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I have seen many questions & answers regarding practising sight reading the right way etc. But I couldn't find the answer to my question whether it is even that important to practise sight reading. What I mean by practising sight reading is for example picking a random piece that you haven't played before which is below your level and practise sight reading everyday with random pieces like that. But is it even necessary? Don't you automatically develop your sight reading skills just by working on your pieces at your level, instead of practising sight reading SEPARATELY with random pieces?

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    What if all you did was play by ear with pieces at or below your level? – Dekkadeci Jun 15 '18 at 23:57
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    After due consideration regarding all the answers to this thought-provoking question, please let us know what your final thoughts are! – Tim Jun 16 '18 at 8:50
  • I am convinced that sight reading is indeed important and even fun when starting slowly. – Stallmp Jun 16 '18 at 9:31
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    Side remark to nuance the importance of sight reading. After years playing "classical" piano, I became a sight reading robot, just reading sheets and playing them back. I realized seeing my brother play jazz guitar (with either nothing or a basic key chart), that he was a musician (with deep understanding of harmonics), and I was not. So now 99% of what I do is play by ear and I can tell you that: I think I'm becoming a musician + my sight reading is better (since I now understand music better, reading it is also easier). My advice: focus on being a better musician, sight reading will follow. – Max Jun 18 '18 at 16:45

12 Answers 12

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Yes it is really important to practise sightreading. Being able to sightread well makes it much quicker to learn new pieces and eventually possible to play pieces reasonably well without having practised them at all.

Sightreading does improve simply by learning repertoire, but not that quickly. This is because you are only truly sightreading a piece the first time play through it. After that, you will have memorised at least some of the material, and are no longer sightreading in the strictest sense.

This is often a problem for pupils studying for instrumental music exams. Once they have memorised their pieces, and are “polishing” them, they are not really reading the sheet music while playing them, even if they are following the music to aid memory. For this reason I find it really important to ensure that pupils read and play a wide variety of new music alongside pieces they may be learning in detail for exams or performances.

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    Being able to quickly translate printed music into performance is helpful. For some, sight reading is a useful part of that, but others might learn music better in other ways. Learning a piece by sight reading requires three simultaneous processes: 1. Reading the score; 2. Playing the music; 3. Memorizing what one is doing. Some people may be able to do #1 and #2 together, but after reaching the end of a piece of music remember nothing of what they just played. Such people might learn music more effectively by studying it without trying to play it at the same time. – supercat Jun 15 '18 at 16:50
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    I played cello growing up and I really wish teachers would motivate students to learn how the students themselves prefer to learn. Most importantly teachers should make playing fun. Nothing about sight reading is inherently important. It all depends on what the student wants to get out of their experience, and personally I enjoyed playing a single piece for a long time and making it sound the way I wanted it to. Sight reading was very uninteresting to me, especially the part where you play pieces at a lower level. – aaaaaa Jun 15 '18 at 21:53
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    You know, @aaaaaa, good teachers teach different pupils in a whole load of different ways, tailoring their approach to the interests and abilities of each pupil. But good teachers will also try to subtlety introduce ways to learn which their own experience tells them has great value, even if the pupil might find them more challenging and maybe less interesting. A good teacher will make something like sightreading fun, and encourage a pupil to stick with it, even if they can’t immediately see the benefit. – Bob Broadley Jun 15 '18 at 22:01
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    The easiest thing to do as a teacher, is to avoid doing any activities which a pupil finds difficult, and to only do things which they already enjoy. But this lets the pupil down in the long run. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do lots of sightreading, but being able to do it will allow you to do things you aren’t even aware of yet. I couldn’t sightread well until my late 20s, and in fact it was teaching that VERY quickly improved my sightreading. I know that I would have had more opportunities available earlier if my reading had been better, and I don’t want my pupils to miss out. – Bob Broadley Jun 15 '18 at 22:07
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    Ah, don’t misunderstand me... Finding out what a pupil finds interesting, what kind of music they like, and yes, how they might like to learn, and what they want to achieve, is all part of good teaching. I’m just saying it’s important not to cut off any possibilities too early by not encouraging the development of a broad range of musical skills. In fact, delivering this broad musical education in a way that coincides with a pupil’s own interests is a side of teaching I find most rewarding, and ultimately effective. – Bob Broadley Jun 15 '18 at 22:38
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Mandatory, as in "commanded"? No, but if you see it that way, you'll resist it.

I'm a guitarist, and you probably know the joke, "How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of him!" Accordingly, I neglected this skill until I was 50, to my detriment. My answer now is not that practicing sight-reading will make you better at...sight-reading. That's obviously true. My answer is that it will make you a better musician. There is almost no other way to compel yourself to work out fingerings for music you would never have imagined, or to connect these fingerings to music theory (i.e. to relate what is obviously an arpeggio in the written music to an arpeggio on the fretboard). You may be a native genius (IIRC Wes Montgomery didn't and George Benson doesn't sight-read); then again, you may not be. If you want some insight into how a Charlie Parker solo, or a Bach cello suite, is put together, get the sheet music and struggle with it.

As you get better at sight-reading, you'll begin to be able to play notes you've already scanned visually, while your eyes are already on the next measure. You will necessary internalize scales, arpeggios, etc. You will necessarily learn to shift positions, which you'd otherwise avoid.

I could have chosen to noodle on the blues scale from now into my golden years, but I realized I was getting bored. There's plenty of interesting music out there...in written form. Learn to read it.

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    I love that joke. Like the one about clearing out a room by having the bassist solo. Of course neither is true. – ggcg Jun 16 '18 at 22:32
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Reading in general, and sight reading specifically may never be used by some players. If you are playing in a band where you are writing all the parts and don't plan to play in another setting then maybe reading isn't going to be on the top of your list of things to practice.

But if you want to be good at sight reading the only way to practice is to read stuff you have never seen before, or haven't played to the point of memorization.

Think of this, when you were first learning how to read (books not music) you had to sound out each word. Once you learn a word well enough you can just look at it and know what it is. Now when you read for the most part you just know most words. However, sometimes you come across a word you have never seen and you will need to sound it out. If you do this enough times you no longer need to sound the word out, you can just see that it is the word. Sight reading is sounding out the words in real time. If you do it enough you learn that word. This is different that memorizing a speech or a poem. It is learning the ability to recognize that word at first glance.

If you ever want to be a studio musician, or sub for an orchestra player, or countless other settings, it will be very beneficial to learn how to sight read.

As far what you say when you say:

practicing sight reading is for example picking a random piece that you haven't played before which is below your level and practice sight reading everyday

This indicates to me that your sight reading level is below your playing level. I think each player may have different levels in different areas. Some players can't read but are great at improvising. Some can sight read very well, but can't improvise. Sounds to me that your sight reading level is below your playing level. If you want to improve your sight reading to catch up to your playing, then you need to practice sight reading. If you are weak in reading in general, sight reading will help with that BUT reading the same piece over and over might not necessarily help your sight reading beyond a very basic point because you have memorized the "works" only in that very setting. To sight read you need to test those words out come at you in a setting you have never seen before.

Hope this helps.

  • That really helped, thanks. I have one question though: isn't it normal to practise sight reading with easier pieces since you haven't played them before? Or should you actually practise sight reading with pieces on your own level? And also, when sight reading pieces do you instantly try to play the left hand and the right hand? – Stallmp Jun 15 '18 at 15:45
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    @b3ko I have a similar question: is it possible to have a sight reading level equal to you playing level?? Sounds counterintuitive, because I think one can always play very difficult and fast parts that he could never sight read. This would mean the playing level is always better than sight reading level, right? – coconochao Jun 15 '18 at 15:54
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    @stallmp think of the hardest thing you can play. If someone wrote a a piece that was just as hard could you site read it? If not start off easier. If you want to read two hands practice two hands. If that's too hard start with one and work your way up. – b3ko Jun 15 '18 at 15:59
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    There's a demand for high-level pianists who are red-hot sight-readers though. They work in orchestras, recording studios, as staff accompanists etc. John Ogden was amazing. I met him a couple of times, heard him play a few more. He was sometimes criticised for the music seeming to go straight from his eyes to his fingers, by-passing his brain and emotions. Well, maybe. But he certainly played all the notes! – Laurence Payne Jun 15 '18 at 16:19
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    If you are a working musician that pays the bills by playing gigs every tool in your tool box puts a dollar in your pocket. It would be bad to turn a gig down because your site reading wasn't up to par. That being said if you dedicate your practice time to something else you can maybe get gigs with that skill. You have to judge what your goals are and practice what makes the most sense to achieve those goals. – b3ko Jun 15 '18 at 16:28
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One thing that may not be obvious at first is that you will need to use sight reading skills at random times. You'll sometimes be the only musician in the room and there will be a call to play some hymn, or national anthem, or locally-important-piece-of-music, you will be chosen. I'm not even a professional musician but I've been call upon to do such things as sight read a Gilbert & Sullivan score so the singers could practice (takes to long to describe the circumstances.) Once, my mother had to fill in for a concert pianist who suddenly took ill on the day of a performance. She got to sight read a concerto without the benefit of rehearsal with the orchestra; the bragging rights still linger.

Sight reading only takes practice; it's no worse that learning a piece from memory; it's just a different skill. You will use it.

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It is my opinion that sight reading is a byproduct of a knowledge of music theory, having a trained ear that knows where the music is going and a solid technique so you don't have to think about how to play what you are trying to play.

When sight reading, most of us are not seeing EVERY note. Our brains can fill in the gaps when we combine theory and ear training. For instance, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm.

So no, you don't need to practice sight reading. It will happen when everything else falls into place.

Although, some people have a fear of making mistakes and are obsessed with reading every note. Those who are a slave to notation never become good sight readers.

You can improve your sight reading by laying by the pool, transcribing music in your head. But, if you are like me, you'll fall asleep in two minutezzzzzzz . . .

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If you want to get good at sight reading, practice sight reading. Preferably get yourself in a situation where you HAVE to sight read, like playing the song for morning assembly in a school, or the hymns at a church.

Maybe YOU have no need for sight reading skills. But I doubt it!

  • I've yet to find effective ways in which to 'practise sight reading'. Holy grail? – Tim Jun 15 '18 at 15:35
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    Like I said, just do lots of it. This can be hard to arrange artificially, I agree. I'm good at sight reading (I joke that 'if I can't sight-read it, I probably won't ever be able to play it', but there's some truth there) because I continually HAVE to sight read. Of course, one could ask how I got jobs where sight reading is required without being expert already :-) That applies to lots of jobs where experience is paramount. I guess you just bluff your way in and get expert pretty fast! – Laurence Payne Jun 15 '18 at 15:56
  • @LaurencePayne i gave you an upvote because i think your answer is spot on for the most part. I do disagree with the last sentence. There are plenty of musicians out there that don't read at all or are very poor at site reading. I happen to think it is a good skill to have no matter what, but i also played in bands for 10+ years and never had to read in that setting. it totally depends on what setting you are playing in. – b3ko Jun 15 '18 at 17:01
  • Indeed. And my last sentence referred to "jobs where sight reading is required". – Laurence Payne Jun 15 '18 at 18:11
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Practising sight reading alone isn't that satisfactory in the progress department. Certainly read through stuff below your level of playing, both with just rhythm, l.h. and r.h. and together.

Problem with doing it alone is that you won't know if you're getting it right. With someone to guide you, it's a very different situation.

Mandatory? Who knows? To get full marks in the sight-reading section of exams, of course. To be able to hear something and play it back? No help. To be able, eventually, to play anything in any style, with the dots in front of you? Way too obvious an answer!.

It's up to you. Want to become a fully rounded player and musician? Better buckle down to it. You probably learned to read words so long ago, you can hardly remember doing it. Ask the simple question, do you regret learning how to?

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While I can't answer for the piano, I can say that as a classically trained vocalist, the ability to sight-read music is invaluable.

If you talk to any of the members of any professional singing groups around, you'll find that they might not have the most beautiful voice of any of the people who auditioned for their parts, but the ability to sight-read through music got them the job.

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If you want to be able to sight-read, it is important to practice it. It is not something that must be done every day, but periodically take out music that looks "readable" and play it. As a pianist, my ability to sight-read has served me extremely well. I work primarily as an accompanist, and my sight-reading ability cuts down on my total practice time a tremendous amount. When I can get 80-100% of the notes correct the first time, it does not take long to polish off a new piece.

I started practicing sight-reading at age 5 or 6 when my piano teacher started randomly pulling out new pieces for me to try which weren't part of my regular practicing for the week. Later on in my teens, I would pull out songs for fun that I just wanted to "try", whether it was some rock-song arrangement or some Mendelssohn. Being able to read new stuff quickly allows you to assess a piece and decide if you like it enough to polish it, even if you don't need the skill for a job like I do. It also means that you don't have to be dependent on others to play it for you (in person or via recording) to get a sense of how it goes.

As has been mentioned above, a knowledge of theory helps tremendously. I do not really read every single note. I see the patterns of chords and intervals and that helps me quickly process what's on the page.

I also would say that sight-reading doesn't do much of anything if you do not know your instrument well enough to find the notes quickly. Scales and chords (block and arpeggio, all inversions.) Over and over and over. Your hands need to be able to feel the patterns automatically when you see them on the page.

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Nothing in life is "necessary" except death and taxes. There is a bit of opinion to this. Sight reading has two purposes (both really the same, to be literate).

  1. To learn pieces by reading the score for the piece. For this type of work it is not necessary, expected, or even possible for some musicians to read through a piece first time without mistakes. A concertmaster or soloist could spend a year or more (estimate) working up a set of pieces for performance.

  2. To read on the spot if a job calls for it. If you get called to sub in a pit or similar type of gig you may get a short time to read through the music score. On occasion you may have read through a new piece on the spot (I've been there).

Reading random new pieces is great training for the second scenario. It is absolutely NOT necessary and you are right in your statement that by reading anything you are getting a work out at reading. Some musicians may develop good sight reading habits and skills w/o the type of training you are asking about, but for many this does help. Especially on instruments where there are several options for playing the same voicing of a chord or melodic pattern (like the guitar).

On a completely different note, literally reading music out loud but reciting the letter names is a technique that improves sight reading overall.

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Trying to learn to sight-read on the piano as a kid is one of the reasons I no longer enjoy playing the piano. I don't believe you should feel any pressure to learn to sight-read unless you want to. I know it's in exams but I don't care, enjoying what you do when you play piano is far more important.

In my opinion, it's far more fun, social, and useful to learn to improvise than to sight-read. Improvising is rewarding in-the-moment, and to make it sound better when you have no-one else to play with, you can just pick one of millions of backing tracks on YouTube and jam along. It might feel awkward at first if you've never done it before, but eventually it gets really relaxing to do this.

Improvising for long enough will eventually naturally lead to an interest in keyboard harmony. Keyboard harmony is being able to play chords to accompany a melody (either sight-read or improvised) in real time. It is incredibly useful, challenging, and more focused than a vague 'practise sight-reading' instruction.

Knowing keyboard harmony will ironically lead back to knowing how to sight-read in a much more effective way: you'll be able to eventually identify chord structures along a whole bar or even line at a time at a glance. This will mean you don't have to sight-read by going note-by-note (which is like reading language by reading letter-by-letter, you'll never be able to go quick enough). Chords are the words in music and chord sequences are the sentences. It was only after knowing a bit about chords that I ever became marginally less hopeless at sight-reading.

I found it far more rewarding to study harmony, both on paper and at the piano, than I ever did forcing myself to pick up a random piece a day and fail at playing it.

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    The word “fail” is important here. It’s unfortunate that you felt like you were failing at sightreading. Sightreading is a hard skill to start with. So, it is not a failure to sightread less than perfectly; it is an achievement to sightread at all. I prefer to always talk about sightreading in really positive terms e.g. “wouldn’t it be great to play something you like without hours and hours of practice?”, “wouldn’t it be great to play straight away with other musicians?” – Bob Broadley Jun 15 '18 at 22:20
  • BTW, should have said, I’m a harmony nut too, so completely share your enthusiasm! And I totally agree that having a knowledge of harmony helps one to read and play music. But, in fact, most of the varied aspects of music knowledge reinforce each other, so an open mind about all of these different ways of practising can lead to a greater level of skill, understanding and enjoyment across the board. – Bob Broadley Jun 15 '18 at 22:24
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    Your penultimate para. gets close to it. By understanding and knowing harmony, sight reading gets easier. Look along the line of a new piece - just by hearing the melody, you'll get close to whatever harmony will be there, it's often just the voicing that won't be the same as your interpretation. Your 2nd para.:in order to improvise, the melody needs to be known - learned, often. Once you can sight read, you can pick up anything - the world is your oyster. No need to have to hear something first. Makes sense? – Tim Jun 16 '18 at 8:44
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Yes

It is mandatory. There will be penalties.

:)

protected by Dom Jun 16 '18 at 22:55

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