This post assumes that you know how to read music. If you don’t, don’t worry – it’s easy to learn!
Sight playing means being able to (more or less) play a written piece without having seen it before. Sight playing (also called “sight reading”) is a wonderful ability, since there is quite possibly more incredible music written for the piano than any other instrument – more music than most players will ever have time to master.
The ability to “sight play” will give you the opportunity to quickly and efficiently explore written music. Not to mention, amaze others! And now it’s time for a …
Confession: I became a very good sight player by the time I was a teenager. Why? Because unlike many of my musical peers, I rarely liked practicing the same piece over and over (with certain exceptions). Yet I loved music so much that I was constantly sight playing. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that my technique and the discipline to practice a piece over and over caught up with my sight playing skills.
The best way to become an excellent sight player is to do it – as often as you can. Here are some basic principles for sight playing any piece:
- Take a moment to examine the basics of the piece – the key signature, time signature, tempo, beginning dynamics and any other notations.
- Note the starting notes and fingers for each hand.
- As you play, look mostly at the music. The more you do this, the more you will develop a kinesthetic feel for the keyboard, and the less you will have to look at your hands. If you don’t believe this, consider that there are virtuoso blind pianists who have never seen a keyboard!
- To improve your feel for the keyboard, play some music you’ve memorized with your eyes closed, or play in a completely dark room. (There are no monsters behind or inside most pianos.)
- Look ahead in the music. Keep your eyes a few beats or even a measure ahead of your fingers.
- Don’t stop if you make a mistake – keep playing. Yes, this violates the Golden Rule of Practicing, but in this case you are practicing to improve your sight playing skills, not to master a piece.
Any kind of music can be used for sight playing. Optimally, though, you should pick pieces you can play 80% correctly, musically, at the stated tempo. If you aren’t able to sight play a certain piece that well, find an easier one for now – eventually you’ll be able to read it. The more you sight play, and the more you improve your other musical skills, the more you’ll be able to sight play difficult music. I said it already, but I’ll say it again: sight playing is a wonderful and much-admired musical ability, even more so because pianists who can do it well are surprisingly uncommon.
If you are a beginning or intermediate player and interested in becoming a good sight player, sight play for 5 to 10 minutes every day. You’ll be surprised how quickly you will improve.