How I Learned to Sight-Read (Despite Years of Piano Lessons)

Over ten years of lessons and I still couldn’t read fluently from a level one book. It was RIDICULOUS. How was this possible?

Can you relate? Do you feel like your sight-reading is improving at a snail’s pace, if at all? Maybe you have focus problems like ADD that you feel gets in the way. Maybe you never thought it was important to read a piece of paper, but were actually intimidated by how difficult it seemed. Maybe you’ve been playing for years and still feel like reading music is the piece of the puzzle that will always remain unresolved.


You are not alone.

While most teachers agree that sight-reading is one of the most important skills you need to develop, few actually incorporate it into their lesson plans or suggested practice routines. Dr. Dianne Hardy, Assistant Professor of Music Education and Piano at Dickinson State University, mentioned in her study regarding teaching sight-reading,

“The majority of teachers in my study said that sight-reading was not included in their program because they didn’t know how to teach it. Many cited the reason being that instruction in teaching the skill is not included in the method book series that they use. Some did not even recognize it as a skill apart from the acquisition of repertoire and just said that students would get better with more years of lessons. A few teachers said they wouldn’t attempt to teach it because they were rotten sight-readers themselves.”

After years of lessons, I finally found a teacher who really knew how to teach sight-reading and since then, I have seen exponential growth in myself and in my students’ sight-reading abilities. This “method” isn’t just for beginners. It is also for intermediates, some advanced players, (depending on sight-reading ability), and teachers who’d like a solid approach to teaching sight-reading.

There is no specific name for this method because it is based on a true understanding of the principles of sight-reading. Once the principles are fully conceptualized, you won’t need to memorize this process because you will naturally be led to practicing this way.

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

                                        - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Principles

We must start with the simplest music (even if you’re not a beginner) and read each piece ONLY TWICE (this is one of the most important principles). Then, move on to the next piece while focusing on rhythm. This process will not improve your sight-reading if these basic principles are ignored:

  • Briefly study the piece before beginning. Notice patterns, time signatures, key signatures, etc. (We do this to make sure you’re not reading note by note, to figure out your hand placement, and find the most difficult section of the piece to help choose your speed.)
  • Play SLOWLY and count out loud if needed. (In order to avoid mistakes.)
  • Keeping steady rhythm is more important than playing correct notes. (We are ultimately practicing to play for others, and we want to train you to go through mistakes incase you happen to make any during a performance.)
  • Don’t stop. (If you play some notes wrong, the audience probably won’t notice, but if you stop or lose your rhythm, it is usually obvious.)
  • If you do stop, your speed is too fast. Begin the piece again, slower.
  • Only play each piece twice, even if you made mistakes the second time. If you find you are making too many mistakes, find easier music to begin with. (We are trying to avoid memorization to make more room for practicing sight-reading.)

What it Looks Like in Practice

Before I go through the step-by-step process, I am going to assume that you can recognize basic note values such as quarter and half notes along with the treble clef notes middle C, D and E. If you have never read piano music before, click HERE for your free beginner's video course.

I use a simple composition to illustrate what this process looks like in action. Once understood, it can be applied to any music, (as long as it is easy for you to read) and any instrument.

  • Step 1: Print the sheet music above (or simply use a tablet), and place on your music stand.
  • Step 2: Let’s take a look at our first note and notice any patterns in the piece. In this case, we have middle C. We see it repeats twice, goes one step up to D, repeats five times, goes back to C and repeats three times. Simply notice this pattern.
  • Step 3: Notice the time signature, and how we will be counting. We will be counting out loud. (1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4, etc.)
  • Step 4: Place your hand on the keys with your thumb on middle C.
  • Step 5: Prepare to play. Remember the principles: Don’t stop playing, even if you play a note wrong. If you have to stop because it is taking a lot of time to read the next note, simply go back to the beginning, and play at a slower pace.
  • Step 6: Begin playing at an extremely SLOW pace, playing C and counting, “One… Two…Three…Four…”
  • Step 7: Congratulations! You played our first piece with these principles in mind. Here is where the magic begins. Now play the piece again, only one more time, taking note of everything you learned the first time through, noticing any mistakes you might have made, and slowing down if needed.
  • Step 8: Begin again from Step 2 with “Stepping Up and Down.”

You are on the right track if you are hearing very slow, steady music with no stopping in the middle of the pieces you’re playing. The music should sound slow, but reasonably complete by the second time you play it. If this sounds far from what you’re producing, all you need to do is find easier music to read through and gradually find tougher music as you progress in your sight-reading ability. If your sight-reading is on a higher level, find lots of music that is still very easy for your to read, and I would challenge you to emphasize details such as dynamics and phrasing. The key is to find extremely easy music because whether we realize it or not, there are still so many “cracks” to fill over the months-years that we have been playing that can be done with the simplest music!

Action Steps

Information is useless without action, so here’s what to do right now:

1. Print my simple compositions HERE and/or check out for music to practice with using these principles.

2. In the midst of all things music, don’t forget that in the end, it’s all about expressing yourself and finding your voice through the music. By working on sight-reading, we increase the speed at which we can learn a new piece, which allows us to express ourselves continuously through our interpretation of more and more music.

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