Review of Graded Sight-reading literature
Paul Harris’ series “Improve your sight-reading” (Faber Music) is widely used. Each book is designed in eight stages, each of which addresses an aspect of the ABRSM syllabus new to that grade. There is very little written advice given, but there is one brilliant idea*: each stage opens with rhythmic exercises, which encourage the student to get to grips with different rhythmic patterns away from the piano keyboard. It’s the sort of thing that has you asking “Why didn’t I think of that?”. Also, there is a checklist of eight things to look at when you see a piece for the first time, that I find invaluable for students. In the preparatory book, the principles of “Always Count, Never Stop” are established.If your aim is to pass exams, then this is the best book around. The Revised Edition is simplified and better presented on the page. It has one really annoying feature: the pieces have been given “funny” performance directions, like “Like a Summer Breeze”. I understand the rationale: you need to play with character, but my students think this is condescending.
There is one book for each grade and one for the preparatory grade (which I also find useful for general notation teaching in the early stages)
* The “play and tap” idea is the same one as found in Paul Hindemith”s Elementary Training for Musicians (1946)
The Sight-reading Sourcebook by Alan Bullard (Chester Music)
- Piano Grade One
- Piano Grade Two
- Piano Grade Three
- (other grades planned)
These are useful books that introduce one new element in each section. For example, in the Grade Three book the sections introduce the keys required at Grade Three, starting with G major, and moving on through “Exploring e minor”, and so on up to four sharps and three flats. There is one section not on keys, which is called and “Keep hands inposition during the rests”; apart from that it is mostly about keys. Peppered with good advice, they are systematic and give plenty of examples of each new thing before moving on. I prefer using these books as practice examples, rather than a course.
The most widely available, and (imho) least useful, series of books is the Associated Board’s own “Specimen Sight-Reading Tests for each grade. These are not a course of instruction, but simply examples of the kind of test which students are likely to meet in an exam. In other words they will tell you the standard yoiu need to achieve, but not how to get there. Nor (and this is important, will they take you beyong the standard you need, so that the exam seems easier!
The teacher will need these books, in order to test the student before exams, but students would be better with one of the courses.
Peter Lawson, in the in-aptly named “Sight Reading for Fun” (The title always draws a groan from students!(published by Stainer and Bell) takes a more holistic approach than other writers. This is as much a general musicianship book as a specific sight-reading book, he concentrates on musical and technical skills that the sight-reader needs, such as chord recognition, practice in unusual keys, etc. The course is exam-specific, and there is one book for each grade. but it somehow contrives to be of wider interest. Other courses are more limited in the skills they address (Paul Harris, for example, seems to confine himself to the items mentioned in the Associated Board syllabus. If it says that, at Grade 5 , the piece tested could be in compound time, then there is a section on compound time. If it says, in the key of f minor, then Harris will have a section in f minor.) Lawson, by contrast, covers the same ground, and more general skills as well. Recommended.
Super Sight-Reading Secrets by Howard Richman is a single book with a “method”. It is very good, but doesn’t examine the causes of why people can’t sight-read, and so proposes standard solutions. It is very well thought out, including drills to help “keyboard orientation’ and ‘visual perception drills’, including the idea of saying the note before you play it. I think it is pedagogically sound, since it addresses problems by splitting them into constituent parts, such as practicing the rhythm and the notes separately. This book could be used by a student on their own without a teacher.
I like Thomas Johnson’s approach in these old Hinrichsen books. It encourages the student to look through the music in details before they play. I describe it as “Have you noticed this …”, when he asks, for example, “Where does the right hand change position?” or “Find the change of clef”. He is also very keen in the early stages on hand position – he doesn’t always show fingering, so the student has to work out not only which note to start on, but which finger to start on, which of course they work out by looking through the piece.
These books are also published in a series called “Read and Play”, with different covers, but identical contents.
The only one of these I have looked at is the Grade 5 book. It seems to me to be tied too tightly to the ABRSM syllabus, as it presents one chapter on each key – with the same exercise in each key, and then a couple of well-written characteristic pieces in that key. This is excellent for getting the student to imagine character when they play, but I find them too long and difficult to use on a weekly basis for sight-reading. I question the “one key at a time” approach, although I do see the need to give the student practice in different keys, there are simply too many of them to keep the student motivated, imho.
I haven’t had a chance to look at John Kember’s books yet.
Howard Richman runs his own page about piano sight-reading:
Sight-Reading Books: The most comprehensive list of sight reading books to improve your keyboard sight-reading.