The worst sight-reader in the class

“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

The idea of playing at sight often invokes a certain degree of fear for many musicians, irregardless of their performing skills.  Sometimes the ability to sight-read is even mistakenly talked about as if it is an exotic or magical in-born skill — either you have it or you don’t.  It feels especially embarrassing to some pianists when they are aware that their playing level is far above their sight-reading level.

Whenever I hear someone lament about the weakness of their sight-reading skills, I am immediately reminded of my freshman year in college.

The worst sight-reader in the class

When I began as an undergraduate freshman piano major, I was a terrible sight reader and I was painfully aware of it.  I could perform advanced repertoire with moderate success from memory, but even at a snail’s pace, I could not even play a simple four-part chorale at sight.  After a miserable failure at the sight-reading placement exam right before the start of classes, I became devastatingly upset with myself over the matter.

Combating shame through a shift of paradigm

Fortunately, my sight-reading class professor, Katherine Collier, convinced me it wasn’t the end of my musical career just yet.  I simply had not spent nearly as much time developing the sight-reading part of my musicianship as I had in other areas, so I just needed spend some more time on it.  With that encouragement, I was able to channel the intense emotional energy of humiliation of my 18-year-old self for good:  I made a stubborn resolution to get better at my sight-reading skills.

No magic but Practice! Practice! Practice!

Everyday throughout my first year of college, I religiously devoted anywhere between fifteen to ninety minutes a day exclusively to practice my sight-reading class assignments.   I read through at least five to ten Bach chorales a day, and went through every single one of the 371 in the volume at least twice that year.  After that, I worked through all 160 of Czerny’s Eight-Measure Exercises Op.821 for both sight-reading and technique practice in the summer.

The payoff

My hard work paid off by my senior year, when I felt so confident with my sight-reading that I regularly played from music given to me on the spot without breaking a sweat at accompanying gigs.  The better I got at sight-reading, the more fun I felt about reading unfamiliar music, and the faster it became for me to learn them.  In fact, these days I feel so comfortable with playing at sight that it is easy for me to forget to practice music I have already read through once.

Bringing up confident sight-readers

How do your students fare with their sight-reading skills?  Are they eager readers, or does the idea prompt them to fear and treble?  Having felt the debilitating shame of being a “bad reader” myself for many years, one of my top priorities as a piano teacher today is to instill a strong reading skills in my students from the very first lesson. It is my goal to provide my student with a well-rounded course of study, so that they can be successful and take pride in all aspects of their musical achievements according to their own level.

My own experience as a late-blooming piano student testifies that learning to play music at sight with ease requires no magic at all.  It simply requires as much time and devotion as it takes to develop skills in other areas of musical performance.  Having said that, I must admit that I did have the luxury of a college program in music performance, a little obsessive compulsiveness, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept failure to help overcome my weakness in sight-reading.  But what if I chose to go into another field?  How often would I be playing the piano today if I had never overcome my reading weakness?

And what about the average grade-school students who walk into our studios daily for their lessons?  If they were to stop taking lessons right now, have we given them enough skills to navigate their own way around any piece of music at their current level some ten, twenty, or fifty years from now?  Isn’t that what most people hope for when they sign up for lessons anyway — that years down the road, they can pick up any piece of music and just play for fun?

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