How can piano students radically improve their sight-reading skills? Find out in this enlightening discussion with sight-reading specialist Manu, a piano and violin teacher in Australia, and founder of Piano Sight-Reading.

What is Piano Sight-Reading, and how can it help adult piano students?

Piano Sight-Reading is a blog and a YouTube channel dedicated to sight-reading at the piano. It includes tips, advice and resources to help adult piano players improve their sight-reading in a more systematic way.

What is the Sight-Reading Club, and how joining benefit adult pianists?

The Sight-Reading Club is a membership for adult piano players who want to improve their sight-reading. It was created a little over a year ago, in September 2021.

There are many benefits to joining the Club. As a member, you get access to resources that are presented in a progressive manner, including exercises and drills that have been composed specifically for piano players. You also get sight-reading excerpts which you can play along to an audio track, which you can slow down or speed up. Having an audio track is useful because you can hear how it’s supposed to sound, which means you can tell if you played a wrong note or the wrong rhythm. And besides, playing along to an audio encourages you to keep going, which is an essential skill to develop. If you need more practice in a particular key or time signature, you can request more excerpts in those key or time signatures.

Every couple of months, you can improve a particular skill such as not looking down, reading ahead or playing hands together by taking part in a challenge. You get fun exercises each week to help you implement what you learn.

Every other month, we dive into a particular music genre, learning about the history, the characteristics of that genre and various recordings to listen to. Knowing more about a music genre can help you sight-read more fluently in that genre.

And of course, if you need help or have any questions, you can submit your questions or attend a live Q&A call every month.

Several times a year, members have the chance to play one or several pieces at our concerts. These concerts are fun and laid-back – the opposite of stressful piano exams or formal recitals!

In a nutshell, the Club offers many different activities that you can take part in at your leisure to improve your sight-reading alongside other piano players.

What is the most important thing the average adult piano student should know about how to sight-read piano music?

That’s a tough one! But if I had to boil it down to one thing, it would probably be this: sight-reading involves many different skills. To become a good sight-reader, you not only have to be good at recognising what you see in the score, but you also have to have the technique or the experience of having played the elements you see in the score. In other words, you need to develop your technique as well.

And to be able to read sheet music fluently, you also need to know some music theory. At the very least, you should be able to understand things like how rhythm works, what intervals are, how basic triads are formed, and how key signatures and time signatures work.

And if you really want to take your sight-reading skills to the next level, then you’ll also need to develop your ears so they can assist you when you’re playing. They can tell you if you played a wrong note, which means you no longer have to look down at your hands and keep checking all the time. You can keep your eyes on the music instead and read ahead.

That’s why in the Sight-Reading Club, we have resources to develop your technique, your music theory and your ears, not just your sight-reading.

How much time on average do you devote to sight-reading in lessons?

I do my best to incorporate sight-reading in everything I teach, as opposed to treating it as a separate activity. What I mean by that is that whenever possible, I encourage my students to read the music by asking them to start from different bars (not from the beginning), by asking them questions to prompt them to see what’s in the score and by teaching them music theory related to their pieces so that they understand what they’re reading. The way I teach is very much influenced by the desire to help my students become better sight-readers/readers and thus better musicians.

How much time do you suggest students practice sight-reading at home (as a percentage of their overall practice time)?

I would say at least a 1/5 of their practice. For example, if you practice for 30 mins, I suggest dedicating at least 5 minutes to sight-reading. If you practice for an hour, I suggest dedicating at least 10-15 minutes to sight-reading. What matters is to practice sight-reading regularly and to sight-read as many pieces as you can in that allotted time. You’ll improve much faster by sight-reading a large number of pieces once, maximum twice, as opposed to sight-reading a smaller number of pieces 4-5 times.

I also suggest you use sight-reading as a way to learn new pieces. So, each time you learn a new piece, try sight-reading through it slowly – you’ll get more sight-reading practice that way and you’ll also get to hear how it sounds and how the hands fit together.

What would you say to an adult student who is intimidated by sight-reading and doesn’t believe they have what it takes to improve that skill?

Sight-reading shouldn’t be intimidating. It’s only intimidating if you’re trying to sight-read pieces above your level. Try to see sight-reading as a way to explore and discover new music, not as something to be dreaded. It should be fun, and it is fun once you get into it!

The aim of sight-reading is not to play perfectly. The aim is simply to expose yourself to new music and various styles and to practice reading the music as accurately as you can. The easier the pieces, the more chances you’ll have of being able to sight-read well so be kind to yourself and choose pieces that are below your playing level. Don’t be too ambitious by picking pieces that are hard for you to sight-read because then you’ll just want to give up.

Anyone can become a good sight-reader with the right attitude, the right learning approach, and the right resources.

Are there any kinds of exercises that help students become better sight-readers (if only tangentially) by helping them become more familiar with the keyboard? For example, my students generally practice major, minor and diminished five-finger patterns in all 12 keys, which in my experience gives them significantly more familiarity with the keyboard.

Practicing major and minor scales, arpeggios and five-finger patterns are great as it helps you become more familiar with the keys and key signatures. Even better if you practice playing these without looking down at your hands or eyes closed!

Besides those, I would suggest practicing exercises that are designed to develop keyboard awareness, in other words, that help you find your way around the keyboard without needing to look down. In fact, I’ve created a set of downloadable keyboard awareness exercises.

Exercises that train you to play hands together are also very useful, such as hand independence exercises and two-handed rhythm exercises, which you can grab here.

Is there a status quo or unquestioned assumption in piano teaching, particularly but not necessarily related to sight-reading, that you think might be worth reconsidering or turning upside down? What might that look like in real life? How could it change piano teaching?

There seems to be an assumption among some piano teachers that the easier you make it for your students, the better. That giving them the answers, for example, by telling them what the notes are, writing down all the note names in the music, or showing them how to play something without giving them the chance to try themselves first, is how they’re going to learn. Yes, they may play their pieces faster that way but have they actually learned something from it?

I would argue that the opposite of this assumption is true – that the easier you make it for your students (and for yourself – because it’s much easier to just tell them and show them), the harder it will be for them to learn on their own down the track.

Sadly, today’s technology isn’t helping. It’s only making things worse because now many people try to find the easiest and fastest way of learning the piano, using apps that tell you what notes you played wrong, or showing you exactly what keys to press and for how long. But this way of learning is not really learning. If you were to remove the apps they depend on, would they still be able to learn new pieces on their own? And would they remember the pieces they “learned” a few months ago?

I think that as teachers, we need to believe that our students are capable and we need to encourage them to think for themselves, to work things out on their own, to become independent learners. This means asking them questions and getting them to come up with the answers, as opposed to us giving them the answers. Our aim is to reach a point where the students can stand on their own two feet without us holding their hand. If they can do that, then we’ve done our job as teachers.

You’re preaching to the choir here – I couldn’t agree more. Is intervallic reading the best approach for teaching adults to read, or are there other approaches you recommend?

I like to use a combination of both intervallic reading and the Landmark Notes. I’m not fond of mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine (or Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit) as I think it actually slows down the process in identifying notes. Ideally, I would also teach solfege (sight-singing), which is how I was taught, as I think it’s a fantastic way to both learn to read music and develop one’s ear simultaneously.

Is writing (notating) music (e.g. for theory exercises or compositions) a useful strategy for learning to read better?

I think it is, yes. By writing down music, you learn the notation rules and how it all works, including how key signatures, time signatures, pitch, harmony, and rhythm works. It’s definitely something I want to include more of in my membership as I think it would be very useful for members.

Why should adult beginners study with a teacher vs. teaching themselves or using self-study apps/websites?

There are many resources available nowadays that allow you to learn piano on your own and that’s great. It’s never been easier. But the danger in learning on your own is that you may develop bad habits such as poor posture or technique, which will hinder your progress. That’s why it’s good to have a teacher, someone who can teach you proper posture and a healthy technique. A teacher can also advise you on what to focus on, what’s most important, and what pieces to learn. No matter what resources you use, I still recommend you have a private teacher, either once in a while, or on a regular basis.

Also, having a teacher on a regular basis gives you an incentive to practice regularly. On your own, you might not do as much practice because there’s no one checking on you. So, find a teacher, if you can.

What are the top three things (principles, strategies, techniques) that you teach adult students about practicing?

Firstly, practice should be intentional. Focus on one section at a time and decide what it is you want to achieve. Is it accuracy, phrasing, voicing? Avoid practicing mindlessly over and over again without any goal in mind. Take a small section. Work on it and then try playing it the way you want it to sound at least three times in a row. If you make a mistake, start counting again from 1 until you get to 3. And then put the section back into context by playing from a few bars before the section until a few bars after the section. This last step is very important because you want to make sure you can play the transitions from one section to another smoothly without any breaks.

Also, when you make a mistake, try to understand why you made that mistake because then it helps you avoid making that same mistake again in the future. Maybe it’s a fingering problem and you just need to find a better fingering. Or maybe it’s a technique issue and you need to change the way you’re moving your fingers and arms to play the notes accurately.

Lastly, trust the process. Trust that you’ll be able to play tomorrow what you can today. Practicing one section for an hour is not necessarily better than practicing the section for 10 minutes. It all comes down to the quality of your practice and how intentional you are. You can achieve a lot in 10 minutes if you really focus and know what you want to achieve.

What are the most important factors (e.g. personal qualities, aptitudes, attitudes, focuses etc.) for success as an adult piano student?

The most important factor, I think, is to have a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset. And that goes for both the student and the teacher (and the parents, in some cases). In other words, adopting the belief that anyone, including yourself, can improve with practice and perseverance. We are not born with a fixed set of skills that we cannot change. We all have the capacity to develop new skills and achieve what we want if we believe we can. I also think being curious, patient and inquisitive are essential qualities to learning any skill.

I couldn’t agree more. By the way, are there specific methods you use or suggest when teaching piano lessons for adults?

I have used Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course in the past, but I must say that I haven’t found any method books for adults that I or my students really liked. The pieces are not super engaging. I would love to see a bigger variety of adult piano methods on the market.

Thank you, Manu, for sharing your fantastic insights with my readers!

Manu is a piano and violin teacher, a composer and a collaborative pianist. In her spare time, she loves sight-reading all kinds of piano pieces, studying languages, reading, walking in nature and being creative. Her mission is to help piano players all over the world improve their sight-reading so they can experience the joy she feels when sight-reading.

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