Sight reading – How to read ahead

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Someone sent an email this week asking me for tips on how she could improve her sight reading. Specifically, she wanted to know how to read ahead.

What she means by “reading ahead” is this: good sight readers do not read what they are playing at the same time. Normally, they are reading a measure or two ahead of what they are actually playing at any given moment.

Reading ahead is a necessary skill for good sight reading. By that, I mean that it is inconceivable that you can sight read well without reading ahead. So how can you learn how to do it? I thought about it for a while and realized that the great sight readers I know do not always excel in this area because of the same reasons. So, there are multiple ways to develop this ability. Here are a few of them.

1) Natural talent. Some people are just better than others at this particular skill. Sight reading, by the way, is just one of many skills related to playing the piano, so if you do not have it, don’t despair. You can probably still get quite good by hard work.

2) Practicing. It sounds simple, but you can learn to read ahead by practicing a lot. Take some of your choir arrangements home and get to work.

3) Developing your ear. I cannot tell you how valuable your ear is when sight reading. It allows you to cheat in a lot of ways. That being said, I know great sight readers who do not play by ear at all.

4) Understanding theory and function. The absolute best tool you can have for sight reading is a great understanding of what you are playing. In other words, you should know what chords you are playing and where they are likely to go. In typical music, you can probably predict with 75% accuracy what the next chord is going to be, and that helps you.

For example, let’s assume you are playing in the key of C. Here is a sampling of assumptions that you can make that will mostly be accurate.

* If you see a G7 chord, it is likely to be followed by C.
* If you see a D minor chord, it is likely to be followed by G7 and then C.
* If you see an E minor chord, it is likely to be followed by A minor or A7 or possibly F.
* If you see a D7 chord, it is almost certainly a secondary dominant and will resolve down to G7.
* If you see a C# diminished chord, it is likely to be followed by D minor.
* If you see a C#7 chord, it is likely to be followed by C.

This is only the beginning. See how this kind of thinking can help? If you think you know where the music is going, you can with a quick glance confirm it. If you note that the music is moving differently than you expect, you just have to work a bit harder.

In a typical song, you will see certain rules such as I listed above followed almost entirely with perhaps one or two exceptions. Assuming you guess correctly on most of the song but flub one or two exceptions, you have just sight read with a lot of accuracy and will sound like a pro.

One other tip for you choir pianists and accompanists. If you know the chord that you need to play, play what is comfortable on that chord rather than trying to read and play something very technical perfectly. No one will know the difference. It is better to simplify and play at full speed than play exactly what is written poorly and at 3/4 speed.