Below is a list of articles written by Ken Johansen on sight-reading. Each article contains embedded examples and a few pieces to try out with students at varying levels. These examples are taken from the Read Ahead curriculum on sight-reading which we’ve been developing over the past several years. We will be adding an article every week or two until we are finished.
Sight-reading an interesting piece of music is like meeting an interesting person. We enjoy the pleasure of a new encounter, sense perhaps a mutual affinity, and look forward to a deeper acquaintance. And just as a new acquaintance can introduce us to a whole new set of friends, so an encounter with a new piece of music can lead us to discover a whole new world of musical experience.
In most sight-reading exams, students are given a few moments (from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes) to look over a piece before playing it. How they prepare themselves in that short time can determine whether their subsequent reading is successful or not. But it is how we, their teachers, prepare them for this moment that ultimately determines their success in this task.
How do we find an appropriate tempo for a piece of music we’ve never seen or heard before? Sometimes the title can help, particularly in dances (Minuet, Waltz, Gigue, etc.), but only if we have already played quite a number of pieces with those titles. The tempo markings above the first line, usually in Italian, can suggest tempo and character, but cannot be precisely correlated with a metronome (though some metronomes attempt it). The time signature is also important, but cannot by itself tell us what the tempo is, or even necessarily what beat to count. The surest way to find a good tempo is to look at the rhythmic subdivisions found in the score. These, considered in relationship to the time signature and tempo marking, are what help us to set the music in motion in our heads before we start sight-reading.
In our two previous posts, we discussed what to do before starting to sight-read a piece. Now we’re ready to talk about what happens while we sight-read. There are three things teachers commonly tell their students to do when they play a piece at sight: keep going without stopping, try not to look down at your hands, and try to read ahead. These are all correct and excellent, but often quite difficult to do. So in the next several posts, we will address each of these individually, starting with the exhortation to keep going and not stop.
The fundamental requirement in sight-reading is to play in tempo and keep going. As we discussed in our previous blog, the ability to keep going, come what may, is dependent on three factors: a strong sense of pulse, an acceptance that mistakes will happen, and especially a willingness and ability to reduce or simplify the music when necessary. I say willingness because many students seem to feel honor-bound to try and play all the notes. But it is not cheating to leave out notes when we sight-read; on the contrary, it’s a sign of good musicianship.
It goes without saying that to sight-read fluently and accurately, we must keep our eyes on the score. Looking down at our hands as we play breaks the continuity of reading, prevents us from looking ahead, and undermines concentration. Yet for many piano students, even some who have played for years, it is a frequent temptation.
One very important aspect of becoming a strong sight-reader is how effectively you use your working memory and how much you can store and recall. Working memory is defined as the temporary memory area where we store, process, and manipulate information. George Miller first referenced this in his seminal work from 1956: “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.” Psychological Review.