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"Unlocking the Secrets: How to Perfect Your Piano Sight Reading Skills"

There is nothing more exciting for the budding pianist than the idea of learning a brand new piece of music! Yet, in order to do so, we have to accept the unfortunate truth that is that we do, in fact, have to learn it - and learning takes time.


Sight reading is one of those essential skills that a pianist must have in order to be able to accurately translate the composer's intention into a beautiful performance, but it is also one of those skills that causes fear. All those notes with different rhythms, reading across two hands, trying to keep the beat going all the while and trying to incorporate the often too easily glossed over tempo and dynamic changes. It can be a challenge.


So this blog is written with the intention of giving you a few pointers in sight reading. It is not intended to take you back to basics, but moreover it is a checklist of what you need to look out for prior to committing to sight reading a passage or piece of music.


NB - if you are doing an exam, these tips are great to put into practice in the 30 seconds / 1 minute you are given prior to being asked to perform!


Before I give you the run down of what you need to look out for, we need a test piece of music!


And to ensure there is no cheating, here is a quick little composition I have come up with specially for this exercise:



piano sight reading macclesfield congleton Cheshire teacher pianist tutor music


So, before you give it a go, let's investigate how we can make the sight reading a little smoother right from the off:



Key Signature and Scales



One of the key things (no pun intended...) to work out before you start to play is - which key are you playing with?


Well, I'm not getting into the discussion of how to identify key signatures on this post, but if you need a refresher then click here.


Use the time you have prior to playing a piece wisely and identify not only which key a piece is in but also identifying any key changes.


In the piece above, we can see that we start in the key of E major (4 sharps). However, at bar 7 you will notice that the key changes to D major (2 sharps). Because the bulk of it is in E, it is worth playing the scale of E major just to get into your system the need to sharpen those notes that need to be sharpened as you come to them. However, playing the scale of D won't be much advantage as it might just muddle you up - so it is worth playing the first bar of the key change just so that gets off to a good start.


Don't forget to be on the lookout for whether or not the key could in fact be the minor key. This piece could be in the relative minors of what I said above (C# minor and a key change to B minor). But how would you find that out?


A few tricks you can do:


  • Look at the start and end notes - particularly in the left hand. Usually this will give you a clue. In the left hand, the first note is E. We are in either the key of E major or C# minor. So it is safe to assume we're more likely in E major.


  • The ending chord has a root note of D in the left hand, and given that the key change takes us to either D major or B minor, it is another fairly safe assumption. However, because we have got some definite harmony we can explore this chord even more. Reading up, it is D - F# - A - C# (this chord is a D major 7). The inclusion of A and absence of a B is what separates the chords of D major from B minor, so we can assume D major.


  • One telling sign that a key may be in the minor key is the use of the raised seventh - especially in classical music. The relative minor of E (C# minor) would feature all the sharps from the same key signature so that would still apply. However, if the piece is writte according to the harmonic minor scale and its principles (click here to refresh) there would be accidentals marked on the seventh note of the C# minor scale - the B. If you see any regular accidentals of B# notated, it is highly likely we are in the minor key!



Start and End



By now, you will already have looked at the start and end with regards establishing the key signature. However, there is another advantage to doing so - particularly in a pressurised sight reading instance (such as an exam);


  • Confidently starting a piece will put you in a good mindset, but also allow the listener to immediately be hooked by your playing.


  • Confidently finishing a piece leaves a more positive impression of you performance on both yourself and your audience once you have finished.


So, if there are any parts you should prioritise playing through before you go for the full piece, make it the first bar and the last bar!



Count the Time and Tempo



Make sure that you have a good understanding of time signature (again - see here for a recap) and have a quick look throughout the piece to ensure that you understand which notes come on which beats and identify anything that may be a little untoward (see next point!).


In addition, however, make sure you identify any changes in time in the same way you identified any key changes. On my example above, we start in 4/4 and we stay in it, so we don't have to worry there.


However, at this point it is worth observing our tempo markings:


  • Moderato: - literally 'at a moderate speed'. So make sure you count 1-2-3-4 to yourself a couple of times to get you into the mindset. Remember that if you are under pressure, it's all too easy to go too fast! And aside from not being the right speed, we make more mistakes when we go too fast anyway! So going at the right speed is a win-win.


  • rit: - short for 'ritardando'. You can probably guess from the full word what it means - to slow down. Consider where this comes in the music now and try and sing to yourself the rhythms notated whilst incorporating the gradual tempo change instructed.



Clefs



Identifying which clefs you are playing at the start is an obvious point as this is essential for reading all music, but have a skim through and check that you are, in fact, playing with those clefs the whole way through. As exemplified above, you don't have to play the left hand in the bass clef (or vice versa). Bar 5 switches the left hand into the treble clef, meaning it moves position to higher up the keyboard.


If this happens, consider that - unless the clefs change in both hands (they don't in this piece) then you will either be playing with your hands much closer together than you would have been or you may have a pitch change in the other hand. Your music may suddenly be written using more ledger lines than you would like - and these are almost always a priority to identify before committing - or, as in the example above, you may see 8va markings such as those that occur across bars 5-6 and 7-8. This simply means to play an octave higher than the notated pitch. Make sure you are ready for it and know which pitch it is jumping to.


Reading treble clef in left hand and bass clef in right hand is amongst the most awkward things for a pianist to get used to, so if this is where you find yourself struggling, try sourcing musical exercises to help strengthen this almost 'reversed' approach to sight reading.



Explore Complex Rhythms



What we find rhytmically complex can be a very personal thing, but due to it being how most people learn it would be safe to assume that anybody able to perform the above piece would find the opening bars - made up of minims, crotchets and quavers - simple.


When we get to bar four, however, we have a syncopated rhythm. A dotted crotchet, followed by a quaver tied to a crotchet, followed by a crotchet. The rhythm itself isn't complex to understand, per se, but it contrasts the un-syncopated rhythms before it as it suddenly gets 'between' the beats.


This isn't a post in which I will explore syncopation, but this is an example of a bar that you may need to identify so that it doesn't catch you off guard.


Moving onto bar 6, we have some crotchet triplets / tuplets. Some triplets - such as the quaver triplets in bar 2 - are based around shorter notes and so don't affect the overall rhythmic flow too much. However, crotchet triplets and longer (minims etc.) can give the sudden impression of a change in time without actually affecting the pulse (a full 4/4 bar of crotchet triplets would fit 6 notes in, giving a sudden, almost dragged out '1 and a 2 and a' feel). Consider this when you are counting through the time signature and checking the rhythms and ask yourself how you are going to approach these triplets so that they don't come as a surprise to you when you are playing!



Find Patterns



And now - onto the main bit! The music itself!


We know how the first bar goes because we've played it by now. But just to help us keep a nice pulse going through the music, have a skim through and identify patterns - if you have an opportunity to pencil on a helpful hint for when you're playing then so much the better!


Here are some examples:


piano sight reading macclesfield congleton Cheshire teacher pianist tutor music

The above minims in the opening 2 bars of the left hand are E - G# - B - G#. This is simply a broken E major chord.


piano sight reading macclesfield congleton Cheshire teacher pianist tutor music

As long as we remember to move our right hand up the octave to keep with the 8va marking, we can play the above notes as E, G#, B and E. It's another E major chord - this time we'd call it arpeggiated because it starts and ends on E's with an octave interval.


piano sight reading macclesfield congleton Cheshire teacher pianist tutor music

Not to get predictable, but the above triplets are E - B - G# - E descending in the right hand, and E - G# - B - E ascending in the left. Both arpeggiating E major chords...


piano sight reading macclesfield congleton Cheshire teacher pianist tutor music

Worry only about the rhythm in the example above, for if you establish that the first note is B then the nature of the rest of the passage is descending one note at a time. Therefore - a descending E major scale starting on B.


piano sight reading macclesfield congleton Cheshire teacher pianist tutor music

The above left hand part is also a scale. It starts on E and, aside from rising back up to the D# after the C# it is always descending. If you identify this prior to coming to play that bar it will be much easier to keep a confident pulse going! If you have the opportunity to play this prior, it might be a good one to as you might want to consider which fingers you play with in relation to the following bar.


piano sight reading macclesfield congleton Cheshire teacher pianist tutor music

These chords in the right hand look awfully complicated. But...look harder! It's actually only the top note that changes. If you identify the bottom two (G# and B) then you only have to follow the top notes when you come to playing it!



Piano Sight Reading: Conclusion



Now, you are ready to play!


Remember to keep your eye on markings that are more extensive within the piece, such as dynamic markings or articulations (staccato, tenuto, staccatissimo) and go for it.


If you have the opportunity to do so - for example, if you're practising for the sake of improving your sight reading ability - feel free to take it slower than your intended performance speed.


Learning to spot patterns and preparing for sight reading is as much a skill as reading music, which in turn is as much a skill as playing piano - so keep at it and you will be rewarded!



 

Jack Mitchell Smith is a piano teacher based in Macclesfield, Cheshire. Click here to find out more.


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