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I am a Trinity grade 5 pianist and have been playing piano for 2-3 years(earlier played keyboard).

I find very difficult to sight read. I usually play the passage once very carefully and memorize it well so I don't have look at the music while playing. I play while continuously looking down at the keys and find it difficult to lift my head up and register the notes and then play. I know all the notes on the staff, but I can't register them in time to play them on the spot.

What should I do to get better at sight reading?

  • 2
    As Richard answered: you should not be looking at the keys in the first place. Fix that problem first. – Carl Witthoft Jan 31 '18 at 12:59
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    Perhaps it would be helpful to practice familiar scales or technical exercises very fast so you get used to the 'feel' of the notes and intervals and don't have time to work them out by sight – Shannon Duncan Feb 1 '18 at 15:26
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As with anything, it will improve with practice. And, as with anything, you should tailor your practice to the problem you're having.

Since your problem is looking down at the keys, devise a practice method that prevents you from doing so. My teacher growing up always held a notebook above my hands so that I couldn't look at them. Do you have someone in your household or school that would be willing to do that for the 10 minutes a day you practice your sightreading? If not, you could always try rigging something to blog your view. (Or you could really be ridiculous and get one of these.)

Once you've mastered this, you may eventually have a problem with not looking ahead while you sightread; to address this, have someone cover up the current chord you're on, which forces you to look ahead. And so on.

See also recent responses to What is a good way to practice piano sight reading?

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Sight read more! The best way to get better at doing something is to practice it. Force yourself to keep your eyes glued to the page. Play slow, deliberately, and correct your mistakes.

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Would my approach be of any help to you?

I'm doing Grade 3 exam piano pieces but my sight reading is poor. I suppose it can be explained. I spent many hours practising and polishing pieces. Comparatively, I worked relatively little on sight reading. I'm now evening up the emphasis and I hope it will pay dividends.

To train, I think you have to avoid becoming familiar with the music. So I have bought lots of short exercises (over 100 in all) and I play them at random. If I am in danger of knowing the music to the point where I can play from memory, I stop playing it for a few weeks which usually does the trick. This is different from reading the notation as one would the text in a book. I really want to develop the skill where you read the notation and hear the music in your head without playing a note on the instrument.

There are various method books, YouTube videos, phone apps and books of practice pieces at the right level out there. I had to experiment to find what worked for me. I have not found a magic method that doesn't require a lot of work. I'm on my third method. It has taken me a while to get here. I am now happy enough with the method that I decided to stop looking for a better (magic) method and just get on with it.

I set myself an aim to practice for at least 20 mins every day. It takes a lot of mental effort, so I make sight reading practice the first exercise of the day. If it goes well I might do more; if it goes poorly I might go back to simpler exercises or stop after 10/15 mins if my head just won't take it in. I found sight reading exercises too hard to be tacked on to the end of practice after working on exam pieces and technical exercises.

Hope this is helpful for you.

  • Thank you so much, this was really helpful. Might I ask you which exercise book or app are you currently using with which you are happy. I think that I have to start again right from the beginning to learn to sight-read. – Vatsal Goyal Feb 6 '18 at 8:11
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    I have held myself at ABRSM Grade 2 standard until I show some proficiency and have built up the tempo beyond 60 bpm ish. I'm using a mix of Paul Harris's method and ABRSM sight reading exercises mainly, with lots of other resources. I recommend going to a shop and pondering what is on offer; ask for help. Your piano teacher may help. One teacher I read about started each lesson with a sight reading exam/lesson. I think it takes a lot of work over a long time to develop the basic skill and mental pathways, so finding a method you get on with matters more than my experience in this regard. – Emma Feb 6 '18 at 11:12
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There are a couple of things you should consider when sight reading:

  1. As with any skill you need to start very slowly in order to build the physical and neurological mechanisms to operate faster and more competently. And when I say slow, I mean 30 or 20 BPM. If you have never payed with a click I suggest you begin to learn and as you get used to it, it will start act as a guiding hand, sharpening your timing and sense of rhythm. This leads me to my next point.

  2. You know all the notes on the staff and that's great but how is your knowledge of rests? Knowing when not to play is as important as knowing when to play. Learning typical rhythmical groupings is also important because then you can view these groupings as single entities rather than as a collection of individual notes. I suggest you youtube drumming tutorials that have sheet music accompanying their instructions. You'll get a better sense of what I mean then. If you develop strong sense of timing and rhythm, irrespective of the key, melody etc.., and begin to see note placement patterns at first glance, you'll have moved a good way down the road of becoming a competent sight reader.

  3. When you say you play it carefully once through and then memorise it, are you really playing it through or do you make a ton of mistakes on the first attempt and then begin studying the piece, foregoing any other sight reading? Improving at sight reading should be a long term goal with consistent observable progress. The little aphorism of 'little and often' should become your mantra - do a little bit of sight reading often. How often? Well, if you do twenty minutes of practise everyday devote 2-5mins to sight reading. Short focused blast of deliberate and intense concentration that will find satisfying and beneficial to your practise.

How little? Try one to four bars of music and then move on. Make mental notes of your weaknesses (you missed the rest, I can't read those ledgers lines, You've never seen so many accidentals!). Wash rinse repeat daily or whenever you practise ;). Consistency is King.

The torture of sight reading through 32 bars when trying to develop the skill should only be inflicted on you by your teacher.

  1. A little lesson plan for one bar of music to sight read in 4/4 at 120BPM:

You have 30 seconds to before you need to play:

(0-10 seconds): identify time signature, key and tempo. Mentally play the main scale or mock-play it (think of Adrien Brody in the Pianist). If there are awkward notes (accidentals and sharps for example) rest your fingers on them for a moment and internalize the fact that you will have to play them at some stage.

(10-20 seconds): hum the rhythm (or melody) of the piece while mock-playing what appears to be the supporting notes.

(20-25 seconds): Mock play the first phrase/chords/notes while looking ahead to the next.

(25-30 seconds): Steady and set yourself.

(31 seconds): Play...

#

On slow practise look at this: https://bulletproofmusician.com/is-slow-practice-really-necessary/

Free videos (my channel):

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A free zip with 3 4-bar exercises with click and no click from 20BPM to 180BPM in 20BPM increments on mp3, pdf and with hands together and separated: https://www.patreon.com/SightReadingSounds

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I know this is an old thread. But just do a lot of sight reading every day and constantly add unfamiliar pieces - stacks of sheet music that have nothing to do with the pieces you’re practicing. It’s actually a lot of fun. Pretty soon you’ll notice yourself instinctively able to find a lot of keys without looking. Also do scales without looking. You can isolate larger jumps and do them repeatedly without looking until that jump is easy. Soon you will notice you can play a lot faster if you don’t have to take your eyes away from the page, which makes you lose your place in the music. I also found Hanson exercises great for this if you play them just slow enough that you can take the time to recognize each note and keep your eyes always on the page.

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I'm going to approach this answer from a different perspective, my own. For years I had trouble sight reading because it took more time to focus on the notes and be certain of their place on the stave. I have problems with my sight where I see double images when I look at things from certain angles so I can see double notes, double staves etc. when trying to sight read. Very confusing when sight reading. I had my eyes checked by several doctors with no solution, but I kept trying and finally found a doctor who knew the solution. He tested me, gave me a new prescription for glasses and now I don't see double when I'm wearing them. If your problem stems from eye problems, you'll need to get that fixed before you do anything else.

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