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The science of sight reading.

Scientific studies are revealing a wealth of new information regarding the visual habits that contribute to good sight reading. Articles in scientific journals such as Visual Cognition and the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research feature much that is new and compelling. Such research might form the topic for some lively discussion among piano teachers. The articles I have encountered are frequently exciting, demanding and sometimes rather iconoclastic. Unfortunately, these lengthy and often complex articles don't regularly make it onto the reading lists of busy piano teachers.

This article will distill information from these sources and present it in a concise and friendly format while proposing some simple ideas for utilizing the information in lessons. It will encourage a greater emphasis on sight reading in piano lessons and hopefully may result in some reassessment of the traditional methods via which sight reading has been taught.

First, consider some of the conventional wisdom regarding sight reading:

Good sight readers read far ahead of the notes being played.

People ... who sight-read well read way ahead and their fingers follow almost by heart while the eyes already look at something new.

--pianist quoted in Wolf (1)

Good sight readers keep the eyes moving forward, never backward.

The eyes must look on the printed notes, constantly looking ahead.

--Martha Hilley (2)

Good sight reading can be promoted by shielding the hands with a piece of cardboard or a book to prevent the eyes from glancing downward.

To insure that the eyes do not look at the keyboard, slip a large piece of extra-thick cardboard under the music rack of the piano and let one half of it extend over the keyboard.

--Lorina Havill (3)

Sight reading cannot be taught. Some pianists are good at sight reading while others are not.

The result [of my teaching sessions] was that people who seemed to be gifted for sight-reading improved; and people who seemed ungifted did not.

--Boris Goldovsky (4)

These descriptions of "what makes a good sight reader" do not necessarily translate into a description for improving the skills of a poor reader. As John A. Sloboda writes:
      The question which many
   musicians ask is "what makes a
   good sight-reader?" This question
   includes two separate
   concerns--firstly, what can be
   said about the characteristics of
   the fluent sight-reader--and secondly,
   what must a poor reader
   do to become fluent? It is an
   unfortunate but unavoidable fact
   that a reasonably comprehensive
   answer to the first question does
   not necessarily lead to prescriptions
   for the second. For instance,
   the finding that fluent readers
   typically look further ahead than
   poor readers does not automatically
   yield the prescription that
   poor readers should practice looking
   further ahead. It may well be
   that increased ability for preview
   is the result of some other skill,
   such as the ability to detect pattern
   or structure in the score, and
   that simply trying to look ahead
   will not improve this skill. (5)

Conventional descriptions of good sight reading consider the output skills or the results of successful reading, but the teacher who seeks to redress poor sight reading must instead address the development of good input skills. Input skills are the skills a sight reader uses to collect information and to order that information prior to "out-put" or performance. An expert performer with poor sight-reading skills can demonstrate expert output skills, while remaining weak at input skills. (6) Input skills are a collection of simple skills that can be addressed individually. I call them sight-reading techniques, and I encourage my students to focus on improving their sight-reading techniques rather than focusing on sight reading as a whole. By focusing on individual techniques, students have the opportunity to make regular, significant process.

The following is a list of skills that students can use to focus their attention on the development of input skills or sight-reading techniques:

* Keep eyes on the page.

* Count out loud.

* Keep going--steady beat.

* Read by intervals.

* Do not correct mistakes.

* Play the entire piece without stopping. Never stop in the middle of the piece and start over.

* Preview the music before playing--the eyes have the first encounter.

* Encourage chunking behavior.

* Practice using accessible music the student can read.

For success, students should strive for mastery of each technique. Don't proceed beyond "eyes-on-the-page" and "count-out-loud" until a student can demonstrate their capability and willingness to read while counting out loud with his eyes on the page. The teacher's role is two-fold: first, to present each technique with concise language that allows for great variety of presentation and second, to help the student remain on task until each technique is mastered. Some sight-reading techniques may require several weeks of application from teacher and student. Creativity, patience and humor can mean the difference between success and frustration for both.

1. Eyes on the Page

Good sight-readers spent less time looking at the keyboard, which indicates that an important cognitive component of skilled music reading is an ability to form mental spatial representations of the positions of notes on the keyboard and/or an ability to choose optimal finger positions which reduce the need to look at the keyboard in order to find the next note(s).

--Gilman and Underwood (7)

A. Encourage eyes-on-the-page in the most basic straight forward way possible. For instance, ask students, "Which hand plays first, and what is the first pitch it plays?" Notice how often students look down at their hands as if the music were written there. Encourage students to answer your questions with their eyes on the page. Try to create a process whereby the student's first encounter with the music is with his eyes.

B. Even if there are mistakes while reading, encourage the student to keep her eyes on the page. This is a significant step for improving sight reading, and it frequently requires some time to accomplish. Instead of covering the student's hands with a barrier, allow the eyes to learn this technique. If a student has difficulty with this technique, she can have a friend or family member watch her practice and alert her when she is looking down. If difficulties persist, set attainable goals. First, the student plays two measures without looking down, followed by four measure and so on. Reward students who continue playing with their eyes on the page despite making a mistake.

C. Students who consistently fail to keep their eyes on the page probably do not count out loud regularly. (See #2)

2. Count Out Loud

A student that can count out loud will have no difficulty in keeping his eyes on the page. It always works? This tool is my "million dollar" idea--the benefits for a student's sight reading are always exhilarating--but, I find this "million dollar" idea is difficult to give away. My 9-year-old student, Johnny, informs me that it "messes me up" when we count out loud. I inform him that he'll need to practice counting out loud at home before it will work in his lesson. My older students are even more stubborn about counting. So I cajole, convince and connive constantly to keep students counting.

3. Keep Going

Steady beat. See #5 and #6

4. Read by Intervals

Unlike the less-skilled sight-reader, the skilled subject does not process the melody 'note by note.

--Goolsby (8)

With regard to what subjects attend to during their fixations,* it seems surprising from the profiles to discover such a large number of fixations directed to areas between the notes, where there is no available information. These findings may provide an indication that when sight-reading, music readers strategically direct fixations to a position in order to determine the interval as opposed to processing the staff position of one note and then the following note.

--Goolsby (9)

* Fixation--brief snapshots the eye accomplishes to view information. These snapshots last approximately 250 milliseconds and provide clear vision of a circle approximately one inch in diameter. 3-6 fixations occur per second.

--Sloboda (10)

A. Place more emphasis on intervals rather than on note names in reading. There is evidence that the eyes do not look directly at each note, but they, instead, look between the notes to measure their intervals.

B. Children like knowing and repeating little maxims such as, "a line to a line makes a third" or "a line to a space makes a second" and "skip a finger, skip a note." Have them verbalize these little maxims (and others) regularly and consistently.

C. Correct the interval rather than the pitches. Let the student complete an entire piece. When the piece is completed correct any intervals the student missed. Now, have the student repeat the maxims that might apply. Method books carefully develop a vocabulary of intervals, chords and scales that help encourage good sight reading, but to take advantage of all that method books have to offer, a student must also learn to use good sight-reading techniques.

5. Do Not Correct Mistakes

A. When sight reading, a student should not stop and correct any mistakes. Keeping eyes on the page while counting out loud will go a long way toward accomplishing this goal.

B. To encourage my students to keep going, I never correct mistakes in the middle of their performance. I correct all mistakes when the piece is completed.

6. Play the entire piece without stopping. Never stop in the middle of the piece and start over.

The habits that lead to good sight reading can be encouraged throughout the lesson. They need not be restricted to a specific time set aside for sight reading. This comes as no surprise since sight-reading techniques help promote good musicianship in general. Keeping a steady beat and focusing on rhythm and continuity are good sight-reading techniques, as well as good musicianship skills. When a student plays an entire piece without stopping--whether a sight-reading drill or a recital piece--the student is practicing good sight-reading technique and good musicianship. With regard to sight reading, the student is enhancing her ability to "keep going" with eyes on the page while counting out loud. In terms of musicianship, the student benefits from the opportunity to think of the entire piece rather than just the first page or first line. The student can build confidence and experience with performing an entire piece, and is less likely to repeat herself or go back to the beginning of the piece in case of a stumble or memory slip in performance.

7. Perform Effective Visual Preview Of The Music

Skilled sight-readers appear to attend more to temporal structures in preview than less skilled readers, but not to other structural features of the music.

--Waters, Townsen, and Underwood (11)

Preview the music before beginning to play, paying particular attention to meter, rhythmic information, key signatures and repeat signs. Help students form a checklist of items to be previewed before sight reading. The checklist should be memorized and utilized every time music is being read.

8. Encourage Chunking Behavior Chunks are:

a vocabulary of commonly occurring note groups that can be rapidly encoded and processed in reading.

--Waters, Underwood and Findlay (12)

The sight-reader will recognize familiar constellations of notes and process them as single units, or chunks of information. If he sees a chord made up of several Fs, As, Cs and E-flats, he will automatically think "F7" even though the chord may be composed of six or eight notes. If he sees a sixteenth-note scale passage, which extends from the first beat of the measure to the third, he can again process eight notes as a chunk.

--Wolf (13)

A. Beginners: Teach reading by intervals. (See #4 A, B, and C)

B. Beginners and Intermediate: Teach transposition starting with method book pieces. Utilize transposition consecutively with I-IV-V7 progressions and pentascales in all 12 keys. Sue Haug, in her wonderful article, "Sight Playing and Visual Perception: The Eyes Have It," suggests, "Use transposition as a way to focus attention to patterns. This requires students to notice pitch patterns such as the contour of the melody or a harmonic progression." (14)

C. Intermediate and Early advanced: Use Czerny. Czerny is almost entirely founded on a vocabulary of chunking patterns. Transposing Czerny may be effective in some situations. Hymn reading at this stage may also encourage chunking behavior.

9. Encourage confidence building by providing students with music they can read.

A. Sight-reading techniques will not improve if the music is too difficult. As previously mentioned, confidence building can occur whenever a student improves one or more sight-reading techniques. Be sure to recognize and reward the improvement of the sight-reading techniques themselves so that the student may grow in the patience and confidence necessary to make ever greater improvements.

B. Sight-reading material should be challenging without introducing more than one new concept at a time. For instance, when a student is ready to progress to melodies with intervals of the second and third, avoid introducing new rhythms or hand positions until reading seconds and thirds is comfortable.

Sight-reading techniques can provide students with the tools to become successful sight readers. Until the fundamental sight-reading techniques are mastered, progress in sight reading may be slow or nonexistent. This will generally hold as true for the beginner as for the advanced pianist. By mastering the sight-reading techniques, students are ready to grow as sight readers, and their sight-reading skills may then improve at an equal pace with their improvements in technique, musicianship and memory.

Even if sight reading can be improved through the utilization of sight-reading techniques, why should teachers take time to include it in lessons that are already packed with method books, repertoire, theory and technique? First of all, sight-reading techniques can easily be incorporated into the curriculum of the college piano major, as well as the private piano student. All that is needed is a workable plan, a small sliver of lesson time and a consistent approach. Once sight-reading work becomes a regular part of the lesson, the student will benefit in every area. Students can experience significant improvements in technique and memorization when they consistently practice sight-reading techniques. And, improved sight reading actually bodes well for the future of our students and our studios. The college piano major, upon graduation needs to be ready to read regularly and competently. In the majority of the careers they may pursue (church musician, piano teacher, public school teacher, accompanist) sight-reading ability will be among the most vital job skills. In private studios, improved sight reading can enhance retention as well as the pleasure and fulfillment of our students. Students enjoy reading a wider variety of music and may become involved in additional activities such as accompanying or just playing for friends that can promote and benefit their reading even more! Finally, improved reading greatly lessens the oppressive feeling that ensues when poor readers commence to learn new, more difficult pieces of music and the struggle with frustration and impatience begins to overwhelm them before all the notes can be learned.


(1.) Thomas Wolf, "A Cognitive Model of Musical Sight-Reading," Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 5, no. 2 (1976): 156.

(2.) Martha Hilley, "Shapes and Abstracts: Their Use in Learning to Sight-Read," Clavier 16, no. 3 (March 1977): 64.

(3.) Lorina Havill, "Sight Reading Can Be Taught," Clavier 10, no. 2 (February 1971): 32.

(4.) Wolf, "A Cognitive Model of Musical Sight-Reading," 152.

(5.) John A Sloboda, The Musical Mind: the cognitive psychology of music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 68-69.

(6.) Andrew J. Waters, Ellen Townsend and Geoffrey Underwood, "Expertise in Musical Sight Reading: A Study of Pianists," British Journal of Psychology 89 (1998): 123-124.

(7.) Elizabeth Gilman and Geoffrey Underwood, "Restricting the Field of View to Investigate the Perceptual Spans of Pianists," Visual Cognition 10, no. 2 (2003): 229.

(8.) Thomas W. Goolsby, "Profiles of Processing: Eye Movements During Sight-Reading," Music Perception 12, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 106.

(9.) Ibid., 120.

(10.) Sloboda, The Musical Mind: the cognitive psychology of music, 69.

(11.) Waters, Townsend and Underwood, "Expertise in Musical Sight Reading: A Study of Pianists," 130.

(12.) Andrew J. Waters, Geoffrey Underwood and John M. Findlay, "Studying expertise in music reading: Use of a pattern-matching paradigm," Perception and Psychophysics 59, no. 4 (1997): 478.

(13.) Wolf, "A Cognitive Model of Musical Sight-Reading," 156.

(14.) Sue Haug, "Sight Playing and Visual Perception: The Eyes Have It," American Music Teacher 40, no. 3 (December/January 1990-91): 71.

Kenneth Saxon is the coordinator of accompanying and the director of graduate studies in music at the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College. Saxon earned a D.M.A degree from the University of Alabama.
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Author:Saxon, Kenneth
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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