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A different way to think about sight-reading

5 years ago
Sally Cathcart

Sally Cathcart

Sally is co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers. She has many years of teaching experience both as a piano teacher and as a classroom music teacher.

Sally Cathcart, piano teacher, ABRSM examiner and consultant, and co-founder of The Curious Piano Teachers.

Sight-reading? It doesn’t really exist!

Some teachers and students tend to think that you can either sight-read or you can’t. But what if I was to tell you that sight-reading doesn’t really exist? Instead think of it as being part of a continuum that is called reading. At one end we begin with playing a piece that has never been seen before whilst at the other end we play pieces that have been rehearsed and refined many, many times.

Reading notation

We know that sight-reading is a skill that is quite easy to improve as long as the approach is both systematic and consistent. Musicians who are able to read a new piece quite fluently do so because they have thousands upon thousands of patterns – such as rhythm, pitch, tonality, metre – stored deep in the brain. These have developed over time through repeated and frequent exposure and use. This has allowed their brain to wire up to recognise patterns automatically, with minimum of cognitive input. When they see a new phrase they can instantly decode the note patterns and know how it will feel in the body. What they can’t quite read in time they will guess or simplify or improvise.

The teacher’s job

Instrumental teachers have the job to ensure that these thousands of patterns are taught systematically and consistently. Almost everyone has the ability to learn to read notation musically to a greater or lesser extent, and yes, I do mean just about everyone. We wouldn’t dream of saying that only a selected, talented few children are capable of learning to read and write words. Some get there quicker than others whilst others need a bit more help but the expectation is that they will all develop some reading competency. The American music educationalist Edwin Gordon points out that there are five music skill vocabularies which in order of development are:

  • 1. listening
  • 2. singing and chanting
  • 3. internalising and improvising
  • 4. reading
  • 5. writing.

These are parallel to the language skill vocabularies of listening, speaking, thinking, reading, and writing. Gordon argues that ‘piano instruction typically is begun with the fourth vocabulary’ – reading. (You can read more on this from Edwin Gordon here.) By plunging straight into reading we miss out the first three skills which completely ignores the sequential order of development. The consequence of this is that many pupils struggle to fully grasp the meaning of notation – in the end many give up!

How do you teach notation?

Many tutor books focus on teaching notation – yet isn’t it strange that so many pupils really struggle with sight-reading? There has to be a mismatch going on somewhere. Maybe this isn’t about sight-reading at all but actually about how pupils learn to read notation? So spend a couple of minutes thinking about how you teach notation. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Do you teach pitch notation in shapes and patterns or as isolated pitches, maybe using mnemonics?
  • Are pupils able to clap/play/count rhythm phrases independently and accurately? Do pupils have enough kinaesthetic sense to be able to make up or improvise something they can't quite read fast enough?
  • Are you persistent and consistent in your approach? Do you keep revising the basic material for long enough?
  • Is notation reading always approached as a serious task or do you play games to help reinforce the many concepts?

As ‘expert’ readers we have forgotten just how long and complex the task of learning to read notation musically is. If you focus on teaching rhythmic and pitch patterns in a playful and consistent way, so that the pupil can respond to them automatically, you will find that their reading and consequently their ‘sight-reading’ will improve beyond recognition. Sally Cathcart is co-founder with Sharon Mark-Teggart of The Curious Piano Teachers. She recently worked with us on the development of our Sight-Reading Trainer app.

ABRSM’s Sight-Reading Trainer for pianists

Our new sight-reading app helps pupils develop the skills they need to quickly spot key features, patterns and characteristics in music. Based on a series of fun games and 155 new pieces of music, Sight-Reading Trainer is a great way to improve reading skills and prepare for Piano exams at Grades 1 to 5. Discover Sight-Reading Trainer



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