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Is Sight Reading Music Practice the Best Way to Learn Piano?

By Hoffman Academy Team
sight reading approach to music practice

Many piano methods focus on sight reading as the core skill for students to master. The truth is that while sight reading music is important, it’s only one of many essential skills you need to become a well-rounded musician.

What Is Sight Reading in Music?

Sight reading music is the ability to play an unfamiliar piece from a written score. When sight reading, a musician hasn’t practiced the piece, and may have never heard it before, but they can play it fluently simply by looking at the notes written on the page. You can compare sight reading music to the ability you have to read an unfamiliar story or poem from a book.

But what if reading words aloud was the only language skill you had? What if you couldn’t listen to something that was said to you and repeat it back? What if you couldn’t have a casual conversation with someone because you didn’t know how to put your own words together? 

If you’ve ever learned a new language you’ll probably remember a stage where understanding what you’re hearing and holding a conversation were both really hard. But to be truly fluent in a language you need to be able to read it, write it, comprehend it, be able to repeat what you’ve heard, and put unrehearsed words together so you can communicate with others in a variety of situations.

In many ways, the language of music is the same as a spoken language. Reading is important, but so are all the other language skills, like listening comprehension, conversation, and writing. 

The Limitations of Only Using a Sight Reading Approach to Music Practice

If you focus only on sight reading music as you learn the piano, here are some of the other skills you’ll miss out on:

  • Improvisation
  • Composition
  • Ear training
  • Technique
  • Artistry
  • Transposition

Students who learn piano with a sight reading only approach tend to be very dependent on having a musical score in front of them. They have to keep their eyes on the page and concentrate on what the next notes are going to be. This means they’ll have a hard time focusing on posture, technique, and artistry. Because they are so used to reading music every time they play, memorizing can be a slow and difficult process for them. Another problem with learning music by sight reading alone is that students will have very limited creativity at the piano. Improvisation feels scary or even impossible.

Why Sight Reading in Music IS Important

Don’t get the impression that sight reading music isn’t a valuable skill! It’s great to be able to read music fluently from a page. When a student can sight read well, they’ll be able to learn new songs faster and more accurately than if they entirely rely on learning by ear. Another benefit of reading music well is that you can pick up any musical score and play through it for your own enjoyment.

It’s important to practice sight reading music because it has a lot of practical uses:

  • Playing in church for worship
  • Accompanying a vocal or instrumental solo
  • Accompanying a choir
  • Playing in a band or ensemble
  • Accompanying at a studio for ballet or other dance 

In most of these situations, it would be really difficult to learn by ear and memorize the music, either because of the large amount of music you’d need to learn or the short amount of time you have to learn it.

When Should Piano Students Learn to Sight Read Music?

Sight reading is a very important skill, but it might not be the best skill for a musician to learn first. In the Hoffman Method, beginners go through 4 months or so of piano studies without any true sight reading. Instead, we teach songs by rote, which means we show you how to play the song through listening and imitation. You will see written notes, but you always hear the song and watch a demonstration for the songs you’ll be learning. This helps develop your musical ear and your memorization skills. To see an example of how this works, check out Lesson 1.

Beginning in Unit 3, the Hoffman Method introduces sight reading as its own skill. Students in Unit 3 will still be learning performance songs, called their repertoire, through a combination of listening, demonstration, and seeing notes on a page. But they’re also starting to learn true sight reading, which is being able to play a piece they’ve never heard or seen played before. The study of repertoire focuses on artistry, sound, and technique, all things that are really hard to do when you’re sight reading. Sight reading, on the other hand, focuses on learning to connect notes on the page with the physical movements that will produce those notes.

Students can always learn to perform a song at a higher difficulty level than they can sight read. A piano learning method that holds students back from performing songs they can’t sight read can be very frustrating because it doesn’t challenge their musicianship enough. On the other hand, a piano learning method that asks students to sight read music that’s at their performance level may seem too difficult and discouraging. One of the unique advantages to the Hoffman Method is that performance pieces are are taught through a streamlined process including listening and studying the notes on the page, while sight reading practice is done with simpler pieces that are meant to be played only for sight reading practice!

How Much Time Should Be Spent on Sight Reading Music Practice?

Once you start learning to sight read music, you should practice it every day by finding an unfamiliar piece of music and playing through it. Choose a piece of music that is much simpler than the songs you are learning to play in your lessons. If sight reading seems frustrating at first, find an easier piece of music to try. Learning to sight read requires effort, so be patient with yourself. If you practice, you’ll get better. 

Sight reading shouldn’t be the majority of your practice time. There is so much more to musicianship than sight reading! Mr. Hoffman recommends that you spend no more than ⅓ of your practice time working on sight reading for a good balance.

How to Find Music for Piano Sight Reading Practice

Hoffman Academy has put together some great Sight Reading Trainers that are designed to supplement our video lessons. Each of these books has over thirty pages of leveled sight reading practice, and is free to download for Hoffman Academy Premium members. You can also use any popular beginning piano method books, such as Faber or Bastien. Just make sure you start with the very simplest songs, pieces you might have been learning to perform a year ago or more, and work up to sight reading more advanced pieces.

Sight Reading Music is One of Many Important Piano Skills

While sight reading is a valuable skill, it is only one of many skills that a pianist can acquire that will help them learn, perform, and enjoy music. A good balance between sight reading, playing by ear, and memorizing music will make you a strong, well-rounded musician. Be sure to spend some time every day developing each of these skills.

Happy sight reading!

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