Piano Examinations: Sight-Reading

In order to teach sight-reading, it’s advisable to have plenty of suitably-challenging music available for your pupil to attempt to play.

You may prefer to use sheet music or books which you already have in your collection (e.g. old exam books or course books which you used a a child) – or you could purchase some piano sight-reading books. Personally, I prefer to buy the ABRSM sight-reading specimen tests for each grade as I know they will be the right level of difficulty with appropriate sharps, flats, staccatos, dynamic markings etc.

Pupils don’t always realise they have actually been ‘doing sight-reading’ since the day they started playing. Every time someone starts working on an unknown piece he is sight-reading it – often separate hands only, sometimes together: either way it’s still sight-reading.

However, when I show learners a book of sight-reading exercises for the first time, the response is invariably a look of sheer terror! It suddenly dawns on them that part of the exam will involve playing something they’ve never seen before; this is in stark contrast to the core exam requirements (scales and pieces) which have been practised over and over again for many months (in some cases maybe a year).

The first thing I do is try to put my pupil at ease and explain that he is not expected to play the piece perfectly … the main aim is to make it sound like a piece of music (rather than a series of random notes) and some pitch errors are to be expected (although obviously the fewer the better).

At grades 1 and 2, the ABRSM sight-reading test is made particularly easy (and has become easier in the last five years or so) – as pianists are not required to move their hands around the keyboard. This obviously means that finding the correct hand position to start with is crucial.

Correct Hand Position

Although there is a time allowance (30 seconds) for exam candidates to ‘try out’ a piece before they play it properly, in some cases, I encourage my struggling grade 1 pupil to spend that whole 30 seconds making sure he has the correct hand position.

In order to do this, though, he must also check the key signature. I try to impress on learners the point that a piece of music (including, for example, sheets of pop music etc. which they may pick up and play at home for their own pleasure) should never be attempted without first considering the key signature (… although I’m ashamed to admit, I’m sometimes guilty of making this mistake myself).

When sight-reading, if a pupil encounters, for example an F♯ or a B♭ in the key signature he should (having already found his hand position), check if any of his fingers are on an F or a B. If this is the case, he should raise the appropriate finger of each hand so it rests lightly on the black key. If this advice is followed, there is every chance the exam candidate will play most – if not all – correct notes, as, with the hands in the right position, and taking the key signature into account, it’s relatively easy to follow a pattern of notes going up or down one or two at a time. This is assuming, of course, that the player is able to keep his hands in the original position and doesn’t allow any of his fingers to stray beyond it.

For more able pupils, I recommend playing the first few and last few bars during the 30 seconds ‘try-out’, and – if time – any difficult-looking sections in the middle.

Sharps and Flats in Order

At the higher grades, it is essential that the pupil knows how to quickly read a key signature containing several sharps or flats. From the time when scales are first learned, I always encourage him to think of the sharps in order. For example, if I ask: “What sharps do you play in D major?” I would not accept the answer: “C♯ and F♯”. The order of sharps should be FCGDA(EB).

    Sight-reading Checklist (mainly grade 1)
1) Work out first note in each hand carefully (if necessary using mnemonics).
2) Find the first note on the piano and place correct finger on it (for each hand). Then keep hands still!
3) Check key signature (one sharp is F♯, one flat B♭).
4) If there is a sharp or flat, raise finger onto the appropriate black note (only if one of your fingers is already on corresponding white note).
5) Check time signature: keep counting beats.
6) Look at the dynamics: find loudest and softest parts.
7) Look out for accidentals, staccatos, accents and phrase marks.
8) If time, try out the music SLOWLY (possibly halve the tempo you would instinctively play at).

Any mnemonic can be used for this (e.g. ‘Four Clever Girls Do Algebra’) as long as it can be quickly recalled. The order of flats is much easier to remember as the first four spell the word ‘BEAD’ … and not many of my pupils have had to go beyond this.

When there are several sharps in the key signature, I encourage pupils to take account of the last of these. For example if he focuses on the D♭s and remembers most of these, the B E and A♭s seem to take care of themselves (for some reason!).

After thinking about the key signature and initial hand positions, the pupil should then look at the time signature. Many see this as the least important consideration, until I explain to them that as long as they have the right number of beats in the bar – even if many of the notes are incorrect – it will, at least, sound like a piece of music.

Ideally, having seen how many beats in each bar, the pupil should then try counting (e.g. 1, 2, 3) – but at around half the speed he would normally count. Most pupils are very reluctant to count out loud (by this time they have forgotten that they did so every time they learned a new John W. Schaum Pre-A The Green Book piece). However, it is often by actually saying the beat numbers, (rather than by imagining saying them in your head) that you can be sure of having the correct number in each bar.

One of the first major counting difficulties encountered comes with the dotted crotchet, quaver rhythm. For an explanation of how I teach this, refer  to the Current Piece section of Lesson Format.

One Dynamic Change

With time signatures of 2/4, I tend to count four quavers rather than two crotchets in a bar – especially if the piece contains semiquavers, as this enables me to count four semiquavers as: “1 and 2 and”. However, this doesn’t work for everyone and some find it more confusing.

Although most pupils feel they have enough to worry about with the notes, key signature and timing, I always encourage them to include at least one dynamic change in their playing at sight. While it may not be possible to notice every little crescendo or diminuendo, at least by having one change they will show the examiner they have made an effort.

Then, of course, there are markings such as tied notes, staccatos, phrasing and accents to consider. In the case of ties and staccatos, I would generally have encouraged students to observe these the first time they play any new piece. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes it’s worth giving out a checklist to remind pupils of what to look out for.

An alternative to ‘trying out’ the music in the allocated time, is to just look through it and focus on the tricky areas. This could include (from around grade 3 upwards) ledger line notes.

One thing which may help pupils is to realise that if a note they can read easily is on a line then the note with the same letter name an octave above or below it will be in a space – and vice versa.

Sound Musical

It’s also worth pointing out that where there appears to be a big jump in the music from one note to the next, it’s very common for this to be an interval of an octave and – if you’re short of time – it will always be worth guessing at this. It is also worth guessing that the final notes of the piece will belong to the tonic triad and – if really struggling to read them – just play the key note (an octave or two apart) in each hand which will, at least, sound musical.

Two commonly mis-read notes are treble A in the octave above middle C and bass E in the octave below middle C. Both are frequently misread as bass clef middle CCs. The reason for this is obvious – both have one ledger line which gives them the appearance of middle C – with which all pianists are so familiar. This is understandable as, if the clef signs were swapped, these notes would, of course, be middle C.treble clef middle C

It’s particularly common for this low bass E to be used at the end of a sight-reading exercise so it’s worth drawing attention to this, whilst suggesting to the pupil that, in any case, he should have an idea of his last note if he’s paid attention to the key signature. Pupils should have some understanding of how keys work and realise that most pieces generally end on the tonic – particularly in the bass line.

Sometimes, it’s worth guessing what the examiner is looking for. For example, if you’re given a piece with four sharps, that’s probably the thing designed to test you. Similarly there may be a tricky (e.g. tango) rhythm, contrasting sections with staccatos and legatos … or lots of tied notes. If you’re able to relax enough to analyse the challenges set by the piece, this could be more beneficial than just ‘trying out’ the notes.

For pupils who I know are particularly poor at sight-reading, I will start off by giving them pieces which are below the required standard for the grade so that they are not too intimidated or disheartened. They generally progress to the required standard by the time of the exam and in some cases will exceed this, so I am able to let them try pieces designed for the grade above. The advantage of this, of course, is that the sight-reading piece they are given in the exam will seem easy in comparison with the ones they’ve had in their lessons.

Carry On Regardless

Sight-readers should always be advised to look slightly ahead as they play and be mentally prepared for the next notes while practically dealing with the current ones. Perhaps the single most important piece of advice for the sight-reader is: “Carry on, regardless”.

On a flight to Spain a few years ago, I started chatting to the man in the seat next to me, who, coincidentally, had worked for many years as a piano teacher, and, like me, had taught his own two children. Later, he had become an examiner. Of course, this was a perfect opportunity for me to bombard him with questions and pick up a few tips.

Two of the things he said stick in my mind. The first is that examiners make an initial assessment of the candidate very early on in the exam (and are even encouraged – during training – to ‘guess’ at a final mark). In other words, if the candidate starts off by responding quickly to scale requests and plays them confidently, evenly, and at an appropriate speed, the examiner may already ‘decide’ he’s in line for a distinction. Of course, this ‘decision’ can easily be altered if the situation changes later on in the exam, but it’s worth remembering that first impressions can be very telling.

The second point made by my fellow traveller concerns sight-reading. I asked him if speed and flow should be favoured above accuracy. His answer was that the most important thing is that the sight-reader should keep playing and never go back. He likened the situation to playing with a band or an orchestra – it would be impossible to go back and correct a wrong note in this situation and sight-reading should be treated in the same way.

A few weeks after this encounter, I received some exam results. When the reports came back I noticed that a female pupil of mine (who is generally a reasonably accurate pianist) had been criticised (and presumably marked down) for going back over notes to correct them, while another (less accurate pupil) had been highly praised for keeping the tune going. I now quote my fellow traveller’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ advice to anyone preparing for the dreaded sight-reading ordeal.

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