How to Improve Sight Reading – My Personal Challenge

Sight Reading Sheet Music

I have always struggled sight reading, I was better at technical exercises – like learning scales and arpeggios. So I decided I would document a sight reading challenge.

My Motivation to Improve Sight Reading

There are two motivators for this sight reading challenge.

  • Develop the ability to learn music quickly so I can accompany musicians. I am currently self-employed so this is a great way to make money.
  • Find enjoyment while working on a weakness. In high school I was a poor sight reader and therefore was self conscious of my ability. Because of this, I didn’t practice sight reading – setting me up for a viscous cycle. On Find Your Melody I like to explore enjoyable practice. I suspect that overcoming weaknesses will bring more joy into my playing.

My Process in Improving My Sight Reading

Step 1: Establishing a Baseline

Once I have appropriate MIDI connections I will take the SASR sight reading test developed by Piano Marvel. The tool ranks you from beginner all the way to professional doctoral student, professional accompanist, and “sight reading prodigy.” So far no one has scored a perfect score of 1900.

Update 7/1/2020 – I took the test and scored a 1008. I was pleased with this as it places me between a piano major – 768 – and a masters student – 1146.

Step 2: Finding and Reflecting on Weaknesses

I pulled out 15 books that range many genres including baroque, classical, romantic, modern, pop, and jazz.

The next 15 times I sight read, I will pick one of the books and open to a random page and start playing.

When I come to a stopping point I’ll use post it notes to mark parts that I found challenging. Here is an example below.

Post-it notes on sight reading sheet music

Then I will make notes in a journal, identifying weaknesses. Since part of my motivation is making the process enjoyable I will pay close attention to when sight reading was fun, and when it was frustrating.

sight reading journal entry

Update 7/1/2020 My first batch of weaknesses – after reading through 10-20 new pieces here were my biggest struggles.

  • Rhythm, especially through meter changes, in combination with grace notes, or heavy syncopation.
  • Obscure chords in challenging keys. For example, when in C♯ minor I may frequently see B♯dim7 chords which lead back to C♯. B♯dim7 is spelled B♯, D♯, F♯, A. When I see a chord like that, my mind fizzles.
  • When the clef switches. Yikes! I didn’t realize how challenging this was. Not only do I have to mentally switch gears from one clef to the other, I also have to move my hand to a new position which may result in looking down at my fingers… How can I decrease this mental overwhelm?
  • Anxiety. As unrealistic expectations weren’t met, anxiety increased. As anxiety increased, inevitable slip ups sparked stronger and more negative emotional reactions which decreased the energy I could put into the task at hand. Argh, how to stop the spiral in its tracks?
  • Finger awareness. Can I move around the piano without looking at my fingers? What about when there is a 2 octave leap? There are blind pianists who can play classical masterpieces, so is it possible to never look at your fingers as I read?

Step 3: Create Exercises to Work on Weaknesses

The final step will be to work on the weaknesses. I will prioritize the weaknesses based off what I think will improve me the most.

Then it’s back to step one!

Update 7/1/2020

I mentioned some weaknesses earlier, however, find it challenging to clearly prioritize. I looked online for some direction. In the search I realized there is a dearth of methodological resources on improving sight reading.

In forums I typically found replies along the lines of “you just gotta practice more” or my personal favorite “practice, practice, practice!” I did find some (sort of) useful tips to the effect of “internalize rhythms,” “work on identifying chord structures,” or “look ahead as far as you can.” But I didn’t find a larger scale, tried and tested methodology that will rigorously teach you how to sight read effectively.

This shocked me. In many other areas there are method books, courses, trainings, etc, that will teach you specifically how to master the skill. There are jazz theory/improvisation courses, composition technique classes, piano pedagogy trainings etc. (If I missed some sight reading resources please let me know!)

So here is my stab at a deep dive into the process of sight reading. (This is just me making a bunch of stuff up, so if anybody with a good psych/neuro-science background has some feedback, I welcome that.)

Step 1: Information intake.

Before playing a note our minds are wildly soaking in information. On an obvious level we take in visual information as our eyes scan the page. On a less obvious level we also take in auditory and sensory information as we hear the music and feel the keys beneath our fingers.

Improvement thought: Perhaps I can train my eyes to look directly at the center of the two staffs and read all notes out of my peripheries? This may allow me to take in more information than if they zig-zag between staffs.

Step 2: decode.

With all this information, we make sense of it. Our mind takes a series of black lines and circles and turns out useful information like “C major then F major chord.” Or we take in the sounds and think “oh that does/doesn’t sound like I think it should.”

Improvement thought: Perhaps I could try condensing really challenging sections into block chords. It would force to chunk larger sections of music.

Step 3: decide

Now that we understand what the information means, we have to decide how we want to act on it. When we realize a section sounds bad we may decide that we should look at our fingers to make sure they are in the right step (which may be the wrong thing to do). Or we may decide that we should form our hand into a 2nd inversion D major chord.

Improvement thought: The biggest rule of sight reading (IMO) is that you always keep time. When I read sections that were way more challenging than my current level, sometimes my ego came in and tried to get me to play it perfectly. Perhaps I could write down the most challenging musical structures (ie arpeggios, runs in both hands) for me to sight read. In the future when I come to such a section, I’ll more quickly decide that I need to simplify.

Step 4: execute

This is the part where you attempt executing the decision. Great I decided that I should jump my left hand down an octave to a low “A.” Congrats I made it through the first three steps, but if I haven’t effectively tuned my coordination, I may still fail to play the note.

Improvement thought: What if I improvised, or played pieces I know well blindfolded? Would I start to form a better spatial awareness that would allow me to convert my decisions into effective actions?

So back to my initial question of what to prioritize. I think my biggest gains would come from these two exercises:

  • Practice keeping a pulse in my body. I think this will help my information intake step because the pulse informs where my eyes should be looking
  • Practice playing extremely challenging sections as block chords. When there are a million notes flying before you it is challenging to see the underlying structure. This exercise will help me see the bigger picture; ie it will help with decoding.

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