Sight-Reading: Factors That Affect Piano Sight-Reading and Practice Methods

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Sight-Reading: Factors that Affect Piano Sight-Reading and Practice Methods


The definition of sight-reading is “the ability to read and perform music at first sight, i.e. without preparatory study of the piece” (Apel, 1962, p.679). Lowder (1983) surveyed college faculty members and in-service teachers to find out what they believed were the most important piano skills. The survey found that sight-reading ability was ranked second (“cadence” was first), followed by score-reading, harmonization, and accompaniment. A parallel result was found in the more recent survey of college piano students ranked sight-reading skill as the second most desirable skills (surpassed by “musicality”) (Kostka,1997).

Many music educators believe that the most important way to acquire good sight-reading skills is by reading extensively and practising it regularly, i.e. reading large amounts of music and playing many different unfamiliar music. Mursell (1956) and Elliott (1982) confirmed the validity of this belief. Although reading and practising extensively has proved to improve sight-reading, in the 20th and 21st century, a number of sight-reading researches have found other factors that can affect sight-reading achievement and have devised strategies to teach the skill of sight-reading. This essay is to discuss the factors that affect piano sight-reading, and explore practise methods to improve the performance of it.

Factors affecting sight-reading achievements and their practise method

Orientation of the keyboard

Playing music on first sight requires treating the functioning of eyes and hands separately. Since both have grasp much at the same time and within fractions of a second, they must learn to function independently. The eyes are solely directed at the images of the notes and the fingers must learn to dominate the keys blindly. This eliminates the double attention of the eyes of reading the music and looking for the keys (i.e. blind attack of the keys)—the most important premise for sight-reading (Spillman, 1990).

To achieve the skill of “blind attack of the keys”, the elevated groups of the upper keys (black keys) can help us. One should aware that the octave is divided into two groups of keys—two-black-group and three-black-group. One should first practise by closing the eyes to find the black-key-group, and after one is familiar with it, one should close eyes again and practise finding the white key in the mind (e.g. the E note). The procedure of learning to find the white key if to first find the end keys of the black-key-group (the 2 white keys at the two sides of the black-key-group), then find the middle keys (Cranmer, 1979).

Pattern Detection Skill and Memorisation

Research found that there is a positive relationship between intelligence (in the area of pattern detection skill) and music reading (Boyle, 1970; Keilmann, 1972; Ullman, 1945). Pattern detection skill is essential in sight-reading to identify patterns that construct the music. These patterns include repetition, sequences, short motives, long motives, scalic pattern, arpeggios, broken chords, alberti bass, moving in parallel, contrary motion, chromatic, 3rd apart, and more. If rhythmic patterns in the score are systemically detected, the score might not be as hard or complicated as it looks. In addition, detecting musical patterns help one to memorise the music quickly (so that one can remember what is read and able to play them while reading ahead. Or, if one has pre-studied the score, one might be able to memorise the score and do the sight-reading task with ease).

Pattern detection skills can be trained by analysing the score (finding the patterns, tonality, key changes, harmonies, rhythmic patterns, and others) before playing it, and aim to memorise the piece as soon as possible (this needs great amount of concentration and concentration can be trained as a ‘by-product’ too through this process) Regular training on...
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