In my previous post, I talked about what sight reading is, why it’s important, and why it’s such a challenge for many musicians.
In Part 2 of How to Read Music like a Pro, I will mention the most common sight reading books used by teachers, and how to choose the material that is right for you. Once you have determined the appropriate level for you, check out Part 3 on tips for success!
Like any skill you acquire, you must devote time and effort to learn it. If you consider learning music as another language, (I do!), experts estimate spending approx. 10,000 hours, or about 10 years! When you consider great composers/musicians such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, they may have begun composition early. But their greatest masterpieces were not composed until after at least 10 years of musical study.
What this means for us is that anyone can be a fluent sight reader if one spends the time to practice it daily (yes, daily, not a 1 hr cram session biweekly!).
Below are several method books available in Canada and commonly used by piano teachers. They are by no means an exhaustive list, and I chose them based on my experience with them, and their general popularity in Canada:
- Four Star Sight Reading and Ear Tests by Boris Berlin for each level from Introductory to Grade 10. They are arranged daily, you can complete one sight reading exercise a day. This is the standard examiners are looking for if you’re playing a Royal Conservatory Exam.
- Practical Sight Reading Exercises by Boris Berlin and Claude Champagne.
These are similar to the Four Star books above, but are older, and tend to be dryer and more difficult to read (due to small font size and lack of adequate spacing). Levels 1-9 only.
- Complete Series of Sight Reading and Ear Tests by Bennett and Capp have graded levels from 1 – 10/ARCT. I find this series to be slightly more difficult than Four Star, and go up to the ARCT Level (highest level).
- Sight Reading by James Bastien.These are used for beginner piano students as the levels only go from 1-4.
- A Line a Day by Jane Smisor Bastien. (If her last name looks familiar, it’s no coincidence. She is the surviving wife of James Bastien (he passed away in 2005) and when he was alive, they performed as duos and wrote method books for piano students.). Her books range from Level 1 – 4 and are a more updated version from her husband’s, and feature literally one line a day you can play.
- Basic Piano Course: Sight Reading by Gayle Kowalchyk and E.L. Lancaster. For those students following the Alfred method books, levels 1A – 6.They contain cute illustrations (great for young beginners) and tapping and playing exercises.
- Piano Adventures Sightreading Book by Nancy and Randall Faber. Faber and Faber have sightreading books that correspond to with their popular Piano Adventures Series, but so far only Primer and Level 1. Level 2A and 2B (and I assume eventually all their levels) are coming soon.
- I Can Read Music – A Notespeller for Piano by Nancy and Randall Faber. Only 3 books: Beginning, Elementary and Early Intermediate levels.
- Improve your Sight-Reading! Piano by Paul Harris. Harris has written sight reading books for many instruments including piano, flute, violin, and cello. Levels 1 – 9. I like how he includes a practice chart, and reminds the player to remember the importance of conveying the musicality and character of the piece. This is important because if we neglect this, we are just typing, not playing music.
- Sight Reading and Rhythm Everyday by Helen Marlais, Kevin Olsen, and Julia Olsen. There are only 11 books, and not graded according to the traditional piano levels in Canada. However, this is one of my favourite books because it focuses heavily on rhythm and is arranged in a way that the learner can systematically incorporate key signatures, intervals, and patterns.
How to choose the material that’s right for you?
This is difficult to explain without listening to you play. I made recordings of myself playing this excerpt:
If the material is too difficult for you, this is what you sound like:
No awareness of dynamics nor key signature, articulation, incorrect rhythm throughout most, very slow and replayed some notes
If the material is too easy for you, this is what you sound like:
The passage was played without a single mistake at a relatively quick speed
If the material is perfect for your level of competency, this is what you sound like:
A few wrong notes and slight rhythmic inaccuracies, could improve on more dynamics
The ideal level for you is one where there are parts you can work on, but you are not struggling tremendously through the entire passage. The danger with playing material that is either too easy or too difficult is that you will not improve much.
I’m inspired by Kenny Drew Jr., one of the best living sight readers today – able to master anything put in front of him almost immediately.