Is Sight Reading Necessary For Pianists?

Many teachers and programs place significant emphasis on the skill of sight reading at the piano.

Pianists are told that they will eventually be able to pick up a piece of music and read through it without practice. Or that if they want to work as a collaborative pianist, they will need to sight read at a high level. It's almost as if the peak of piano playing is sight reading.

But is this really true?

In this blog, we investigate the benefits of sight reading, why you should work to grow this skill, and whether or not it really matters. And if you would like to learn more about our piano lessons in Vancouver, WA, please get in touch!

Is Sight Reading Really Necessary For Pianists?

Yes, sight reading is a necessary skill. It is a good indicator of your general reading skills, and the ability to sight read will empower you to learn music more quickly, explore new repertoire, and participate in collaborative or ensemble music.

However, the romanticized ability to pick up a difficult Chopin Prelude and read through it flawlessly the first time is not a necessary skill. That kind of sight reading talent really won't help you win competitions, perform well in front of an audience, or become a better musician. In fact, some of the most prodigious sight readers struggle to polish advanced piano literature to a high performance level.

Sight Reading and "Reading" are two Different Skills

Sight Reading, and simply “Reading”, at the piano are two different skills, but they have similar physical and musical demands. Sight Reading is the skill of playing a piece while reading the music without having read or played it before. Someone who is Sight Reading a piece is playing music they have not practiced or prepared, and has had very little time to examine before playing. Reading, on the other hand, means playing a piece while looking at the music, but it is a piece you have practiced, studied, and spent time learning.

Both these skills are useful, and have applications in different settings. A pianist accompanying a student vocalist in a lesson may be asked to Sight Read a new piece with the singer so the teacher can see if that piece is the right fit for the student. This is likely a piece the pianist has not seen before, and the pianist will not have any time to practice. They will only have a few moments to preview the music, and then they'll need to play along with the singer.

On the other hand, a pianist in a small ensemble giving a performance of a Piano Trio by Brahms or a Violin Sonata by Beethoven will have practiced their part, and rehearsed with the other instrumentalists, but will still play while looking at the music during the performance. They are Reading the music during the rehearsals and performance, but they are not Sight Reading.

If you can't sight read music on some level at the piano, that means your reading ability in general is not a well-developed skill. Sight reading music at the piano (or on any instrument, for that matter) is like reading a book. Some people absorb ideas and concepts by speed reading, while others learn how to skim for valuable information and content. But fundamentally, skilled readers don't stare at individual words; they process sentences and phrases for meaning as they read, noticing patterns in the structure of sentences and mapping those patterns onto something they've learned before to quickly understand what's written.

If you find it difficult to sight-read music that demands less of your technique, theory, and rhythm comprehension than the repertoire and challenge pieces you are learning, you may be caught up in reading individual notes.You may need some more strategies to approach sight reading. You may benefit from more applied theory that can help you quickly identify the patterns in the music, and group notes together into meaningful encoded musical structures that are easier to process and play. In this way, you improve your ability to read the music for its structure and content, and not just the notes and rhythms on the page. These are all skills we can work on in our piano lessons in Vancouver, WA.

If You Can Sight Read, You Can Learn Music More Quickly

Some pianists come from schools or study with teachers who assign even young students very challenging pieces of music, and the students learn those pieces by rote over 9-12 months. Instead of learning the piece by reading the notes and rhythms and teaching themselves the music at home during their practice, the teacher plays a musical game of Simon Says in which the teacher plays a small section of the and the student attempts to play it back, followed by corrections from the teacher. The lesson is just the student learning to play the piano through demonstration and rote repetition, rather than focusing on developing the skills and knowledge the student needs to be an independent learner.

A rote approach to teaching and learning music is impractical, and causes significant deficits in a student's abilities. In a professional setting, a pianist will rarely have 9-12 months to learn a piece of music (though there are exceptions for large scale works, or exceptionally challenging repertoire that demands unique or unorthodox techniques), and if you are playing the piano for enjoyment, you most likely will want to play more music than you could if you had a very limited sight reading ability.

If you improve your baseline reading level to a point where you can sight read slowly and with a steady tempo, you will find you can digest new piano music more quickly, which will empower you to practice and learn more pieces to a high level in a shorter period of time. Just like any other skill, Sight Reading is a skill that improves over time with practice.

Working Pianists Do Need To Sight Read

If your goals with piano include to work as a rehearsal pianist, either in a school, university, church, or other venue, you will need to sight read. If you are accompanying a choir rehearsal, the director will sometimes pass out new music that no one has practiced, just to see how it sounds and fits with the group. This sometimes happens in a private lesson setting, too, especially with singers. It is not uncommon for a voice professor to ask a student to sight read a new song to see if it is a good fit for the student's range, or will address a challenge for that student.

If you play in a chamber music ensemble, you will likely encounter similar situations – the group's leader or conductor will suggest that the group “read through” a new piece to see if you like it, and you have to apply all the skills you have learned to read and process the music for content and structure.

Sight Reading is Not for Performances

Sight reading is a powerful skill that allows you to explore more music for fun, learn music more quickly, and more easily collaborate with other musicians. But you shouldn't make a habit of sight reading in front of an audience in a performance setting.

Responsible soloists and collaborative pianists always practice their music carefully before the first rehearsal, and between each rehearsal, in small chunks, and spread out over time. This allows you to present a confident, well prepared, musical performance. Sight reading is a skill that opens doors for participation in more musical activities, especially collaborative ones, but definitely is not a way to present a finished product in a performance setting, like for a jury or recital.

For more information about our studio, or if you'd like to work on your sight reading through piano lessons in Ridgefield, WA, please get in touch!