Ten Tips for Teaching Sight Reading

Burgmuller Arabesque: Those pesky eighth note rests weren't typos after all.

Burgmuller Arabesque: Those pesky eighth note rests weren't typos after all.

"Those little squiggles? I assumed they were just typos." My new student, Harold, was playing the Burgmuller Arabesque. I'd asked him if he knew what the eighth notes rests were.

How had this happened? Harold, age 67, was a new transfer student. He'd been studying for years, but his teachers had let him down. He couldn't read music. He didn't even know what the most basic symbols meant.  

In my years of teaching, I've met many Harolds. Each one arrived at my door with their particular mix of limited knowledge and illiteracy.

It's turned me into a champion and teacher of sight reading. I, myself, was a child who didn't learn to read music until well into middle school. My combination of perfect pitch and a first teacher who didn't notice I hadn't learned to read had left me musically illiterate. It wasn't until playing flute in my middle school band and accompanying the chorus forced to learn to read that I finally did. By that time I was already playing the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto. Not able to read it, but playing it nonetheless.

I think we owe it to our students to teach them to read well. It is a matter of making it a priority and assembling the right materials.

Here are ten tips to make you a better sight reading teacher. 

1. Every musician plays better than they can sight read. 

This may seem obvious, but it isn't. I can play Rachmaninoff Concertos, but I can't sight read them easily or fluently. There's a relationship between the music I can sight read and the music I can play. I am an excellent sight reader, but even I can't play at sight the music I can play after hours of thoughtful practice.

My student, Audrey, with diligent practice, can play a piece like Fountain in the Rain by William Gillock, but it would be too difficult for her to sight read. She sight reads fluently a few levels below Fountain in the Rain. At her last lesson, she sight read through my entire Sight Reading Book One . In fact, she blew right through it. (Her Mom joked that perhaps she should get a refund since I clearly hadn't taught her anything!) 

2. Students do best when their sight reading stays only a few levels below their performance ability.

Brent, another transfer student, came to me at age twelve, able to play Joplin Rags and Beethoven Sonatinas. As I got to know him better, I realized that he couldn't read a note. I mean, he literally couldn't read music. Didn't know the difference between an eighth note and a quarter note. He vaguely knew whether notes went up or down, but couldn't tell a second from a third.

His previous teacher simply hadn't realized that every time she demonstrated something for him he was swallowing it up and regurgitating it note-for-note.

When we started working on sight reading, we went back to nearly a Primer level to find something he could play fluently at sight. It wasn't fun, because his playing ability had gotten completely out of the range of his ability to read. There was no relation between what he could read and what he could play.

3. The bigger the discrepancy between reading and performance level, the more the student will try to hide it.

Students who perform their practiced repertoire well may often not realize that their sight reading level is not expected to be at the same level. If the only music they are given to read is music that takes weeks or even months to learn, why would they think otherwise? 

It's embarrassing to admit that one doesn't know how to sight read a piece. Teachers need to take the time to explain and discuss the perfectly normal gap between reading and performance ability. 

4. Sight reading music that's too difficult isn't really sight reading.

Playing at sight means exactly that — playing it at sight. Not fussing around and making mistakes and apologizing and making the same mistake and apologizing again. Sight reading should be done with music that one can play when one looks at it.

Struggling and stumbling through difficult music, and by that I mean music that is difficult for any given student, isn't the same as sight reading. It's more like driving your car into a wall again and again. You're in the car, but you're not taking it for a drive. (Is this the metaphor I chose because one of my student's mothers drove her car into my house this week?)

5. Sight reading should be enjoyable.

Reading music for pleasure should be the same as reading books for pleasure. You should know the vocabulary, the basic sentence structure, and be able to figure the rest out by context. It shouldn't feel like reading this dissertation on C.P.E. Bach.

C.P.E. shoved aside the decorous roccoco style of the era to embrace "Sturm and Drang" – "storm and stress" – as well as Empfindsamkeit, or "intimate expressiveness." The dark, dramatic, improvisation-like passages that turn up in pieces by Haydn and Mozart bore the direct influence of C.P.E.

(If this is your thing, please feel free to read the rest of the article here...)

6. Too easy is better than too hard.

Reading a book that you can understand is more fun than reading one that leaves you puzzled. It's the same with music. Finding the sweet spot of what one can do easily and mixing it with teeny, tiny challenges can require some thought and preparation. It's also why materials made specifically for sight reading can be so helpful.

7. Do it with them.

In my studio, this usually takes the form of me playing one hand while the student plays the other. Some of the benefits to this kind of sight reading are learning:

  • The value and meaning of rests (if one doesn't observe them, the piece will fall apart)
  • Listening and keeping a consistent tempo
  • Playing something slightly more difficult than the student could play alone
  • Hearing a new piece in a more complete way
  • Hearing me make a mistake and realizing even teachers make mistakes

8. Prepare the score

Paolo highlighting chord changes.

Paolo highlighting chord changes.

It's not cheating to look through the score first. In fact, I recommend it.

Preparation is especially easy if the "piece" is a flashcard that's only four measures long. Looking for patterns, direction changes and hand changes makes it more likely the first time through will be correct. This will vary depending on the student. Some students might need to highlight each note in the simplest flashcard. Others may need no preparation at all and be able to dive right in. It will also depend on how challenging the material is for the student.

Circling the thirds is an excellent way to help students learn to spot them.

Circling the thirds is an excellent way to help students learn to spot them.

  • Circle the thirds.
  • Write in fingering.
  • Use highlighter tape, highlighters or washi tape to mark changes. 
    This could mean highlighting the LH notes blue and the RH notes red. Or, highlighting all the C Major chords purple, the possibilities are endless.

9. Make it social.

It's more fun to sight read with someone else. Not only does it increase the opportunities for learning, but as you'll see in this short clip below, it can also increase a student's awareness of their own strengths and challenges. Watch the dynamic changing between these sisters as they become aware that their assumptions may not be correct:


10. Sight Reading is forever.

Sight reading isn't a single skill to acquire. It's more like the cardio in your workout routine. You need to keep doing it so that you don't lose your ability to do it. It's one of the most important, if not THE most important skill you can teach. If we want to create independent learners, then we have to teach them the skills of independence. The ability to read fluently has to start at the beginning.

Recently my dear friend, Elissa Milne, posted this on the Art of Piano Pedagogy:

What strategies do you recommend for developing reading skills in beginners who seem to memorize their pieces almost instantaneously?

I understand her question. If a student memorizes something almost instantaneously, how do you teach them to read?

At the beginning, for some gifted students, they can play at almost the exact same level they can read. This doesn't usually last long, but I have had it last for as long as six months. My student, Leo, was like this. My strategy was simple. I kept him reading. We "assigned" pieces even though they were memorized by the time he left, and we kept assigning them week-after-week until there was finally something to practice. In the process, Leo became one of the best readers I've ever taught. The fact that he could memorize his music did not in any way prevent him from becoming an excellent sight reader.

Here are some materials I've put together that may help you in your goal of creating a studio full of excellent sight readers. Let me know how it goes!

Diane Hidy's Sightreading Flashcards Book One (Studio License)

You'll wonder how you ever taught without this 32-page book. I made these cards for my students to give them plenty of opportunities to practice all the different skills they were acquiring. This series starts with the simplest possible rhythmic patterns on the Landmark notes Middle C, Bass F and Treble G. Each set becomes incrementally more difficult.

Here are a few of the many different ways to use these cards:

  • Encourage students to write in their own fingering. This paves the way for making true fingering choices later on
  • Circle the thirds before starting to read the flashcards. This helps the student focus on the difference between steps and skips.
  • Help your student write in their own staccatos and slurs. Try them out. Talk to them about why they do or don't like them. 
  • Help the student add dynamics and phrase marks.
  • Print these in their entirety and use them as a book.
  • Print them on heavy paper or card stock and cut them into separate cards. Trying sending home a set with a student and ask them to become proficient with each one. At the next lesson, mix them up and play them in random order. It’s a nice combination of preparation and reading.

I wish you every success using my Sightreading Flashcards!

Diane Hidy

Note: I have intentionally omitted all time signatures, rests and fingerings. You may wish to add each beginning finger number. Each five-finger position has all up or all down stems. This is especially helpful for students with dyslexia and attentional issues. These same accommodations appear in my Attention Grabber books. 

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Copy Cats Book One (Studio License)

Copy Cats Book One
Studio License

Note: This is a 12 page downloadable PDF to print and reprint as often as you'd like.

Each COPY CAT piece is made of catchy, physically comfortable phrases which are immediately imitated by the other hand. In some pieces, the right hand begins and the left hand imitates it. In others, the left hand starts. These pieces encourage an unusual and important combination of both sight- reading and using one’s ear.

COPY CATS provide multiple opportunities to experience how playing the same notes in each hand doesn’t mean using the same finger numbers. They purposely do not include dynamics so the student can focus on interval reading and simple articulation.

Note: the pieces in D Major, A Major and F Major are printed in two different versions — one with the key signature and one with no key signature. These side-by-side examples provide a refreshing opportunity to see exactly what a key signature does. The piece in G Major is printed with the left hand in two different positions - high and low.

COPY CAT pieces can be used for:

  • Sight Reading
  • Transposing
  • Balancing skills when one hand is stronger than the other
  • Assessing reading level and ability

"I used these with a student last week -- amazing what it revealed about his reading, especially perception of intervals, and how they connect with his ear. These are truly useful tools for developing reading and coordination."

  —Keith Snell

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