in that key, reading randomly generated music in that key, and dripfeed myself actual pieces in that key from repertoire packs I make for myself in that key (organized in graded order of difficulty from easiest to hardest). The latter activity (sight reading actual pieces in the key) is for me the most enjoyable (playing actual music is what I like doing most), so I kind of use it as a motivational self-reward for the trudge through the more dry work. Lots of scales, exercises, arps, chords, theory, then I treat myself to a sight read of a piece of music, and so on, with the pieces gradually increasing in complexity.

This system has been working well and I've improved measurably - to the point where sometimes the feeling of improvement can be quite exciting.

But the problem I've encountered is that for some keys there just isn't the material in existence to make a repertoire pack.

For example, I'm currently 'living' in B Flat Minor. Whereas for other keys I've been able to make packs spanning grade 1 through to 6 with plenty of material in, in B Flat Minor there's no material at all below grade 6 (and even at grade 6 and grade 7 there are just a handful). So when I'm wanting to ease myself in by sight reading lots of grade 1, then 2, then 3, then 4 material, it's just not possible in B Flat Minor due to very little composed in the key - and what there is being too complicated for my sight reading ability. So for practicing sight reading B flat major for actual pieces of music, I'm having to plunge straight into sight reading grade 6 and 7 material that is just painful for me to attempt and I'm not sure it's doing me any good.

So what do people do to become proficient at sight-reading actual music in keys where there is no material in those keys suitable for their sight-reading level? Do only the other work in those keys and just hope that getting better in general, in other keys, will translate (magically!*) into improvement in the 'less practiced' keys? Make up for it by doing more of the non-music reading work in those keys (and take the demotivating experience of not having actual music to read on the chin?). Something else?

Any guidance appreciated. Thanks.

*I say magically here because in my experience, being proficient in sight reading in several keys has not so far translated into being proficient in other unpracticed keys (though it does seem to help 'a little') - which is why I'm doing this whole 'live in a key' approach in each and every key.

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    Use notation software and transpose pieces to the desired key? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jun 15 at 8:22
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    Lots of sites give the option of what key you want the piece printed out in. There's also the option of reading in different keys - as in a piece with 3 sharps (A maj.) can be read in 4 flats (Ab maj.) And while you're doing a sterling job with sight-reading, be prepared to read and transpose for the next challenge. Well worth being able to do. Another thought - sight-reading has two aspects, basically, note pitch and timing. Whatever key you're in, the timing aspect will be the same. – Tim Jun 15 at 8:44
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    Practice transposing on sight? – Alexander Woo Jun 15 at 8:50
  • @AlexanderWoo - did you read my comment? – Tim Jun 15 at 9:05
  • Thinking about this some more, I think I can honestly say I've played more atonal music than music in Bb minor. I don't think sight-reading specifically in Bb minor is really a useful skill. – Alexander Woo Jun 17 at 19:38
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A few suggestions:

  1. It was mentioned in comments already, but another easy way to get lots of practice material would be to use a website that allows you to print sheet music transposed into any key. In cases of many of these arrangements (like popular music), there's often not a great deal of emphasis put on the physical element of how the piece "feels" in a particular key. This is probably the easiest way to generate lower "grade" material for any key, as requested in the question.
  2. Some textbooks designed for teaching sight-reading exist. Most of them gradually build up to examples from keys with more and more sharps or flats. Graded piano method books in general tend to do this as well. But it may be harder to find lower grade material in less common keys in normal method books.
  3. Actual piano literature exists in all keys. The easiest way to find examples would be to look for complete sets of works in all major/minor keys, e.g., Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. While there are many such collections, there are even more that specifically have a great variety of keys (even if they don't have all keys).
  4. Related to the first point, learning to play transpositions in many keys is a useful exercise in and of itself, which will be very useful if you ever want to play in jazz/pop music ensembles or accompany some vocalist who doesn't show up with music in the right key. It's a slightly different but related skill to general sight-reading. (One more advanced challenge I like to do regularly myself is take simple pieces I know well and transpose them in my head to various keys. Doing that while looking at notation is a slightly different challenge, but also very worthwhile to work up to. I'm sure you're not there yet, but unless you're dealing with advanced piano literature, it's not generally that technically important to play in the exact key of the original notation.)
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  • Thank you for this. Pieces that are easy enough for me to read and then transposed into these less common keys seems to be the way forward. Your point 2 is something I've noticed too, that "gradual build up to examples from keys with more and more sharps and flats." That being the case seems to imply that keys with more #/b are inherently deemed harder to read (I certainly feel that!) and that accounts in part for the distribution of graded literature in those keys being skewed toward higher grades. I wonder if this means my wish to become equally comfortable in less common keys is overreach. – Steve Jun 17 at 5:36
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    @Steve: I don't think it's "overreach." It's good to work on this early. I know a lot of musicians with many years of training that still groan when they see a piece written with a key signature of more than 2 or 3 sharps or flats. It's an unnecessary barrier. Trust me: it will eventually get easier. I don't give the key signature a second thought when sight-reading up to 6 sharps/flats and haven't in years. With practice, all keys become "normal" and more sharps/flats isn't really "harder." 7 is only a bit harder to me because it's so rarely seen that I just don't think about it very often. – Athanasius Jun 19 at 4:01
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Joking aside here is an idea.

  1. Get a free software like MuseScore, or TuxGuitar (if you are a guitarist looking for TAB).

  2. Take some sheet music at the level you want to practice and input that in MuseScore (or other s/w) in whatever key you have it in.

  3. Change the key of the song in the s/w to the key you want it in.

  4. Print.

  5. Practice.

I am not pushing MuseScore, it use it and it's good enough. But there may be better s/w out there. Also, someone commented transcribing as you read. I'm assuming that this is not a well developed skill for you but with practice you should be able to do this.

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  • Thanks for this suggestion. I had considered it and talked myself out of making easier material that way on the basis that pieces transposed out of they key they were composed in would lose some of their pianistic quality (not sure if that's the right term, I mean when writing in a given key, composers often did so at the piano and with performance in mind for that key - pieces might fall under the fingers in their original key and yet be awkward in the new). That said, I think it's still worth a go (gotta be better than dying on stuff way above my sightread level!), so thank you. – Steve Jun 15 at 16:47
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    @Steve, you might be asking too much. You're correct in your statement that changing key might change quality but you are looking for exercise not developing performance repertoire. I'd say do it. Get a good exercise set going then once your reading chops are better take the advice of the comment about transposing while reading. – ggcg Jun 15 at 17:37
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This question is a joke! If you can read sheet music in all keys like you describe above you don't need to practice on lower levels in Bb minor.

  • Maybe A#-minor is preferred by composers.
  • There will be lots of pieces in Db major that you can play (transcribing in your mind) to Bb-minor
  • You can take the list of b-minor and exchange the signature of 2 sharps by 5 flats.
  • With your experience you can easily transpose any piece of any level in any key to Bb-minor (that's what I'm doing ;)
  • If you want to improve your sight reading, why do you just make a list of tonal music? There's enough stuff for you by composers like Prokofiev, Shostakovic, Bartok, composers of 12 tone music, 20th century music (free tonal and atonal).
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  • "If you can read sheet music in all keys like you describe above you don't need to practice on lower levels in Bb minor". Can you elaborate why it is this way? I've just started to learn to read sheet music and can not think of a way why being able to read music in all keys could make you skip lower levels of sight reading practice... I mean okay, you might be able to read it properly, but still have to make the connections from the sheet through your brain to your fingers on the piano. I've leanred that starting with complicated material is not beneficial at all. Am I missing something? – Olli Jun 15 at 11:14
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    The answer is widely explained here in context of questions about practicing scales, reading chords, sight reading, circle of fifths: If you can (sight -) read a piece in any key and you know all the scales and chords (functions) of all keys it is similar to transpose a piece in an other key or read in another clef like you can read, write or speak in a foreign language. It is even easier than this. May be it is similar like you're able to read a text written in different letter styles or different colors. This is really an product of learning and training. Yes, begin with easy pieces! – Albrecht Hügli Jun 15 at 12:52

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