Thoughts on composing, teaching and performing music, by Fergus Black


Common Problems in Piano Sight-Reading

Many people struggle with sight-reading at the piano. But not all for the same reason or reasons. Here are some common problems, together with my solutions to them.

Identifying note pitches

I find it is usually the bass clef or ledger lines that cause difficulty.


Games of Musical Space Invaders often help, and are fun. Also, there are a surprising number of pieces written totally in the bass clef, that tackle this problem head on. I ask students to practice saying the name of each note before they play it - obviously not in time (recommended in Super Sight-Reading Secrets by Howard Richman). "Say Then Play"

Difficulty playing both hands at once

I think this is the hardest of all for the teacher to sort. It really is up to the student.


My solution is largely giving the pupil experience. I start with really easy baroque pieces, or books of teaching pieces, like Gedike. Many of these I have written out in keys with high numbers of sharps or flats. An easy two-part piece from "First Book of Piano Pieces" isn't so easy when it is in the key of D flat major. Linda Barger e-mailed with an idea from the last page in the first book of John Thompson's _Easiest Piano Course_--it is a theory page. "Have the student clap the beat of the piece and say the note names against it. This is SO helpful because it forces them to pre-act out what they will be doing when they play the piece." I agree - the difficulty for a lot of people is doing several things at once.

Looks down

I think the solution here is to encourage the student to read by interval (not by seeing note-name & then looking for it)

I use 5-finger position exercises: note mlssing = finger missing. I start with reading 2nds and scales, and then gradually introduce wider intervals.

I sometimes cover the hands with a newspaper

I ask them to play pieces in unfamiliar clefs*, such as alto and tenor, or transpose simple pieces, both of which encourage reading by interval.

And I revise the difference between Sight-reading and Practicing for Performance.

Difficulty identifying chords

I have known student who when given two identical pieces, one written as broken chords, and the other as block chords, to play the broken chord version fluently, and yet stumble over the block chord version.

I encourage students to play hymns, identifying the chords as the play them (D major in first inversion, etc). Hymns are better than Bach chorales, which require the student to re-distribute the notes of chords between the hands and have awkward stretches.

We also do elementary Figured Harmony* and Keyboard Harmony*.

Corrects mistakes & loses pulse

This is the most common problem: some people cannot bear to leave mistakes behind them.


Duets are good, because they encourage the same principles of "always count, never stop"

Practice holding a conversatlon while playing.

Revise the difference between Sight-reading and Practicing for Performance.

Disjointed phrasing

This is when the student doesn't see phrases, only individual notes


The sight-reading course by Peter Lawson‡ offers the best help here.

Musical Intelligence tests* used to be published by the exam boards, when they still tested this sort of thing, and are useful for advanced students.

Rhythmic problems

I find that students often have a poor idea of how the piece might sound before they play it. They don't hear it in their heads.


To help them hear mistakes - I play excerpts of pieces from a piano book of which I have two copies - easy stuff, grade 1 or 2 - except that I make deliberate mistakes (like changing it from major to minor, or distorting the metre and playing in 2/4 rather than 3/4, etc.). Or even playing the left hand in the treble clef (surprisingly this often doesn't sound completely wrong! By getting them to identify the mistakes, it helps them imagine the sound of the piece in their heads.

Alternatively, there may be a lack of counting, even in advanced students.

The solution here is surely lots of practice! I give books of easy pieces to students and ask them to prepare some each week - music at least two grades below where they are currently playing. Anything by Joan Last is good. Harris‡ rhythm exercises from the series "Improve Your Sight-reading" are helpful, as are the books Rhythmic Reading* by Joan Last. For adults or older teenagers, the book Rhythm Coach* is invaluable

Disregard of key

It surprises me that students who can play their scales well, sometimes still cannot remember a key signature: indeed don't associate the scales with their other areas of study much at all.


I try and inculcate a sense of key in sight reading by doing some practice on the notes of the scale first.

I get the student to look at me (i.e. away from the keyboard) and practice saying the notes of scale - ascending and descending. It forces them to visualise.

I play a jazzy secundo part, and the student Improvises a tune above it in a key. N.B. you have to chose a time signature first!

One of the problems with simple pieces and duets is that they tend to be in simple keys. However, there is one book which offers simple pieces in more extreme keys: I use the book Black Key Duets*. I have written out a number of easy Baroque pieces and transposed them into weird keys.

Doesn't think

Was it Liszt who said "Think ten times, play once"? It is good advice. In an exam, it is important to use the preparation time to physically play the piece; but life is not an exam, and one often doesn't get the chance to play things through before doing them for real.


Look through the piece. Observe. At the most basic level, ask yourself three questions:

  • Where on the keyboard do I put my hands?
  • What am I going to count? (e.g. "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and")
  • What note is raised or lowered by the key signature? (e.g. "B flat"); then try and spot them in the piece. (At a later stage, one might change this question to "What key is it in?)
  • Patsch the rhythms: right hand on right knee, left hand on left knee.
  • Look for accidentals, ledger lines, and chords, and difficult rhythms and practise those.
  • Check the end. It is always good to end well!


Musical Space Invaders is a computer programme that fires notes on staves across the screen which you have to shoot down by playing the notes on a midi keyboard. For pieces in alto and tenor clef, I use Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading by R O Morris and Howard Ferguson, 1931 Oxford University Press

There are a surprising number of pieces written totally in the bass clef, for example,Douze Petits Divertissements pour piano by Jacques Barat, Editions Choudens 75008

Figured Harmony at the Keyboard, 1933, R O Morris, Oxford University Press

The following books might still be found in second-hand shops:

Musical Initiative Tests (for Teacher's Diploma Examinations) , 1958, Guy Jonson, Elkin and Co Ltd

Twleve Tests of Musical Initiative. 1930, E Markham Lee, Lengnick

Duets: I tend to use music that is specifically written for teaching, not Jeux d'Enfants or Dolly.

Black Key Duets by Geoffrey Shaw, 1938, Novello (OOP).

However, I suppose it wouldn't be difficult to make your own, such as rewriting "Chester's Piano Duets Vol On (by Carol Barratt - Chester Music), transposing the pieces in F major into F sharp major, etc.

Rhythm Coach by Richard Filz (Universal Edition UE 21 347), is a good self-help book on developing rhythmic skills

Rhythmic Reading (Sight Reading Pieces for Piano), 1955, Joan Last, Bosworth

Classic Harmony by John Leach, 1997, self published is very good for Grade 5 plus. Keyboard Harmony and Improvisation, 1963, Kenneth Simpson, Lengnick is more elementary. Also, Specimen Tests in Keyboard Harmony, 1965, Associated Board (OOP)



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