v. 1, no. 2/May 1, 1998


Dianne Hardy is Assitant Professor of Music Education and Piano at Dickinson State University. She holds a Ph. D. in Music Education/Piano from the University of Oklahoma. Her publications include a book designed to teach pre-school music classes, Music Appreciation for Children; a music game, Music Sight-Sing and two sets of music learning centers. She has published several articles in various music journals and presented papers at the national conventions of MTNA and MENC, as well as state conventions of these organizations.

Dr. Dianne Hardy
Department of Music
Dickinson State University
Dickinson, ND 58601
[email protected]

Teaching Sight-Reading at the Piano: Methodology and Significance

by Dianne Hardy

Research on Sight-Reading
Commercial Sight-Reading Books
The Diagnostic Prescriptive Sight Reading Program

I visited an elderly relative of mine at a local rest home a couple of months ago and there I witnessed Margaret Randall, eighty plus years old, whom I was told has trouble remembering her own name some days and frequently cannot recognize her daughter, but sits at the piano each day sight-reading hymns and any other music she can find. She is practicing her lifelong skill of sight-reading, one that has served her well for many years - even longer than certain fundamental life skills.

What is sight-reading exactly? Richard Chronister calls it a "prima vista" affair (1977) and Ristad (1982) characterizes it as requiring:

Fingers that can simulate a fast running passage and unwind the passage on the right beat with a flourish, an ear that refuses to shudder at notes missed, and a mind that is more intent on arriving on time than it is on enjoying the scenery of each measure. It needs a lot of 'ham', the ability to pretend all is well even when it is lousy going.

My masters thesis of 1992 assessed the current status of teaching sight-reading at the piano. Two hundred twenty one nationally certified teachers of Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) were polled about their teaching of sight-reading; if they taught it, how often they taught it and how they taught it. Finally they were asked to rate its importance on a five point scale. Of the 221 that responded, thirteen percent replied that it was the most important pianistic skill at the piano, 73 percent rated it highly important and the remainder rated it fairly important, while no one rated it as somewhat important or insignificant.

The benefits of skillful sight-reading are many. Fluency facilitates the learning of new pieces; it allows access to a wide variety of music and a more thorough knowledge of specific composers and style characteristics; it builds tactile, aural, and kinetic memory, which increases the player's confidence; and it provides training for many professions in music. Yet in spite of the high value placed on sight-reading by teachers, piano students are often deficient in the skill, displaying a large gap between the reading level and the difficulty of performance pieces. And the consequences of inadequate sight reading skill are devastating. Giles (1983) asserts:

Probably more intermediate piano students give up their piano study because of reading problems. . . than for any other single reason. People don't give up activities that they enjoy. But if each piece presents a learning prospect to be dreaded, the result is predictable. We should not be surprised that the country is overrun by millions of people who 'used to play the piano,' but who now cannot pick out a single-note melody at the keyboard.

Only seven percent of the certified piano teachers who responded to my study said that they addressed sight-reading in a systematic manner each week with the student and much of the literature I reviewed placed the blame for sight-reading deficiency on the current trends of piano training. Havill (1971) states:

It is only in recent years that piano sight-reading has been emerging from its role as a step-sister of performance. Contrary to the old saying that 'sight-readers are born - not made,' the art of sight-reading can be taught.

Regelski (1975) points out that most piano teaching tends to crystallize about repertoire building with the attendant stress on pure technique and polish of a few pieces a year. Sanders (1986) says that too often the desire for a good showing in recitals and auditions leads teachers to ignore functional skills, such as sight-reading. Gordon, Mach, Uszler (1991) concur citing how intermediate students will " sight-read" a new repertoire piece, but are rarely assigned material specifically for sight-reading.

The majority of teachers in my study said that sight-reading was not included in their program because they didn't know how to teach it. Many cited the reason being that instruction in teaching the skill is not included in the method book series that they use. Some did not even recognize it as a skill apart from the acquisition of repertoire and just said that students would get better with more years of lessons. A few teachers said they wouldn't attempt to teach it because they were rotten sight-readers themselves.

Research on Sight-reading

The present state of piano sight-reading is depressing, but not as bad as it sounds because we do know a considerable amount about the process. Many studies have examined the characteristics of excellent sight-readers and we can readily see implications for teaching the skill.

Research on Sight-Reading

Commercial Sight-Reading Books

A considerable amount of commercial books for sight-reading are directed to the pre-college piano student. Some are books that are independent of a series and some, especially more current ones, are part of a method book series. For reviews of sight'reading texts, see Commercial Sight-Reading Book Reviews. After examining pre-college commercial books for teaching sight-reading, I concluded that:

  1. sight-reading instruction books need to be graded into levels with a well-sequenced and systematic approach.
  2. they need to be one to two grade levels in difficulty less than the student's repertoire level.
  3. the music needs to be interesting.
  4. they need to be multi-key and employ a variety of rhythms.
  5. the material should represent all of the different style periods.
  6. reading instructions should be based on research findings.
  7. there should be a diagnostic test or some other form of assessment.

Chronister emphasized that sight-reading is "prima vista" or first sight music and any further reading of the material is not sight-reading. Also practicing is not sight-reading! Books that did not advocate practice did not, at the same time, address the subject of how often an example was to be played. I found only two exceptions, the Four Star series and Guhl's Successful Sight-Reading, which outline specific daily examples using new music each time. If a musical example is read only one time, a student can very quickly go through a book. Clearly, this is a problem with commercial sight-reading books. Are they financially feasible, given the sight-reading process?

The Diagnostic Prescriptive Sight Reading Program

Studies have shown that most students do not sight-read well, and very few are offered specific sight-reading instruction. Little information on testing reading skills exists and even less focuses on developing a plan to address the teaching of the skill. The practice of correcting errors and rehearsing sections of a piece leads to perfection when performing but proves disastrous when sight-reading because the process of practicing repertoire and that of sight-reading are separate and success in one does not lead to success in the other. How then can we afford not to teach sight-reading as a separate skill? When a teacher simply assigns a piece for the student at a lesson and the student plays the piece the following week the teacher does not know how the student practiced and how difficult the reading of it was initially. Often more difficult material is then assigned, still without the teacher having first assessed the student's ability to read it. Is this type of teaching not contradictory to the assertion that teachers highly value the sight-reading skill?

In order to change the haphazard teaching of sight-reading, teachers must first recognize that sight-reading is a skill apart from piano performance and one that can be effectively taught. Second they need to value their students' sight-reading ability as much as the ability to perform recital repertoire. In other words sight-reading must be given time and attention regularly in the weekly piano lesson. Third it is necessary for teachers to provide the student with a structured program complete with evaluation and lots of accessible reading material.

Diagnostic/Prescriptive Sight Reading Program (DPSRP)

As the field of Piano Pedagogy becomes more established and refined, the teaching of sight-reading will receive more and more attention with increased information leading to widespread teaching of the skill, which in turn will produce better sight-readers.



� 1998 University of South Carolina School of Music