3 big sight-reading mistakes

I’m sure many of you are amazing sight-readers, but if you’re like me, to say you’ve struggled with it, is an understatement. Maybe sight reading has always come naturally to you but you see your students struggle and don’t know how to steer them on the right track. While I still struggle with sight reading, my journey of recovery has revealed how to help students avoid the mistakes that have held me back for years and to give them the best chance for a good, life-long relationship with sight reading.

The Impact Poor Sight-Reading Habits Have On Our Mental Well-Being

It’s not often discussed but poor sight-reading skills can actually create some serious problems for students of piano. It can cause many negative consequences and be a roadblock to enjoyment and spontaneity. Which are pretty crucial for any budding musician, right?

For starters, it takes much longer to get pieces playable, and once they’re learnt, it’s much harder to KEEP them playable over time. Once the memory of it fades, if you don’t have the sight reading skills to bring them back to life quickly, they’re gone! You have to go through the process of re-learning and re-memorising all over again. Ugh!

This unfortunate cycle is not only seriously frustrating it can also lead to some pretty negative emotional consequences and can be a huge factor in why students quit.

Here are just some of the ones I’ve personally experienced and also witnessed in students.

  • Severe frustration
  • Embarrassment and shame
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-worth and low self-confidence
  • Tension and pain
  • Low motivation and boredom

Over the years I’ve been able to unpack how it all went wrong for me, and I’ve come up with the 3 biggest mistakes I made and that I see students make.

3 Big Sight-Reading Mistakes And How To Fix Them

Mistake #1. Mnemonics

For me to say that learning to sight-read using mnemonics is a mistake, might just be a little controversial. It’s a VERY popular method. But truthfully, I’ve found it to be the most challenging habit to overcome in my own sight-reading story. So I avoid it at all costs with my students.

using mnemonics to read music

It’s certainly true that these easy to remember catchy phrases help us to recall notes on the stave easily. I, like many millions of students around the world, learnt to read music this way. It’s a tried and tested method.

Problem is, you can become reliant on them, and it can be impossible to undo. Even now I can find myself accidentally confirming a note on the stave using Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit. I just can’t help myself. 

It’s completely and utterly ingrained in my psyche. 

The biggest pitfall to this process is that it seriously slows you down. It’s like trying to read a sentence by looking at each individual letter one by one. A completely inefficient way to read wouldn’t you agree?

So far, all brain reprogramming attempts to unlearn the mnemonics have failed me, so instead, I found a way to bypass them.

Solution: Reading By Intervals

Reading by interval is the spoken language equivalent of reading whole words instead of individual letters. It teaches you to read by patterns and shapes, instead of single notes.

Intervals are transposable and keep their shape and sound anywhere on the stave. While single notes are reliant on its specific place in the stave.

Reading by interval massively increases the speed that you can process what you’re reading, so your playing is not halted by trying to figure out every single note name.

Convinced? Great because once you decide to change to this method it really doesn’t take long for you to start seeing improvements in sight-reading.

Mistake #2. Going In Cold

If your students are impatient, like me, the instinct is to get into it without bothering to read over what you’re about to play. Problems become pretty evident, pretty quickly when a few bars in you realise you’re not playing in the right key or with the right rhythm. Probably both. 

It’s really not pretty. Or fun!

Solution: Preparing The Score

Spending a couple of minutes scanning over the score before starting makes a massive difference to fluency when sight-reading.

These are the steps I now go through before I get going. Every time.

  1. Identify the KEY and play all accidentals in the order they appear in the key signature (from left to right) – TIP: Try playing the unaltered note first to cement which note is being altered (ie. F→F#, C→C#, G→G#, D→D#)
  2. Play the scale – hands separately, listen carefully to learn the tonality.
  3. Check the rhythm – tap it out and detangle any tricky divisions ahead of time.
  4. Look for accidentals NOT in the key signature.
  5. Scan for patterns – repeated motifs or melodic fragments, repeated rhythmic patterns, repeated accompaniment patterns like arpeggiations or octaves and 5ths.

Finally, when starting to play students should always play SLOWER then they think. Slow and steady is better than fast and stumbly!

Mistake #3. Looking Down

Looking down at our hands when playing is probably the single biggest roadblock to fluency. I’ve found this to be true for ALL my students and overcoming this habit has made the MOST difference to my fluency in sight-reading overall. 

Solution: Um, Not Looking Down!

Sounds like a simple solution, right?

Yes, but it can be tricky to moderate for students. It’s such a natural instinct to watch what our hands are doing. Especially if we don’t have someone holding a book over our hands like I often do with my students.

However, if you can train your student’s eyes to stay on the page, they’ll gradually learn to FEEL their way around the keys and create a vital kinaesthetic connection between what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing, and what they’re feeling.

create a kinaesthetic connection

TIP no. 1: If students struggle to keep their eyes on the page they can try practising with something covering their hands. Depending on the piano, they might be able to tuck a piece of cloth (towel, scarf) under the music stand or piano lid and let it drape over their hands.

TIP no. 2: Students can try practising with their eyes shut. Sounds like a recipe for disaster right? Well, it may be a laugh but this exercise can really help to train their kinaesthetic connection. It encourages them to feel their way around the keys and LISTEN more attentively.

Other Sight-Reading Mistakes

While these are only my top 3, there are several other sight reading mistakes that I’ve worked on for myself and my students. I’ll briefly name a few:

  • Immediate memorisation
  • No active listening
  • Poor pattern recognition
  • Stopping and starting
  • Inconsistent practice
  • Delayed hands together

If you or your students have struggled with these sight reading mistakes it’s never too late to start making a few simple changes to improve these skills today.

About the Author

A multi-passionate music professional, Geri has many strings to her bow. She’s taught piano, theory and composition for almost 20 years and is an experienced composer and orchestrator in the Australian Film and TV industry. When she’s not hanging out with her 3 kids and her musician partner she’s usually found collapsed on the couch watching some sort of epic SciFi/Fantasy show with her cat Saffy on her lap.

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