Sight-Playing: Just an intellectual exercise?

In a previous post, I mentioned students of mine who struggle a bit learning new music.  I resolve to do a better job of following my own advice in the post dated 9/23/2013. In addition, I believe I may have stumbled upon a sight-playing solution that would be applicable for all of my students.  I will begin by describing two students:


Alicia’s  polished performances are… “to die for.”  I try to avoid cliches in writing, but this is the phrase that comes to mind.  She is inherently so very expressive.  When it comes to learning new pieces, though, there has been some significant trouble.  Unless I work out the pieces with her in the lesson, there can be considerable delay in practicing and learning repertoire.  Another student, an adult, is very dedicated to improving his sight-playing skills, but I can see that when his practice time is limited, his reading weaknesses are revealed.  Two weeks ago, I noticed two remarkable similarities between both students: Though both incredibly musical, the new music is performed with a complete lack of expression and a lack of physical involvement.


An example:  Alicia recently tackled a set of Beethoven variations with a renewed sense of purpose.  These pieces were assigned by her group class teacher for a wonderful class project, and Alicia was not yet ready to play them in class.   I, in an admittedly desperate move, had given her an assignment that I thought would be simple to follow:  “Set the timer for 20 minutes, take two measures at a time, play 3 times hands separate and 3 times hands together.  Put a smile face above those two measures.  Now go to the next two measures, follow the same procedure. Next, play the four measures together.  See how far you get in 20 minutes.  The next day, review old sections two times hands separate, and two times hands together before moving on to new material.  Email me saying you’ve “done it” and I’ll send you back a cute picture of my dog.”  I was pleased to receive “did it!” emails throughout the week. When Alicia arrived at her lesson, she seemed proud of herself for her diligent preparation.  The idea behind my practice suggestion was to help this student overcome the hurdle of “fear” when learning new pieces.  To quote a famous slogan, “just do it!”


When Alicia played for me, though, I began to understand that sight-playing was merely a mental exercise. I was very proud of the accuracy, but there was no emotional or physical involvement.  When approaching the variations not yet learned, I began to have Alicia incorporate physical and musical gestures, right from the start.  I subtly moved her arms, and encouraged shaping of phrases.  She quickly adopted this “whole self” approach.  I was amazed to learn that she was really reading at sight!  It was obvious to me that Alicia was learning more material during those few minutes in the lesson then she had during the entire week prior to the lesson.  I encouraged a similar approach with my adult student, with similar results.


Why would adding more to the process of reading make things easier?  I actually do not know.  I do recall that when retraining my own technique, that incorporating physical involvement into the reading process bolstered my own reading skills.   I do know that since it worked with two students, and I will surely continue experimenting with this more “multi-sensory” approach to learning new repertoire.

3 thoughts on “Sight-Playing: Just an intellectual exercise?

  1. I have noticed that there is a “fear factor” that rises to the surface when students are asked to sightread. I wonder if it is caused by fear of the unknown? Perhaps you are diminishing some of the fear when you incorporate physical and musical gestures …..something students are familiar with?

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