I know someone who has been typing for more than 20 years. Yet he still types by looking down and jabbing the keys of the computer keyboard with his two index fingers.
You can learn tons of new music, yet have have your sight-reading skills never improve.
If you are to ensure that your sight-reading does actually improve, you had better be very intentional about it. Simply playing a new piece every single day is not going to cut it.
You might have heard that sight-reading is very much like reading a book. That is true to a certain extent, particularly in the way we process the information. Just like you don’t need to read every single letter to make out a word, or even every word to get the meaning of a sentence, pianists are not actually reading every single note.
Reading a book only requires us to process the information. We aren’t doing anything else.
Pianists on the other hand have to translate that processed information into music that can actually be heard. And every time you look down at the keyboard to translate that information, you lose out on some precious time that could have been used to process more information instead.
This is why the best sight-reader ideally keeps his eyes on the sheet 100% of the time. Plus, it does not matter how fast your process the information on the sheet if your eyes are almost never there in the first place!
The big question is, how do you do that???
Sight-reading is actually a combination of a lot of ‘tiny skills’ put together. If you’re going to be intentional about brushing up your sight-reading, then you’ll have to know what these ‘tiny skills’ are, and then you can focus all your energy on them.
After all, you can’t improve what you don’t know needs improving, right?
And that is exactly how you will ensure that your sight-reading improves.
Before I move on, do know this about sight-reading:
For a ‘tiny skill’ to be relevant to sight-reading, it must help you with either:
1. keeping your eyes on the sheet, or with
2. faster processing of information.
Here are 3 ‘tiny skills’ that I consider the most important in my opinion. The first needs not much explanation.
1) KNOW YOUR SCALES (+KEYS)
And know them well.
By well, I do not mean simply knowing the number of sharps or flats, or even what they are for a certain key. Although you better already know this for all keys.
By well, I mean that you are very familiar with how your hands would glide across the piano keyboard up and down the scale.
2a) KNOW YOUR CHORDS
This one is hard, but so very important.
The ideal way to read chords is to read it as an image on the staff. This image information would then be translated into a certain specific hand shape that you have memorized.
Many chords can be played with more than one fingering. For example, a few common ones for a C major triad chord C-E-G would be 1-3-5, 1-2-4, and 1-2-3. For that reason, you might want to memorize one hand shape for each.
Being familiar with these hand shapes would allow you to identify just one note of that big fat 4-note chord. Find that note, and then simply get your hand in shape. Identifying all 4 one at a time would be too slow.
It is not necessary to be able to name these chords, but it is highly encouraged because by having more associations (instead of just the image), it helps you to internalize these hand shapes.
The most important thing is to be able to recognize the visual image of as many different common chords as possible, and have an ‘assigned’ hand shape memorized for it.
Here are 16 random common chords in the key of Eb major:
Knowing your keys well is important here too, because the same chord image might be an entirely different chord in another key!
2b) Intervallic Distance
The same thing as with chords, except this time there’s an emphasis on the physical distance between 2 fingers.
If I were to play a harmonic interval, say C-F (perfect 4th), with fingers 1-4, I should be able to measure that perfectly with my fingers. But I should also be able to ‘feel’ and memorize this physical distance (or hand shape) with different fingerings, such as 1-3, 1-2, or 2-5.
Of course, this works for melodic intervals as well (2 notes played in succession instead of simultaneously).
Here’s a practical example:
Start by placing RH finger 5 on the first note. You should be able to hit the following Bb and Ab without looking at the keyboard perfectly if you know your scales well. Once you have finger 3 hovering above Ab, use the physical distance (or hand shape) that you have memorized for this particular interval (it really should be image instead) and fingering (1-3) to find that middle C with your thumb.
Can you do it?
All the same, if you do not know your keys well, you might use the wrong hand shape. That same interval image in the key of C major for example, would be slightly different. The interval would be C-A instead of C-Ab.
3) FEELING IT
1a) ‘Sixth sense’ (spatial memory) – Go sit at the piano right now. Unless you are a total beginner, you probably can hit middle C with your eyes closed. That is the ‘sixth sense’. And if you can do this with one note, you probably can do this with any other note on the piano.
b) You should also be able to measure physical distance with the ‘sixth sense’, and not with your fingers. This means that if I were to ask you to move your hand a certain distance, say a 3rd down the keyboard, you should be able to do so without moving any fingers. This gets harder as the interval distance gets larger.
Start by placing LH finger 5 on the first note, and then play the next 2 notes without looking at the keyboard. The first moves down by a 3rd interval, the second by a 4th.
I intentionally used fingerings 5 on all notes, because if I started the first note with any other fingering, you can measure the physical distance with your fingers. That is not the skill we are currently looking at.
You also want to make sure that you do not touch the keys for reference, because that very skill is the next…
2) Another method of feeling your way around the keyboard is by physical touch.
Observe Kyle Landry’s LH particularly in the first minute of this video:
Notice how his LH moves slightly into the black key area just before he hits a new bass note. He is using the black keys as a physical reference. But because he is jumping down quite a distance, he is also using some of his ‘sixth sense’. A combination of both.
Here’s that picture again:
This time, use the physical touch skill to find the notes. How fast can you do it?
And here’s the 16 random chords again:
See if you can play all these chords in succession by physical touch, without having to look down at the keyboard. How fast can you do it?
Do note that in practice, we are really almost always using a combination of ‘tiny skills’, not just one. And those are the 3 main ones that I think are the most important.
1. Know your scales (+keys),
2. Know your chords,
3. Feel it.
Once you have mastered the first two to a certain decent level, you will hit a sight-reading brick wall. It’s now time to start forcing yourself to keep your eyes on the sheet.
Resist the temptation to look down at the piano keyboard at all costs. (Other than memorization, looking down at the keyboard is probably the no.1 hindrance for sight-reading improvement.)
This is how you’re going to take your sight-reading skills to the next level.
And level up baby!
P.S. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below or shoot me an email. I will do my best to help out!