Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why is it So Hard to Sight-Read Ragtime Music?

Discover why ragtime music is harder than other repertoire

In this video, Robert explains why ragtime music is often harder to sight-read than other music and gives you some tips to approach it.

Released on March 18, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to, your online piano store. And today's question is why is it so hard to sight read ragtime music? Ragtime music is so much fun to listen to and it's fun to play as well, but it's extraordinarily difficult to sight read. And you might wonder why is this? To give you an example as to why it is so hard to play, I'm going to give you a brief demonstration of something that is as far removed from ragtime as you can get, which is Bach.

But even the Baroque era before the piano was really an instrument that people wrote for and it can be played all right under the fingers. So even though the music is complex, I'm going to close my eyes right now and play and I haven't tried this before putting the video on, so hopefully I can do it, but I imagine I can because it's all right there under your fingers. So the beginning of the 5th French.Suite, with my eyes closed, I just got to find the keys to start. Okay, now here we go.

All right. Except for the end, I pretty much was able to do it because the hands don't leap around like they do in ragtime and in Liszt and in other music where you have octave chord, octave chord, octave chord in the left hand, which is very typical of course of ragtime and a lot of other styles of music. It's all but impossible to play without looking at your hands. So if you're reading the score, how do you look at your hands and the score?

It's maddening. It's so difficult. For example, here's the famous, The Entertainer of Scott Joplin, and notice what the left hand is doing and imagine, I don't know if I'm brave enough to ... I couldn't get through much of it with my eyes closed. It would be a disaster. And you'll hear why. This is what the eyes opened, by the way.

Now if I were to try that with my eyes closed, it would definitely be a disaster. And I'm going to do it just to show you that I'm not lying.

I told you, I warned you. And there's a lot of music that fits the same category where you just need to look at your hands. Now here's the good news. If you go to the trouble of memorizing ragtime, it's not particularly, extraordinarily difficult to play. There's a certain technique that's required, just like in Liszt, the end of the Liszt's 6th Hungarian Rhapsody, for example. The left hand is going all over the place.

Octave chord, octave chord. So that's why ragtime and any music that has big leaps that are fast are extraordinarily difficult to read. Even some relatively simple accompaniments like performing with my daughter, she's a violinist and we're doing a couple of Kreisler pieces, Fritz Kreisler, and they're absolutely glorious works and they're very simple piano parts. But the left hand has these leaps chord, octave chord, octave chord in several sections and it's so hard to read.

And there are two ways of approaching this, by the way. If you're doing an accompaniment where memorizing the music is not necessary, because you want to see the solo part anyway. There are two ways I approach this. One way is you get to know the score well enough, you can get it memorized, but the other way is to work practicing those leaps without looking. And I love to be so well prepared when I have an accompaniment like that that I can either choose to look down at the hands, glance down, because I know the music well enough that if I miss something, I know where ... I kind of have it memorized anyway.

Or conversely, I will keep my eyes on that score and get it to the point where I can do it by feel. Now think about this. There are some sensational blind pianists out there, not to mention string players who have to reach crazy things without looking. So it is possible to be able to read and have leaps, but it's extraordinarily difficult. Love to hear from all of you. Again, I'm Robert Estrin here at, your online piano store. You're welcome to subscribe. Hit the bell. You'll get all the latest videos. Lots more to come for you. See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Peter M. Poriss on March 19, 2020 @10:50 am PST
I just read your post about the difficulty of sight-reading ragtime music. Here's a (perhaps non-kosher) suggestion that I use, because memorizing is impossible for me: Using either an adjustable piano bench or a drummer's stool, I set the height of the stool several inches higher than the typical bench height. That enables me to both read music and, via peripheral vision, see the keyboard at the same time. When I recently watched a netflix documentary on ragtime--perhaps they called it "old time" piano music--I noticed that nearly all players sat higher than classical pianists typically do.
Robert - host, on March 19, 2020 @2:48 pm PST
That's an interesting observation. I can tell you that sitting at the proper height at the piano is essential for comfort as well as fluency on the instrument. You have to find what works for you. Also, how far the bench is from the piano is equally important.
qu on March 19, 2020 @3:47 pm PST
Agree with everything you wrote. By the way, I play mostly classical music, with a focus on accompanying and playing chamber music. (Lots of sight reading.) Nearly all of the classical pianists to whom I've introduced the technique of sitting higher than usual--and yes, farther away from the piano--have found it helpful, in facilitating the ability to read music and at the same time (peripherally) see/glance at the keyboard. It's just an idea . . . certainly worth experimenting with, at least for a minute or two. I forgot to mention that I love your videos.
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