Sight Reading; What Are We Really Teaching? 

Cartoon of spectacles with piano keys as lenses against green background

I teach sight reading.  I teach it because it’s a vital skill for a musician to have.  But I don’t teach sight-reading by using sight-reading method books, and here’s why:

Most of us equate sight reading as something which is assessed, either in grade exams or auditions, or some other type of assessment.  My sight reading has been assessed many, many times over the years, and every time, it has been via a solo piano performance.  But here’s the interesting thing; when I ask myself when I have actually solo sight read as a professional pianist, the answer is never. I’ll repeat that.  I think it’s important.  Not rarely, not infrequently.  Never.

I have sight read as an accompanist, as a duo, in a chamber group, in an orchestra, and I have busked my way through folk and jazz lead sheets.  But apart from the slightly odd environment of 1:1 teaching where I have to sight read bits of student-standard music, I have never needed to sight read on my own.  And as far as I can work out, nor do any other musicians.  We sight read as orchestral players, as chamber music members, as duos, and in bands, but it is quite extraordinarily rare that we have to stand up in front of an audience and sight read a solo work.  So why is so much importance placed on solo sight reading ability? Why do exams boards not accompany their sight readers to provide the same sort of support that an accompanist (or soloist) would? Why is the universally accepted form of sight reading not accompanied? Why are we as teachers mostly obsessed with this artificial construct of sight reading solo works?

These are questions I can’t answer. Or I can, but the answer I have is that I suspect the current status quo is dysfunctional and based on an outdated concept.

As for me, I’ll just keep going with the duets.

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  1. #1 by Percy Sugden on May 4, 2015 - 10:16 am

    I seem to be finding more and more that sight reading as a, well don’t know quite how to categorise it but as a ‘discipline’, a ‘subject’, a part of the exam syllabus cannot be concentrated upon too much in order to be able to do it. For me, it’s something you learn in time, over the days, weeks, months, years that you practice, and you don’t even realise you’re doing it until you come to a repertoire piece and notice something in the music you didn’t notice last time you played it, or you see something in a piece, a note pattern and equate it to something you saw in a previous piece of music you struggled with, so you know it straight away. Again, it can be possible especially for an adult to put too much emphasis upon sight reading and allow this to get in the way of the actual musicmaking and self-expression at our pianos.

  2. #2 by properpianofingers on May 4, 2015 - 12:16 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with you about too much emphasis on sight reading, but I think students do tend to often put too much emphasis on being able to play ‘perfectly’ when sight reading, or on this artificial construct of a solo sightread performance. You’re quite right about learning it over time; months and years of just playing!

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