Equipping Pianists for Superior Sight Reading

Review by  Dr Rita Crews OAM 
(President of the Music Teachers Association of NSW)

There are a variety of sight reading books available, all of which serve a very useful purpose and assist teachers in imparting knowledge of this at times, very evasive subject.

But as Nick Peterson says: If our students can read their language effortlessly, then why do they struggle when reading music? An excellent question...and this is the resource to find the answer. It starts with the author's view that "music should be taught as a first language rather than as a second..." What I see in this methodology is a parallel with a child who grows up in a household speaking two languages - both are "first" languages and are learnt in parallel. That is the core of this resource, the author's overall premise that music fits into this category.

So the basis of this book is to present sight reading as a natural phenomenon; piano students use two hands therefore sight reading should be taught as a two-handed skill not as a 'right hand first, left hand next, then both together' idea.

The Introduction itself is a revealing document where the author explains how music is a language that involves comprehension of what is written on the page which leads to understanding the vocabulary interwoven with the physical skills needed for playing.

He pulls no stops in defining the difference between a literate "second language" musician who is highly trained and musically educated, a fine interpreter of the written score who has done hours of preparation and practice but is unable to improvise; and a "first language" illiterate musician who is unable to read a score, has a well-tuned ear and can improvise masterfully on the spot. He goes on to explain the pitfalls of both and how to find the happy medium.

An eclectic individual, the author's experience in performance and education has equipped him admirably to identify and solve the problems that students encounter in developing sight reading skills. He does that by presenting a logical progression of ideas accompanied by appropriate exercises.

The exercises are all in C major, deliberately chosen as an aid to assisting with the core elements being explored: rhythm, melody and ccompaniment. The exercises begin with comprehending rhythm and understanding the rhythms contained in a basic nine-cell unit whose components, together or separately, can be found in a good deal of music, both classical and contemporary: The very first sight reading exercise uses both hands viz: crotchets in the right hand and a semibreve block chord in the left. And this is the underlying premise of this book: that piano is played with two hands, therefore sight reading should entail using both hands right from the beginning.

accompaniments start very simply and move on to other note values accompanied by drones, alberti basses, broken triads, extended triads and broken diminished 7th chords. The patterns change between the hands and increase in complexity. All those components shown in the original nine-cell unit are explored and practiced in both hands. There are 10 levels of exercises that increase in complexity and depth eventually using crossrhythms, for example, two-against-three, three-against-two and so on.

Mastering these exercises will lead to the student being able to sight read fluently, an experience that few actually have or can enjoy which then leads to the end result of being able to read and play any music at sight.

This is a sight reading book unlike any other I have encountered; it is a revelation and a most valuable resource that should be in every piano teacher's studio. It is included in the reference list in the AMEB 2017 Manual.

Highly recommended, Equipping Pianists for Superior Sight Reading is published by Insight Music Education Australia.

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