David Hicken ~ Pianist & Composer

Advice For Pianists

Learning to play the piano well involves years of intense study in a number of areas such as technique, notation, interpretation, theory, ear training etc.

Your goal might be to achieve the skills necessary to perform a certain piece of music, or accompany a singer/instrumentalist, or maybe even write your own music.

These are all worthwhile goals, however, I would suggest to you that your ultimate goal as a pianist should be to sight-read well.  Sight-reading is the ability to read and perform a piece of music that you have never seen before.  Nobody would expect you to do it perfectly, but you should be able to get through it reasonably well.

Having the ability to sight-read any piece of music opens up a world of possibilities for you because you can play anything.  You would probably spend far more time at the piano if you were comfortable with this skill, and you would improve in so many areas by reading the wealth of piano music that is out there.

Most people struggle with sight-reading because they don't practice it, and just assume that it will just get better over time.  You must practice sight-reading every single day.  If you do, you will certainly see an improvement, but it takes months and years - not days and weeks.

Sight-reading is very taxing on the brain.  It involves deciphering symbols and translating them into finger movements within a fraction of a second.  Don't assume that better note-reading equates to better sight-reading.  When reading music, we see chunks of data (groups of notes and patterns) rather than individual notes.  The ability to recognize these patterns comes with practice.

Playing through lots of different music is good for you, but I would suggest that you take a more focused approach to sight-reading.

Choose a small section of music such as eight measures.  It is also good to choose a section that is in the middle of the piece rather than the beginning.  Spend 30 seconds studying it carefully.  Note the key signature, time signature and dynamics.  Look ahead for any tricky rhythms, and most important, establish a steady beat  and tempo before you begin.  Then simply play it and do the very best you can.  Strive to play as accurately as possible (it's a good idea to play slowly).  Make a note of any errors that you made and ask yourself why they happened.  Don't bother playing it again because it is no longer sight-reading.

This focused approach only takes a minute or two, and you will see far greater results than if you read through a lot of music over a longer period of time.  Treat it like a test!

You may assume that if you take my advice and do it for long periods of time, that you will improve more quickly, however I would caution you against this.  Focused practice for a short period of time each day will yield better results than longer sessions with lack of focus.  Your attention span for this type of work is very short (no matter how intelligent you are).  I would venture to say that after about 5 minutes of intense work when sight-reading, your brain will switch off.  Of course you can continue to sight-read, but less effectively.

Some people sight-read better than others because they can digest and interpret data more quickly than others.  This doesn't mean that they are necessarily more intelligent.

People who read a novel quickly, often don't remember as many details as those who read more slowly.  This can translate into piano playing too.  Pianists who sight-read quickly can be a little more sloppy in their playing than those who sight-read at a slower pace.

No matter what your current sight-reading level is, you will certainly improve with practice, but you must make it an absolute priority.

Very few teachers in this country stress the importance of sight-reading, which is very unfortunate for piano students everywhere.  Nevertheless, it is a skill that can be acquired on one's own.

I have heard many people who play by ear say "I wish I could read music", but I have yet to hear someone who can sight-read proficiently say "I wish I could play by ear".  Think about this.

Make sight-reading as important as brushing your teeth and you will do very well as a pianist.

Happy practicing!

David Hicken

All of the concepts that I write about here are detailed in my eBook "Secrets To Better Piano Playing" .  Click the image below to find out more.