Many students have trouble in sight-reading. I do not understand why. To be frank, I am an excellent sight-reader, I can play (almost) everything at the first read: open score, orchestra/opera arrangement, choral (SATB) score, instruments plus basso continuo, four-hands music (I can play both parts-Primo and Secondo– at the same time), contemporary music (which tempo marking changes by every measure, each chord is totally unrelated to the next so you cannot predict what is coming next, and there are way many more notes than stars in the sky or dust in the air!), etc. You name it, and I can read it. I just have to find out why my students cannot sight-read, so that they can read better, not to the degree I am doing, but at least can play something simple and tonal at first sight with little difficulty. And thereby I started my search for the “holy grail”- my research on sight-reading.
When one types (or should I say, “google” (as a verb)?) “sight-reading” in the search engine, the first entry that appears is from Wikipedia. Now, in Musicology Research 101, the professor would say, “hey, never read Wiki as it is: it is not a reliable source because anyone with no credibility can put up some materials there.” Yes, that is quite true in some way. However, I do find Wiki very useful (and so did my music history class students who “borrowed” materials without citing their sources). To begin with, I always check the information with many sources, so I do not rely on just one single source and fall in love with it foolheartedly. I also find many articles on Wiki with bibliographies and references; sometimes external links are even provided for readers to check for more information. One of advice: use Wiki sparingly with a critical eye.
Back to sight-reading. In the article on Wiki, I read something ordinary and usual, others I already know a million years ago. Nonetheless, one term catches my attention: “Sight-playing”. Yes! Sight-playing! Of course, when we are talking about sight-reading on the piano or playing any instrument (we do hear a common term for singing: “sight-singing”), we are not just reading the score; we have to read it and play it at first sight! No wonder some kid students of mine when they first came to me said, “well we just need to read the music, we are not supposed to play it!”. I also heard from some students that their previous teachers told them to “read” but not try their hands on the piece given in the sight-reading test before the actual testing during exam because it is called “sight-reading” and therefore they should use only their eyes to look at the score!!
(The Wiki article credits the use of the term “sight-playing” to one author Dneya Udtaisuk, who wrote an insightful research on such matter. Interested parties can download her entire dissertation for further reading. (“A Theoretical Model of Piano Sightplaying components”, PhD Diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 2005.)
I also find another interesting article with the same keyword search. The title of the article is “Sight Reading- A Trying Time for Teacher and Pupil” (http://www.musicteachers.co.uk/resources/sightr.pdf). The author Paul Richardson has good insights into such subject. In Richardson’s opinion, there are five aspects we should notice about improving students’ sight-reading skill:
1. Goal of piano learning
Taking graded exams consistently will not improve sight reading or playing in general. It only helps students play the three pieces at a competitively high level to achieve higher marks. Although the technique level of students might have been raised, the sight-reading skill cannot be said as the same.
2. General reading skills
Here is the most fascinating point made by Richardson. “Reading skills” ? What does that have to do with playing the piano? Richardson shows that there is a parallel relation between general reading and piano playing, that “…they [good sight-readers], like good readers, look ahead and, whether consciously or subconsciously, the eye returns for brief moments to the point in the score that is being played, as if to check that this is what was seen.” (p.2) Reading and anticipating ahead while (sight-)playing is something I as a teacher always stress and as a pianist always practise. As a matter of fact, I do find there are many similarities between learning music and language (and have an article of such topic awaiting to be finished off). Richardson also suggests assigning the students to do general reading, aloud, every day to help improve sight-reading. Although it is no scientific research, Richardson, with years of teaching experiences, makes his point clear and through.
3. Keyboard harmony sense and skill
One great point Richardson makes is this:
“Do not confuse keyboard harmony with that required for theory examinations. The two are disparate and until the pupils’ sense of keyboard harmony is developed to the point that they can hear harmonic progressions and melodies in their heads, will remain so.” (p.3). Indeed, many students have passed the grade 5 theory exam since such is a prerequisite for taking practical exams of grades 6-8. But when I ask them about what they have learnt from the exam, they reply, “Nothing. I already forgot about everything.” It is a sad thing they spent all those times preparing for the exam but did not get anything out of it other than an empty figure (the mark, however high or low it might be). I do try to teach my students at the very early stage of piano study to learn some basic harmonic progressions and do some simple improvisation with them. I also remind them constantly to apply what they have learnt from written theory on paper to practical theory on the piano. Once one is more familiarized with the chords and their sounds, one can anticipate much easier what is coming next during the first read of a new piece.
4. Aural training
Training aural sense and reading skill go hand in hand when it comes to good sight-reading. Just as you can anticipate what comes next when you read the score, you can also “hear” the expected sound before you even play it. When I look at/read some new score for the first time, I can hear the music in my head. The whole harmonic structure with good rhythm and steady tempo. I can even hear the articulation, phrasing and dynamics (oh yes, my students call me “monster” for all these sight-reading things I can do, among other piano skills).
5. Keyboard coordination
This is particularly true for students at their early piano training stages that they somehow have to look at their fingers on the keyboard instead of reading the music, even when every note they need is under the fingers already. Be confident, my students! Like I always said, they have to trust themselves and take some risks. And it is only on the keyboard, so one’s life is not in danger or anything like that. Feel free to explore on the keyboard. Sometimes I ask my students to close their eyes to play something they think they are not familiar with and have trouble finding the notes. Initially they are astonished to hear such request from me (sometimes that comes with a roll in the eyes). But they do try and are surprised with delight that they can actually play even without looking at the keyboard! As put by Richardson, “Looking at the fingers will ensure that the pupil never becomes a fluent reader for, rather than reading, s/he is committing to memory a series of physical movements and sounds- the reading aspect takes second place.” (p.4) And there he puts it well in place.
All the five things Richardson put forth on this matter of sight-reading should be observed easily and commonly known among any well-informed and observant piano teacher, who understands that piano learning is not just about pursuing grades and marks but enjoying one’s own playing and developing a lifelong passion in music. Training students’ sight-reading skills is thus crucial for me. I only hope every student of mine can sit down and play just about anything at first read like me (or just a very small portion of me will do), enjoying the pleasure of playing all these musical treasures out there…