Robert Estrin - piano expert

Sight Reading - Part 2

Useful tips for improving sight reading, from concert pianist Robert Estrin

In this video, Robert continues to explain his previously introduced concept of sight reading with useful tips to improve your sight reading skills.

Released on May 8, 2013

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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

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin here at Welcome! Last time, we talked about the importance of sightreading. Today, we're going to talk about tips for sightreading.

On a personal note, as a child, I got quite advanced in the piano. In high school, I was playing Beethoven's sonatas, Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies, Chopin ballades, and yet, I was a mediocre at best sightreader. In fact, my sightreading level was on such a low level that when the choir director gave me a stack of music to accompany the chorus, I had to decline. And he probably thought I was being rude. But I honestly, the only way I could have done it is if I had a month or so to memorize all the scores, because I couldn't sightread.

Well, how did I learn how to sightread? It came to me in an aha moment. That's right. My father was performing the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. And he said, "Bob, listen. I'm doing this, and I really need to play it with another piano. Can you help me out?" And so he gave me the score, which is a book this thick. B-flat minor, think of all those flats. And I couldn't even read at an elementary level. So I said, "Well, you know I'll miss half the notes," which is a lie because I couldn't even get half the notes.

But anyway, here's what happened. I opened up the score, and there's all these black notes just flooding the page. And I thought to myself, "Well, if I look away from that page, I will get lost instantly." So what I did was I put my hands over the right keys for the beginning. I looked up at the score, and I never looked down again. And we went through the entire concerto. I never got lost.

Now, I missed a lot of notes. As a matter of fact, when we got done, I said, I apologized to my father. I said, "Dad, I'm so sorry." He said, "Not at all." He said, "That's exactly what I needed," and I couldn't believe it. Because he just needed to run it. It didn't matter if I played accurately, you know, perfectly accurately. It wasn't the point. He needed to play through it to know he could play through this concerto. And indeed, I stayed right with him even though I didn't play all the notes.

Well, since that moment, I've gotten more and more of the notes, and I realized I can read anything, essentially, and get more accurate as the years go on. So how is this possible? Well, I mentioned that it's very important to keep your eyes on the score. As tempting as it is in certain instruments to look away, you must keep your eyes. Count like crazy. So long as you count to keep your eyes moving and keep the music flowing in time, particularly when playing with other musicians, that's critical.

Incidentally, playing with other musicians is the secret to developing your sightreading. Sure, you can work every day on your own, progressively working through music to develop your sightreading. But it's not until you play with others that you're forced to keep the flow of the music going, which makes your eyes move and your hands move and staying with it. And that's the way to really develop it.

Now, with complex music, sometimes it's necessary to kind of flesh out what you can't see. In other words, think of the musical score as a skeleton. And then, yes, you flesh out all the harmonies and such, particularly with complex piano, guitar, and other scores and double stops on violin. You might not be able to see everything, but you can play the melody. You can try to get all the notes you can. You can simplify, but keep the music flowing.

So if you have a fast passage in something, maybe you grab the notes you can, but keep the general character of the music going. Keep the nuance of expression, the timing. These are actually more important than whether you get 100% of the notes or 90% of the notes. It's not nearly as important as having the expressiveness, the dynamics, the nuance of tempo, and all of those things, which are much easier to do without the complexity of all the notes of the score.

And you would be surprised. When playing with other musicians, they're not so concerned with the perfection of your performance as much as the sensitivity you have for their playing, making it sound like this, like one, taking a group of instruments and making them sound like one voice. That's the secret to great sightreading. And you can achieve that even before you become the most accurate sightreader. And over time, I promise you, you will develop your sightreading by doing it every day and playing with other musicians as much as possible. Keep your eyes on the score, and count like crazy, and you too can be a great sightreader.

Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin, at
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Nina Maria on August 25, 2016 @2:31 pm PST
What would you suggest we do if we don't have access to other musicians to play with? Also, I have an audition for a fine arts high school in about 6 months, and I'm worried about the sight reading test. How could I improve quickly enough to have a fighting chance?
Robert Estrin - host, on August 26, 2016 @1:57 pm PST
Unfortunately, there are no quick tricks for improving your sight-reading. We are working on a program for interactive sight-reading which we will announce at some point in the future.
John Beach * VSM MEMBER * on March 4, 2015 @6:00 am PST
As with nearly all learning, exercise, practice and repetition is the mother of learning. There is no "magic" formula for learning to sightread. It just takes years of consistent practice. The benefit of rote memorization of patterns and a thorough knowledge of the position of notes on the staves in the different clefs, so that an instantaneous reaction by eye-mind-hand and feet occurs as one plays is indispensable to good sight-reading. The pressure of playing accompaniment for congregational singing requires maintaining the pace of the music rather than, necessarily, absolute perfection in the execution of the music as written.
Robert - host, on March 5, 2015 @1:42 pm PST
While there is some crossover of abilities at memorization and sight-reading, it is also possible to develop one or the other to a high degree and still be weak at the other. And you are right - accompanying offers one of the best ways to develop sight-reading.
Bruno De Simone * VSM MEMBER * on February 25, 2015 @2:49 pm PST
Dear Master, could you suggest me the best sight reading handbook in your opinion?
Thank you in advance
Robert - host, on February 26, 2015 @3:06 pm PST
The key is finding music you can play perfectly after reading through slowly 2 or 3 times. If you continue missing things after that, you will essentially be "anti-practicing" reinforcing mistakes. So, the correct music depends upon the level of your reading.
Teo on June 7, 2014 @11:04 am PST
Nice tips! I noticed that when I played ALONG WITH my teacher, some performance pressure kicked in and I played much better, or maybe I just HAD TO clean up some messy parts because I didn't want to be embarrassed! I'll do more reading with him. Great helps there buddy! Wishing you the best, Teo
Robert - host, on June 9, 2014 @12:39 pm PST
Playing with good musicians raises the level of your playing. You should strive to play with your teacher and other accomplished players as much as you can.
Josey Junior on October 25, 2013 @11:13 pm PST
i'm teaching myself classical guitar. I've learnt to identify maj and minor intervals and other intervals up to an octave. my approach is to name the interval and then apply a fretboard pattern to play it. but what about higher intervals , like 10ths and more? you get them in classical music. any tips?
or don't bother with that, just study it before playing the piece so i know where the notes are? my current approach is to name the interval size and type (eg major or minor) and then apply the fretboard pattern.
There isn't much info on this stuff on the net, or no pattern for these intervals on the net.
Thanks in advance.
Robert Estrin - host, on October 26, 2013 @11:45 am PST
Figuring out notes by interval is an important component to note reading. However, if you learn the absolute pitch of notes simply by recognizing their place on the staff and on your instrument, you will increase your reading speed. So, I suggest studying notes above the staff possibly even using flash cards. Then work on locating notes in the higher octaves on your instrument.

Another approach that could be helpful is to figure out intervals above an octave such as 10ths or 11ths as an octave plus a 3rd, or an octave plus a 4th. Then simply find the location on your guitar relative to the octave position.
Maritza on August 24, 2013 @10:03 am PST
What is a Major and what is a Minor?
Robert - host, on August 26, 2013 @11:26 am PST
I will make a video explaining major minor tonality.
Ruth * VSM MEMBER * on July 3, 2013 @3:12 pm PST
Patricia Bartell in Spokane aw is an amazing performer and brilliant accordion teacher.she even got the Trophe Mondale to Spokane. She would be a great resource.
I really enjoy, and am helped
By your videos.
Thank you
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on July 3, 2013 @4:36 pm PST
Thank you Ruth for your suggestions, we'll keep your reference in mind! I am also glad to know you are enjoying these videos.
Ellen * VSM MEMBER * on May 22, 2013 @12:55 pm PST
I am really enjoying your podcasts. I was trained as a classical pianist and violinist (always reading off of sheet music) and became a good sight reader but lack the ability to do improvisation, play by ear-without sheet music. I have recently gotten a keyboard synthesizer with many voices. Are you experienced with the keyboard and improv? Can you do a video on how to do that?
Robert - host, on May 22, 2013 @4:49 pm PST
Here is a video I produced a while back on improvisation:
Ellen * VSM MEMBER * on May 22, 2013 @6:34 pm PST
Thank you for such a quick reply. I will be sure to listen to it.
Joseph P Grima on May 15, 2013 @3:00 pm PST
Very interesting videos. I am an ACCORDION player do you have videos for this nice instrument ?
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on May 15, 2013 @4:06 pm PST
Hi Joseph and thank you for your posting, I am glad to know you enjoy these videos!

We don't have currently any experts taking care of the Accordion specifically, but we will look for someone! Do you happen to know anybody? Thank you again.
Joseph P Grima on May 16, 2013 @3:18 pm PST
Thanks Fabrizio, I see some on youtube.but yours are more professional and more accurate to the point! Thank you again.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on May 16, 2013 @3:51 pm PST
That's great to know! We'll see if we can find some "Accordion Expert" available to collaborate with us. Thank you for the request and keep up the great learning!
Robert - host, on May 15, 2013 @5:05 pm PST
Glad you are enjoying the videos! I play many different keyboard instruments, and French horn. However, I have no experience with accordion.
Sandra on May 14, 2013 @6:30 am PST
What do you think of as you're reading and going from one note or chord to the next? Do you recognize, say, fourths or fifths or do you notice the intervals between one note and the next?
Robert - host, on May 14, 2013 @10:52 am PST
Excellent point Sandra! Yes, indeed reading by interval is extremely helpful particularly when playing notes on ledger lines far from the staff. A great part of reading is the relative position of notes.
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