A Sight Studying Tour

In this week’s post, Online Academy co-founder, Ryan Morison, gives an account of his early encounters with sight reading as a music student. Ryan also introduces a series of videos in which he shares his first-hand experience using our Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum in a later attempt to improve his skills!
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Sight reading was definitely the weakest link for me as a young musician. With the main focus of lesson and practice time being learning new repertoire and improving technique, developing sight reading skills was largely neglected. I recall in my Grade 8 exam I lost almost as many  marks on the sight-reading tests than the four prepared repertoire pieces combined!
You Have It or You Don’t?
By the time I was at university studying music, I was well aware of my deficiencies having encountered many musicians who were incredible sight readers. One of them was a professor who could literally play just about anything put in front of him at sight. I asked him how one goes about developing this ability and his answer was, “You either have it or you don’t!”.
Less defeatist was another lecturer who said it just takes lots of practice and also advised doing some accompanying. The latter is an excellent way to improve, but requires a certain base level of ability in order to avoid making a fool of oneself. I simply wasn’t good enough to make this a viable path to improvement and to be fair, many other instrumentalists were blissfully unaware of how difficult the piano parts for their repertoire often were!
Realising that this was holding me back, I did try incorporate sight reading into my daily practice for a few months. However, without a systematic approach, this yielded little progress and was quickly dropped in favour of other activities likely to yield more immediate results such as refining repertoire for a performance and learning new pieces.
A Structured Approach to Sight Reading
I was delighted when many years later I was approached in my capacity as an online publisher by two professors Peabody Institute, Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen. They were developing an app called Read Ahead which aimed to make it easier to incorporate sight reading into lessons and daily practising.
After adding a selection of content from the Read Ahead curriculum to the Online Academy, we then went on to publish a curriculum for the advanced level based on the materials Ken uses to teach the subject to piano majors at the Peabody. Given my failed attempts to address my deficiencies, the Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum was of personal interest as it represented a much more structured, methodical approach than simply practising and hoping for an improvement.

Unfinished Business with Sight Reading
Although I have no intention on signing up for any piano exams, being adept at sight reading offers many benefits. In addition to being exposed to a greater variety of repertoire, it also enables one to learn new pieces faster and opens up more opportunities for making music with others.
Earlier this year I embarked upon a project to broaden my active repertoire. Working on this new curriculum represented a fantastic opportunity to revisit my unfinished business with sight reading while also supporting the ambitions of my repertoire project. Therefore I decided to give it a try for myself and share my experiences in using it.
A Guided Tour
In this introductory video I share a bit more background regarding my sight reading experiences and give a brief overview of the curriculum:

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Following on from the above video, I will be publishing a series of videos offering a guided tour of the curriculum, module by module. In each of these videos I will share what I learnt along with general tips and ideas for practising sight reading which will hopefully be useful regardless of whether you give the curriculum a try yourself. I will also provide a few suggestions on how the curriculum and some of its ideas at a less advanced or intermediate level.
These videos will be posted via  my website, blog and social accounts. You can also sign-up to my mailing list for notifications of new videos here.

Further Resources & Links

Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum

Read Ahead – A curated collection of carefully ordered sight reading examples and exercises from the elementary to intermediate levels. Click on one of the following links to view on the Online Academy:

Teaching & Developing Sight Reading Skills – A collection of free articles by Read Ahead developers Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen on the Online Academy
Preparing for an Exam (Sight Reading) – In these new videos from our collection of piano examination resources, Graham Fitch gives some tips and ideas for incorporating sight-reading into lessons and daily practising.
Online Workshops – Our online events programme has also featured several sight-reading workshops. Access to recordings, presentations and other resources from these events is available via the following links:

Notes or Rhythms – What’s Extra Necessary?

This week we’ve published the next instalment in Ken Johansen’s Advanced sight-Reading Curriculum on the Online Academy which is dedicated to the subject of rhythm. In this guest blog post, Ken explores how sight-reading can be beneficial for developing good rhythmic habits and useful musical skills.
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It’s a silly question, of course. In music, neither one can exist without the other. But to roam the halls of any conservatory, listening to students practise, is to realise without doubt that their top priority is note accuracy. The slightest wrong note makes them stop immediately and back up, usually only a note or two, to excise the offending blemish. In doing so, they of course add rhythmic inaccuracy to their note inaccuracy, and lose all sense of pulse and phrasing. It seems a heavy price to pay for a wrong note.
Given this compulsion to stop and correct wrong notes, it is not surprising that many piano students, when asked to sight-read something, find it very difficult to keep a regular pulse and play through to the end of a piece without stopping. It is virtually impossible to suddenly abandon a habit that has been reinforced daily in the practice room for years. In addition, most piano students do not have enough experience in ensemble playing, or sufficient training in improvisation, playing by ear, and simplifying challenging passages, to allow them to play in tempo and keep going when sight-reading.

Of the many benefits of sight-reading—discovery of new music, faster learning of repertoire, greater access to performance and employment opportunities—one of the most important is the improved feeling of pulse and rhythm that it instills. Being obliged to keep going no matter what happens, as we are in sight-reading and in ensemble playing, leads to the development of a stable inner pulse, which in turn makes it possible to read accurately all the varied rhythmic figures contained within the pulse. Students who have difficulty sight-reading common rhythmic figures are usually the ones who have gotten into the habit of practising out of time, and therefore lack that stable pulse upon which all rhythmic life depends.
Any pianist who has joined another pianist in a duet, or accompanied a singer at sight, knows that being obliged to play in time, come what may, has the secondary effect of forcing them to occasionally leave notes out, simplify challenges, or guess at what is coming. While this may seem like a sacrifice to some (the devil of note accuracy whispering in our ears), being forced to reduce, simplify, improvise, and play by ear encourages the growth of musical skills that are extremely valuable, not only in sight-reading, but in performance and practising.
The good rhythmic habits and useful musical skills that we develop in sight-reading transfer over to our daily practice in many beneficial ways. For one thing, as our reading improves, so does our accuracy, and we may find that we don’t need to stop and correct wrong notes as often as before. Moreover, the imperative that we now feel to keep a steady pulse may lead us to play to the end of the phrase before going back to correct mistakes, giving us a better sense of phrasing. When we do need to repeat a small unit to make it fluent, we may find ways to do this with practice loops that allow us to keep a regular pulse through the repetitions.
The skill we have developed in simplifying and reducing textures may also help us to see more clearly the underlying structure of the pieces we are learning, and to find new ways of practising and memorising them. In performance, our stable inner pulse becomes something we can rely upon, and ride upon, as it carries us through musical time. And should something go awry when playing from memory, our ability to improvise and play by ear will help us to keep the music going.
Returning to our opening question, notes and rhythms are equally important, but notes only have meaning when they are in rhythm.
– Ken Johansen
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The latest instalment of the Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum is available with an Online Academy subscription or for once-off purchase from our store here. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.
Further Reading & Resources

Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum (General introduction & other parts) – Click here to view a general introduction to the curriculum, click here for more information on Part 1 or here for Part 2.
The Joy of Sight-Reading – Click here to read a collection of free articles by Read Ahead developers Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen on the Online Academy
Read Ahead – Sight-reading exercises for elementary to intermediate levels on the Online Academy – Click here for level 1, click here for level 2, click here for Level 3 or click here for Level 4 (recently added)

Online Workshop – The Four Skills of Successful Sight-Reading
If you’d like a live, hands-on demonstration of tools and techniques from some of the resources listed above, you might be interested in our online workshop on Friday 25th of June @ 14:00 – 16:00 BST (GMT + 1). In this workshop, Ken Johansen will present his tried and tested approach to developing for essential skills for successful sight reading. He will show you how to plan before you play, keep your eyes on the score, read ahead and keep the rhythm going! Click here for more information.

Resources for Improving Sight-reading

Improving your sight-reading has many benefits beyond simply getting a better mark in an examination. It allows you to play a wider range of music and gives you more opportunities to make music with others. Sight-reading also develops many other skills essential for overall musical development.
Despite being such an important skill, sight-reading is often not taught directly and therefore it’s difficult to know how to go about practising it. With this in mind, we have built an extensive collection of sight-reading resources on the Online Academy to help you and your students practice sight-reading.
Advanced Sight-reading Curriculum
Created by Ken Johansen and based on the curriculum he uses in his class for piano majors at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, our Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum provides a unique, structured approach to developing the key skills that underpin a good sight-reading ability.
It consists of an extensive collection of annotated scores dealing with every aspect of sight-reading, together with detailed suggestions on how to practise, covering everything from training the eyes to read more efficiently, to recognising patterns, simplifying complex textures and mastering difficult rhythms.

We’ve recently added a new instalment which teaches how to keep a regular pulse while tackling challenges such as recognising underlying rhythmic structures, subdividing the pulse accurately, handling polyrhythms and negotiating the sometimes confusing visual impression given by different kinds of meters. Click on one of the following links to find out more:

Read Ahead
This sight-reading curriculum comprises a curated collection of carefully ordered sight-reading examples from the elementary to intermediate levels. The examples feature related exercises and quizzes to help students develop the mental and tactile skills necessary for fluent sight-reading. Click here to view level 1, click here for level 2, click here for Level 3 or click here for Level 4 (recently added) on the Online Academy.

Other resources

Teaching & Developing Sight-reading Skills – A collection of free articles by Read Ahead developers Travis Hardaway and Ken Johansen on the Online Academy
Preparing for an Exam (Sight Reading) – In these new videos from our collection of piano examination resources, Graham Fitch gives some tips and ideas for incorporating sight-reading into lessons and daily practising.
Online Workshops – Our online events programme has also featured several sight-reading workshops. Access to recordings, presentations and other resources from these events is available via the following links:

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