How to Improve on Your Sight Reading

Ah, Sight Reading! Everytime I speak to people or students about sight reading, you get more or less the same answer: ‘My sight reading sucks!’, ‘Cannot make it’, ‘Fail’, ‘too difficult’

There are a few main reasons for this I believe:
1. The notation foundations weren’t emphasised in the developmental stages of learning
2. The learner is a a very strong ‘auditory’ learner, less so a visual learner. In other words, he hears well, but don’t take to reading notes as well.
3. Inadequate technique in interpretation of sight reading from scores.
4. Various learning difficulties that might inhibit sight-reading (Eg. Dyslexia).

Let’s look at the first reason. The Suzuki Method and The Yamaha School of Thought (especially for Juniors) emphasise more on ‘ear’ than on ‘sight’, while the traditional ABRSM School of Thought emphasises more on ‘sight and less on ‘ear’. So you can’t really blame the learner if he is hearing more than seeing cause it is invariably influenced by the system that he/she is taught in. It’s just a different way of learning.

Let’s look at the second reason. The prominent academic Howard Gardner identified 8 main types of learners for which some simply lean more towards a certain dimension than another. Eg. Some people prefer to listen to audio books, while others prefer to read books instead.

Similarly, some music students prefer to listen to the music, then learn to play it, while others prefer to read the music, then learn to play it.

Let’s see the third reason. Music students tend to look at notes one note at the time, rather than a musical phrase at a time. In teaching sight reading, we must emphasise both single note-recognition as well as small phrases at the time, how notes relate to each other.

The issue is if you take a graded piano examination which emphasises on accuracy in note-reading, but you are a very strong auditory learner (not a visual learner), then you are in for a huge challenge.

When I see young students struggle with sight-reading because they are not visual learners but more auditory learners, but yet they have to take an examination which emphasises note-reading, I try different ways and methods to help them overcome their weaknesses (see patterns, see relationships, breaking it down to segments, activating game-play techniques, etc.) and at the same time, I explain to parents to be patient with their children and to help me continue the exercises at home and keep at it.

For some other instances, I would recommend a different exam board that emphasises less on reading, more on hearing. In an ideal situation,  Enjoying and learning the music first without the rush to take exams is much better (Bach and Mozart didn’t take any exams did they?)

Well, more on this topic another time.