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Sight‐reading music for piano or keyboard

Sight-reading is the skill of reading and playing piano keyboard music which you haven't seen before. This is a very useful because it means that you can try out and enjoy many pieces of music without having to practise them. The idea is not necessarily to play perfectly, but to get most of the notes sounding and above all to keep going. The rhythm must above all be correct, continuous and flowing, but how do we play piano music fluently? Firstly we have to learn to read music with both hands which can take up to 6 months. There is detailed instruction to help you do this in our piano-course.

RH space notes in treble clef
FACE is nice and easy to remember. The treble clef looks like a G and shows us where the G line is - one note above F. The others fill up each space from bottom to top.

LH line notes in bass clef
Think of "Green Buses Drive Fast Always" The bass or F clef used to have lines across which has been replaced by 2 dots, showing us exactly where F is on the stave.

Look and study before sight-reading music
Before you play anything and try to understand in advance what is going on. The more information you can take in during these few seconds of looking at the notes, the better you will play the piano music. The two main things to look out for are the key and the rhythm but don't forget to study chords to help you grasp the patterns in the music.

The key signature of the piano music
Firstly, make sure you know what key the music is in by looking at the key signature. Find out whether it is in a major or minor key. If it is in the minor key you will find extra accidentals in the music which are usually the 6th and 7th notes of the minor scale which are sharpened in addition to the sharps or flats in the key signature. Check that the piece ends in the same key as it starts in and whether or not it actually changes key in the middle of the music. The ending key takes priority and the music is said to be in that key even if it begins in another.

metronome - a device for helping you play with a regular beat
The rhythm of the music
The metronome is a device for helping you to play with good rhythm. Your piano or keyboard will probably have a digital metronome which is very accurate when you know how to use it. There is a way to practise with the metronome and we can show you without putting you off. The main clue is the time signature at the start of the music which tells you what type of beat you are to expect and how many of them are in each bar. For example 3/4 is three crotchets or quarter-notes in each bar. Next look through the music and find the most difficult part with the fastest notes. How fast you think you can play these notes will determine how fast you can play the piece of piano music.

Speed Choose a speed which is a little slower than you can manage, because once you start you shouldn't hesitate or stop. Problems are most likely to occur when you change from one note value to another in the music, so look out for these places and make sure you keep the main beat going. Also, check whether the music changes time signature in the course of the piece.

These are extra sharps, flats or naturals which are valid for the whole bar but only apply to the adjacent note. At the next bar-line you revert to the sharps at the beginning of the line which are the key signature. Unlike the accidentals, the sharps or flats in the key signature last for the whole piece and apply to every register (octave) of the piano.

When the clef changes
This can be an easy trap to fall into. Often one hand can change into the clef of the other hand. For example the left hand could play in the treble clef or the right hand could play in the bass clef, meaning that either hand could be playing the notes of either clef. It's a good idea to get used to doing this to avoid surprises, as well as looking out for this in the music. Remember also to notice at which point the piano music reverts to the normal situation. By the way, changes of key signature or time signature are preceded by thin double bar-lines.

Legato and staccato
Legato means join the notes leaving no gaps between them. Staccato means detach the notes, basically swopping the last half of the note with silence. Play everything legato unless there are staccato markings or rests.

Rests and ties
These need to be accurately observed. A rest means silence and It's easy to forget them when you are concentrating on so many things. A tie joins two notes of identical pitch, but not necessarily length, and you hold on the first one for the combined value of both notes without repeating the second one unnecessarily. Sometimes its possible to get mixed up with slurs and ties. A slur is over or under a set of notes of different pitch and should not be confused with a tie. A slur behaves quite differently and means that you play the notes under it legato.

Try to keep going when you sight-read.
Firstly, try not to look at your hands on the keyboard, but keep your eyes on the music. You can try placing the music higher than you really need on the music stand so that it becomes difficult to look down. That's good for your sight-reading. You could also put some books at the end of the piano lid and then close it except for a small gap for your hands. Of-course, mind the lid doesn't fall onto your hands. Both these methods will encourage you to keep your eyes on the music and keep going.

Look ahead
Try to your eyes are slightly ahead of your hands, but only a fraction. There is in fact a way of practising and forcing your eyes to look ahead a little. You can get a relative or friend to put a card over the bar which you are currently playing as you play each note. This will encourage you to look ahead at the next bar. Later you can ask your friend to cover up the whole bar or even two bars at a time, forcing you to look further and further ahead. Basically what you have to do is eventually look at the bar, memorise it and play it whilst already looking at the next one. You can see why it's called "sight-reading".

Be patient with yourself
This is really going to help your progress with sight-reading, which will take many months to improve. Reead some new music every day, try to relax and enjoy doing it. Practise putting one of the above ideas into your session each day or even try one idea per week. GOOD LUCK !
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