Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Sight-Read On the Piano

Learn the basics of sight-reading

In this video, Robert gives you practical tips to start mastering sight-reading on the piano.

Released on May 18, 2022

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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 Robert Estrin here with How to Sight-Read On the Piano.

Sight-reading can be one of the most difficult things there is to do on the piano, and sometimes it seems absolutely mind boggling that it's even possible. You ever see somebody who they are an accomplished player and you hand them a piece music they've never seen before, and they can play it up to speed and sounds like perfect. And you wonder, how can they possibly see everything on the page? It doesn't seem possible.

I remember growing up my father was a phenomenal sight-reader, and I was a miserable sight-reader, even in high school when I was a fairly advanced player playing Chopin's ballades and Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies and Beethoven's sonatas. But my reading level was almost that of a beginner and I couldn't seem to crack it. So you wonder.

Now I have a video about that, that will be in the description that you can check out my personal story. It was an "aha" moment that you'll want to check that out that suddenly I realized I could read anything.

Of course, I couldn't get all the notes. That's how I worked for years getting more and more of the notes, but the whole concept of keeping your eyes on the music. You can't look down when you sight-read, because the moment you look down, you can't read what you're not looking at. So you have to depend upon the feel to a great extent and making the connection between what you hear and what you feel.

But what I'm talking about today is something really fundamental. And it's the fact that when you're site reading, it's not seeing absolutely everything because it's virtually impossible to see everything. There's so much in that score. All the notes, rhythm, fingering, phrasing, expression, you can't see it all. And even that person that you think is just reading everything perfectly and maybe it's coming out perfect. But are they really seeing everything?

Have you ever seen those word jumbles like this? And yet you can read through it and you go, "Oh, I can read this." And then you go back and you look at it and you go, "Oh my gosh, there are no words here at all. How can I possibly read that?" And you wonder, how can you read this thing? There's no words here.

Well, because our minds in reading words are... You're not actually looking at every single letter. You're looking at key letters that form the word and you're surmising what the word has to be in the context of the sentence.

Well, that's exactly what you do in site rating. You actually look at what you can digest. You get the grasp of the sense of the harmonies. You surmise what the other notes must be based upon the ones you can see. You get an idea of where the music is going and you make many, many instantaneous split decisions as to what an intelligent guess is for what you can't see. And you flesh out all the notes based upon the skeletal image of what you capture reading quickly.

Much like reading those jumbled words, you can make sense and you could even realize the music as it's written without necessarily seeing every single thing in that score, just like you were able to do a few moments ago, if you were able to read those jumbled words. It's the same principle.

So don't feel like, oh my gosh, I can never read because there's too much to see. Yeah, there is too much to see, but you see what you can see. Get the melody, of course, get the bass and the inner lines. Get as many notes as you can and make intelligent assumptions about what those inner voices must be.

Always look at chunks of music. As I've talked about before, you don't look at note to note, to note, to note, just like when you're reading, you're not looking at every single letter. It's impossible to read that way. You at words. And you guess what the words are and you guess what the chords are. And you can get incredibly good at that guessing if you're experienced, particularly composers you've played before or styles you're familiar with.

If you read sheet music of popular idioms, you might get used to certain types of either maybe Broadway shows or maybe pop tunes. There's a certain formulaic type of notation that you can get your head around and you can get pretty good at reading certain styles.

Now there's always going to be something where this breaks down, where you can't even begin to decipher what the composer means because maybe you've never read that composer before and you're lost. But for a great deal of music, the more you do it, the more you'll be able to assimilate into your fingers and to be able to digest what you're looking at and make musical sense. And that is the key to sight-reading is deciphering these symbols you can grasp on the fly and fleshing out a performance on the spot. And that's what sight-reading really is all about.

I'd love to hear any epiphanies any of you have had in sight reading. Share them here at and YouTube.

And again, I'm Robert Estrin. Thanks so much for joining me and subscribing. Ringing the bell helps to bring these videos to more people. So thanks for that. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Meera on May 18, 2022 @1:30 pm PST
You cannot look at your hands - this applies to any instrument from tin whistle to tuba. I play the trombone as well and you just have to hear what your ear says to your brain before you place the slide correctly and then somehow produce the note with the air stuck in your lungs.I am still trying to figure all this out and look forward to your music lessons.
Richard on May 18, 2022 @2:49 pm PST
I have read of "conscious interference". This is the idea of trying to think too much as you play. I have overcome this in learning 3 instruments over the years besides my voice. So far, at piano, it mostly eludes me. When you can finally "just play" as you allude to, it is beautiful....!
Robert - host, on May 18, 2022 @4:16 pm PST
Every instrument has its challenges. Some instruments don't require looking at your hands at all - like French horn which I also play.
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