Notes & News

How to Practice Sight-reading

Sight-reading music is different from practicing or performing music. The goal in sight-reading is to capture as much of the music as possible without stopping. In sight-reading you are allowed to leave out notes, or one hand, or even an entire measure, but you must keep the beat going.

The best way to become a good sight-reader is simply to do it every day. Sight-reading make you better at sight-reading —and vice versa. Keep these things in mind as you practice sight-reading.

take it easy

The biggest mistake people make in sight-reading is using music that is too difficult. Use only pieces that are at least one level below your normal level of repertoire.

keep going

We all hate wrong notes. But when you are sight-reading, if you make a mistake and then stop to correct it, you have made two mistakes, not one. Promise yourself that you won’t lose a single beat from beginning to end. Turn on the metronome.Pretend the metronome is your duet partner. Since it never stops, you can’t stop either!

make sense

Group the notes and musical ideas together. When you read a book, you don’t spell out each word letter by letter, so don’t sight-read note by note. To make this easier, examine the piece before sight-reading it to discover patterns that you recognize. What key is it in? What chords or scales look familiar? Are there any repetitions?

look around

Increase your field of vision: Fix your eye on the tempo mark of the piece. Play the first line of music, keeping the tempo mark in your peripheral vision. When you can do this easily, try two lines. Play an entire piece without taking your eyes off the music.


Find every spot in the music where the rhythm looks tricky.  Clap or tap out the rhythm of each spot, counting aloud. Tap with both hands to show RH and LH parts. Or do this through the whole piece. As you play, count aloud.

cover up

You will need a partner for this.  Ask your partner to cover a measure as soon as you have played the first note of it. Repeat on every measure as you play through the piece.

When you have no one to cover the measure, see if you can still keep your eyes one measure ahead of the measure your hands are playing.

keep score

4 points for perfect continuity

3 points for perfect rhythm

2 points for perfect notes

1 point for dynamics

A perfect score is 10. Anything between 8 and 10 is very good. If you get a score of 5 or below, that’s a poor score.

Parents & Practicing

Few parents of my students play the piano themselves. They can still make a huge contribution to their child’s musical development if they understand what happens at the lesson and then keep the lesson alive throughout the week by guiding the practice sessions.

Should parents attend the lesson? For at least the first several years of lessons, I ask parents to sit in on lessons and supervise practice sessions. I recently asked some parents and children how they felt about this.

A 9-year-old said, “It’s comforting to know my Mom is there. At home she can explain things to me if I forget or didn’t completely understand.” Another student had good advice for parents: “My Mom used to sit in my lessons so that, in case I forgot something, she could remind me. I would get nervous with her there, because she always had such a serious face on, and I never knew what she was thinking. So I talked to my Mom about it, and after that whenever I’d look over at her during a lesson, she’d go like this: [thumbs up, with a smile] And that made me feel so much better.”

To help parents help their children, we use several tools: a recording of the lesson, an assignment sheet, the Practice Guide and the student’s weekly practice schedule.

The lesson recording: All the parents considered the recording important. One mother said, “The recording gives us complete and accurate information from the lesson. I refer to it so that I can remind my son what to work on. I also show him how he can listen to some parts on his own. Once when he forgot to record I noticed that his practicing was much less efficient. So I make sure every lesson is recorded.”

The assignment sheet: I made my own assignment sheet so that it showed the categories I wanted covered. I used to fill it out in duplicate—one for the student, one for me—and ask parents to use it to make sure all tasks are covered each day. Now I do it on the computer, and send out the notes by email.

At home, students look to their parents for praise, help in acquiring discipline, and feedback.

Praise is a powerful tonic. A 13-year-old explained, “Sometimes kids might avoid practicing when parents are not supportive. But if parents say, ‘Wow, I really enjoy your playing, you’re making so much improvement,’ that makes kids want to do more.”

Parents are sometimes ambivalent about this. “It is very difficult for me to give praise because I feel that my child does not have enough discipline. I want him to pay more attention to fine details, to understand that the fine details are what make a piece beautiful.” Yet this same parent noticed that “when I tell him I see improvement in his playing, he practices more happily and is more willing to work repeatedly on problematic sections.”

Discipline: Students frequently mentioned the word “discipline.” I was surprised that they seemed so appreciative when saying things like, “Parents make us practice.” But then I realized that children don’t want full responsibility yet. In effect, they want their parents to do the hard work of making sure the practicing gets done.

Parents also keep away distractions and help children set specific practice goals. One parent commented, “I make her practice more before a performance. This makes her more comfortable with the pieces and reduces her anxiety.”

Feedback: My students also count on their parents to tell them how their practicing sounds. They know this makes their practicing more effective; at the same time they enjoy their parents’ attention. A parent said, “I try to say positive things although I often ask her to review the piece a little more and work on trouble spots. Or I’ll say, ‘Try those scales at a slower tempo so they sound better.’”

“When I first started,” a 13-year-old observed, “my Mom sat with me when I practiced, and we worked out problems together. She helped me to recognize mistakes and find solutions. She doesn’t sit with me anymore, but I still ask her questions, and it’s very helpful to know what she thinks. I would tell parents, though, ‘Don’t hover over your child, because when we’re practicing we want to focus, we don’t want to be worried about a hovering parent.’”

Somewhere along the line, often when students reach middle school age, parents stop attending the lessons. It may also happen that a child as young as 9 or 10 functions poorly in the parent’s presence. In such a case we experiment with parent-less lessons, an arrangement that usually becomes permanent. By the time students are in high school, I tell any parents who are still sitting in on lessons, “From now on, you are welcome to attend an occasional lesson, but should no longer come on a regular basis.” By this time I expect students to be working more or less independently at home; I also believe that being alone with me in the lesson allows them a kind of freedom that is crucial to their musical development.

Overall, the parents in my studio felt that without their help, piano practice would suffer, and their children agreed. But one father took it a step further when he said, “Keep up with your child’s music world. It is part of your life (hopefully it is the good part). If you stop, you may lose an important connection between you and your child.”

Introducing the Guide to Effective Practicing

Beth Huber, Independent Music Teacher, Pennsylvania

I have given the Guide to virtually every student and will continue to make it a practice to do so. I explain the general idea of it, then they begin working their way through—not in order, but I suggest a practice tip that goes with a particular passage or problem area based on what will help. We go over how to do the practice tip, and they write the practice tip number and name next to that passage in their music with the assignment to do it at home.

The next week they come back, explain to me how the practice tip works, and demonstrate it to me. Once they have accomplished a practice tip, they check it off on their card in the description section, as well as in the index. I explain how the index works and that they are building their bag of tricks and once they have learned all the practice tips they will have a “full bag.” And as they add to their practice tip “repertoire,” they can begin to look at the index when they are facing a particular problem to select a practice tip that would address it.

It takes a long time to get through the card but that’s OK. I realize that it is a process to help the student learn the practice tips and develop (with my help) the awareness of how to analyze what the challenge of a particular passage is and then find a practice tip that will address it. So I see it as a project with an eye on long-term gains and independence for the student.

Each time a student completes and checks off a tip, they also get a “super sticker” (super stickers are collected towards prizes in my studio) which is a little added bonus and motivator for the student.

The thing I love about the card is that it helps to instill in the student that effective practice is neither mindless repetition nor “playing through”; there always has to be a strategy and focus on solving a problem or challenge.

Practice Tips from Students

Excerpts from A Guide to Practicing by the students of Nancy O’Neill Breth, Piano Explorer, October 1990.

Natasha (10 years old): Finding time to practice is easy if you plan it. Try to do your practicing right after school because if you wait until the evening, your parents are home, and they watch you. (Of course, when you need help then you say, “Mom, Dad, I need help.” But most times I would rather do it by myself because otherwise we end up arguing. I tell that to my parents; but if they think I really need help, they give it even if I don’t want it.)

Greta (17 years old): I like to practice all at once. I don’t like to do just 20 minutes at a time because it doesn’t seem that I’ve practiced that much. Sometimes I get very tired, and a few times I even fell asleep while I was practicing. When I do get tired, I find something different to do or switch to another piece.

Jennifer (17 years old): I don’t like to practice all at once, I like to do 20 minutes, then some homework, and then more practicing. I use the practicing as something to look forward to, like taking a break from my homework; but I make sure the practicing always gets done.

Greta: Hard parts should be worked up so that you can actually play them faster than you will need to at the final tempo. When you work on a piece, some parts are good and some are not. Don’t always play the good parts because that gives you a false sense of security. Avoid making regular stops at the same place within a phrase; this can turn into a permanent way of playing.

Jennifer: Separate troublesome measures right away. Look for similar sections and practice these apart from the rest of the piece. If you mess up you should

  1. stop,
  2. figure out why it happened,
  3. fix the problem,
  4. repeat the passage correctly 5 or 10 times,
  5. go back a few measures before the spot and play it again.
  6. If it is not perfect, spend more time on 3 and 4.

Patricia (16 years old): If one hand has a pattern over and over, learn that part by memory so you don’t have to worry about it. This will allow you to concentrate on the other hand. Concentration is very important. Errors can occur if you start thinking about something else. It is just like taking tests: sometimes you find yourself reading the same thing several times and get nothing out of it. When you feel your concentration drifting, stop. It may be a sign that you should do something else for a few minutes: walk around or get a drink of water.

Greta: Sharps and flats are scary. Mark them in the music so they won’t take you by surprise. When you start working on a piece in which the melody occurs over and over, look for places where the pattern changes and mark them. Before starting a new piece, mark the beginning of each section with capital letters. When you see a scale in your piece, mark the note it begins and ends on as well as what scale it is. If a note gives you trouble, circle it.

Don’t eat at the piano because you will get crumbs on it, and your mother will yell at you.