Reading at sight: How important is it?

Students who continue to play and enjoy the piano long after they stop taking lessons are the ones who learn to play at sight.” – Frances Clark

I believe that the answer to the question posed in the title of this post, “Reading at  sight:  How important is it?” would be easily answered by the majority of piano teachers.  “Of course it’s important… vitally important!”  But the truth is that we teachers often neglect this important skill.  I was the Admissions Director at the New School for Music Study for over 10 years.  I quickly realized when interviewing transfer students, that I could expect that sight-playing skills would be weak.  Students nearly uniformly had great difficulty sight-playing two levels below their current level (our school standard).  In my own studio, I sometimes find that a student who enjoys polishing review repertoire struggles when learning new repertoire.  I haven’t done my job in these cases.  Last week, New School faculty discussed the topic of sight-playing in our faculty meeting.  Many good thoughts emerged, and these ideas will be found in this article.

Before proceeding further, I urge the reader to consider the benefits of developing strong sight-playing skills and to draw up a list (we would love to see this list in the “comments” section!).    Frances Clark’s message to us, that students will continue to enjoy the piano long after they stop taking lessons,  is enough reason to dedicate ourselves to helping students develop this important skill, but there are even more reasons to focus on it.  Therefore, we must ask: 

 Are there obstacles stand in the way of developing students’ sight-playing skills?   Two such obstacles come immediately to mind:

1)       Priorities:  We do not take the time to sight-play in each lesson, because other aspects of teaching take precedence.  The desire to polish a piece for the next group class, festival, etc. take over.  Lesson time can feel very short, not sufficient to cover every aspect of piano study.

2)     Lack of variety in the  level of pieces:  Pieces are all right at the student’s maximum difficulty level.  Students do not experience enough new repertoire, but work on just a few pieces for a long period of time.

3)     A “perception problem:

a)  We may subconsciously believe that some students simply have an affinity for sight-playing, and some do not.  While there is some truth in this belief, it does very little to help our students!

b)  We believe that we can solve reading problems in the repertoire, which can feel tedious to the student, instead of realizing that instead of solving problems, we need to prevent them, through activities devoted solely to sight-playing skills.


What can we do to establish uniformly strong sight-playing in our studio?

1)     Establish good habits right from the beginning:  Some students tend to look at their hands frequently when beginning music-reading.  A very simple solution:  Cover the student’s hands with a book.  This can be done without saying a word.  Parents can follow through at home.  Also, consider a beginning method book that incorporates the intervallic approach to reading, in favor of a positional approach or the middle-C approach.   Reading exclusively by note names and not direction or interval can really slow a student down.  In addition, believing that certain fingers always play certain notes can be a difficult concept to “undo.”


2)     Do not neglect sight-playing activities in the early stages of study. There are many good published collections availalble for such an activity.  In addition, I have composed some examples for elementary students here:  SP MT1 Track 2 (1)SP MT1 Track 3SP MT2A Track 2SP MT2B


3)  Incorporate two types of sight-playing activities in your weekly lessons, at-home sight-playing and in-lesson sight-playing.  In-lesson sight-playing is valuable for both student and teacher, as the teacher gains insight into the student’s learning process, and the student learns about how to approach this skill.


4)  Establish a routine for sight-playing:  Students do best with sight-playing when there is a regular procedure to follow. An example:

– Look through the example to see if any of the measures repeat.

– Look at the intervals.

– Find the smallest note value – this will be the note value to be counted when subdividing.  Tap and count the rhythm.

–  Play and count, subdividing.  Keep on going!  Do not stop to correct errors.  Maintaining the rhythm is the primary goal.

This is just one example of a sight-playing procedure.  When students are more advanced, examining the key of the piece will be helpful, as well as playing the scale.


5)  Consider a mixture of level of repertoire assigned:  One piece “at level,” one piece “below level” (students would learn this piece completely on-own, and perhaps just keep on the assignment for a week or two) and a “stretch piece,” a level above.


6)  Provide plenty of experience with hands together examples, so that the student learns to coordinate the hands and to read from “bottom to top.”  (Bass clef up to treble clef)


7)  Establish a “graduation requirement” before moving to the next level of difficulty of repertoire.  Students must pass a sight-playing “test” before moving on (the test might include examples two levels easier than current repertoire).  This way, we are ensured that students will not progress forward until the sight-playing skills are in balance.


I encourage the reader to now pick a young student, and then imagine running into the student years later, well into adulthood.  The student smiles when he or she reports:  “Yes, I still love to play the piano for enjoyment!”

2 thoughts on “Reading at sight: How important is it?

  1. 1. Ability to create music with friends on the spot (it’s totally unfair that other instrumentalists only have to read one line at a time, LOL).
    2. Ability to learn music quickly when students are on their own.
    3. Ability to learn more repertoire, maybe even pieces they like to play on their own.

    One of my student’s sight reading ability has improved dramatically in the past few months because he kept “forgetting” his books so we’d end up doing sight-reading exercise all lesson! No priorities problems during those lessons. HAHA.

    Also I’ve found it helpful to ask students to transpose sight-reading examples. I hate to say this…but some of my students that I’ve been doing that with since the beginning are now better at transposing than me….

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