Piano sight-reading 101

03 August 2020
By Guest Writer
Piano teacher Manu Fonsny offers up her top tips for improving your sight-reading skills

Have you ever wondered why some pianists are such good sight-readers? What sets them apart? Is it an innate talent they are born with?

Thankfully, sight-reading is a skill we can all acquire through practice. 

It brings up many, many questions. How exactly do you practise sight-reading? What music should you use? How long and how often should you practise? We’re here to answer these for you, and to help you become a better sight-reader.


How difficult should the music be?

In general, your sight-reading ability will be one or two grades lower than your current playing ability so. Make sure you pick pieces of that level. The music should neither be too easy nor too difficult to sight-read. If it’s too easy, you won’t learn as much and if it’s too hard, you may get frustrated. The level of difficulty should be just outside your comfort zone.


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What music should you use for sight-reading?

If you’re just starting out, we recommend you look for graded sight-reading books or graded repertoire books because these are progressive and offer a structure to follow.

If you’ve been practising sight-reading for a while, look for sets of pieces or sheet music by your favourite composers or composers you are curious about. Here are 3 recommendations:

1. Improve Your Sight-Reading – Paul Harris

Available for Grades 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5


2. Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests – ABRSM

Available for Grades 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8


3. Piano Sight-Reading – John Kember

Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 available



How long and how often should you practise sight-reading for?

As a general guide, we recommend you practise at least:

  • 5 minutes a day, if you’re a beginner
  • 10 minutes a day, if you're intermediate
  • 15 minutes a day, if you’re advanced

There is no time limit though. Sight-read for as long as you wish. There is so much piano music out there that you will never run out of sight-reading resources!

Whatever you do, try to practise sight-reading daily or as often as possible during the week. It is far more beneficial to practise five minutes a day every day than one hour once a week.



How many times should you sight-read a piece?

Ideally, you should only ever need to sight-read a piece once. But if you have trouble sight-reading the piece at a slow tempo, either try again slower or choose an easier piece. 


How many pieces should you sight-read in one session?

It depends on how much time you’ve got and how long the pieces are. Aim to sight-read several pieces per session.  The more pieces you sight-read, the better. The idea is to expose yourself to as many different musical patterns and genres as possible.


Should you sight-read hands separately or hands together?

If you’re a beginner and you’re still learning the treble and bass notes, consider starting hands separately. Once you’re familiar with the notes in both clefs, sight-read hands together only. When you first learn to sight-read hands together, be kind to yourself and go slowly to allow yourself enough time to read both clefs simultaneously.


Should you sight-read with or without a metronome?

Using a metronome can be useful if you need help keeping a steady beat but it can also be distracting. It’s not recommended to only ever sight-read with a metronome as it can cause your playing to become very mechanical. Try sight-reading with and without a metronome to see what you prefer.




What should you aim for when practising sight-reading?

If you’re a beginner, aim for:

  • Accuracy

Try to play the notes and the rhythm as accurately as possible.

  • A consistent tempo

Attempt to play through the whole piece at the same tempo. It is therefore important that you start at a tempo that will enable you to play the notes and the rhythm accurately without having to slow down. Go as slowly as you need to and keep your eyes on the music so that you can always read one or two notes ahead to stay in time. If you’re not able to stay in time, either try again slower or pick an easier piece.


If you’re a more advanced sight-reader, aim for the above as well as:

  • Musicality

Try to follow the dynamics, the tempo markings, the pedal markings, the articulation, the phrasing and play with rubato when appropriate. Strive for a musical rendition of the pieces you sight-read.


To finish...

Make sight-reading part of your daily piano practice and have fun with it. Try out new pieces, new composers, and new styles. Challenge yourself. And maybe one day, other people will wonder how you became such a good sight-reader!


Main image: © Brett Sayles – Pexels


About the author:

Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about helping other pianists become more confident sight-readers. Visit her blog at https://www.pianosightreading.com.au for sight-reading tips, advice and resources.