Lisa comes to lessons every week very excited to show me what she has learned. Listen to me first, she exclaims in piano class, hoping this week she has finally mastered that piece. As I listen to her piece, I bite my tongue as she plays, pausing at every second bar, corrects every 7th note, and the rhythm is just non-existent. At the end of her performance, we begin making corrections; we play it through slowly counting, we read the notes in rhythm, we mirror play, and I deploy a whole other host of strategies until the piece is close to perfect. Then it is written in the book for another week of practice in hopes that a week of practice will bring it back perfect.
This scenario is common, all too common. To have a student come and sit at the piano bench and stare at their music with a blank expression on their face, or phrases like I don’t know where my hands go, or this music is really hard or some other comment that conveys the child’s confusion with the music. Even worse is the attempt to play the piece with note reading mistakes played as confidently as a concert pianist. I often ask myself, how did this bright full of potential student get to this point? I know the answer; no, it’s not a lack of practice or technique or even a lack of good teaching. Rather it is more often than not a mismatch in a child’s sightreading ability and their current learning level.
We know that reading music is essential to any musician. It is what guides home practice and is the key that unlocks our ability to learn music at a faster pace and to be able to create and pass on music to others. However, sightreading is regularly a skill we cram to learn in the weeks preceding exams. However, without time or thought is put into developing this skill, many students ability to read music at sight is very poor. Nevertheless, developing sightreading skills can become one of the most enjoyable parts of a students practice sessions.
What is Sightreading?
Sightreading is the ability to play through a piece of music effortlessly without (or with few) rhythmic and pitch errors that you have never seen before. At Hope Performing Arts Centre, we often call a students’ sightreading level their functioning level. It is a level at which the pieces are easy enough to play and enjoy without the need for too much thinking.
Being able to sightread allows students to enjoy playing music in much the same way someone would enjoy reading a book. Just like reading books, the more a student sightreads, the better they become and the more pleasure they derive from making music.
Most students, however, skip over the sightreading just to get their practice done. Because of this, their sightreading skills suffer and fall further and further behind their learning level, making it harder for them to learn more difficult repertoire.
What level should my child be sightreading at?
For students who are just beginning to learn a musical instrument, their sightreading level should be close to what they were working on in the previous lesson. For beginner students who practice daily, this is generally achievable.
As students’ progress out of primer method books and into level one and two, they should be able to read anything at the primer level with ease and be progress towards fluently sightreading the new notes and rhythms introduced in their current method books within a few weeks of learning them.
Once students reach their first examination, it is essential that they can play fluently; the different note/hand positions on their instruments that they have learnt up to this point and are beginning to read melodic (harmonically as well for pianists) intervals and chords at sight. At this point, it is necessary for students to have an understanding of music theory as reading music becomes increasingly complex.
Below is a chart outlining the ideal minimum sightreading level for students up to grade 4.
How can my child get better at sightreading?
If you notice that your child is struggling to learn new music, it is often because their sightreading skills are too low. One of the best ways to begin improving sightreading is to have your child reading through pieces from an earlier method book at their sightreading level for 5 to 10 minutes every day. If you are not sure what your child’s sightreading level is, ask their instrumental teacher. They will be more than happy to provide you with the information along with suggestions of pieces/books your child can sightread through.
For some children using flashcards can also be helpful (particularly in the very early method books) in building their confidence with the note names. There are several great ways to use flashcards for developing confidence with sightreading; I will be sharing these is a follow-up post in the future.
At Hope Performing Arts Centre, we regularly provide supplementary material to help our students improve their sightreading. Check out their practice diaries and book bags to see what exciting material your child has to read through at home this week.
Once your child is sightreading regularly, you will find them picking up past pieces or new easy pieces to play for enjoyment. The more they play through new music at sight, the better they will get at sightreading and overtime, this will improve their ability to learn pieces of music at their method or grade level faster.