Sight Reading and Training the Eye

Question: I have a question about sight reading and how it relates to piano theory. I can sight read a normal piece pretty well, but only at a slow tempo.

I read somewhere that it was due to short term memory. My eyes cannot not move far ahead of my fingers. Even if my eyes get ahead of tempo, they will linger in that spot until my fingers catch up. I read that you have to wake up the short term memory. Having someone cover up music with a card as you play forces the memory to wake up.

I didn’t have anyone to use the card with so I tried forcing my eyes ahead. That didn’t work either.

Then I read that piano players with applied theory can break a piece down to into fewer chunks, which brought me to where I am now. One of the exercises in the book is harmonizing a melody with any given chords. I can do this very well as it is just like sight reading, but adding chords.

But the exercise says to keep a strict tempo and not to pause to think the next chord and it is most important to think ahead to gain fluency. I am now wondering if the short term memory with still remain a problem before I keep adding chords. If so, what can I do? Is this something I can fix on my own?
P.S. You have been a great help! Best wishes.

– Tevaun (Georgia, USA)

Albert’s reply: There is a simple sight reading exercise which Nadia Boulanger, the 20th century’s top music teacher, prescribed to many students. It trains the eye to look ahead, and hence trains the short term memory.

Before you attempt to play the music, simply scan it from left to right at your sight reading tempo. Make sure your eye is moving consistently, not slowing down and speeding up. Absorb the harmony and melody, paying closest attention to the bottom and top notes. Once you’ve scanned the line with your eyes alone, you can then play it at that tempo.

Playing the piano is a very complex activity, and it’s impossible to focus on every aspect of it all at once. That’s why we have to practice.

One of the universal principles of learning music is therefore to break down any difficulty into its individual components. In this case, we’re separating scanning the music from actually playing it at sight, thus training the eye and brain to take in musical information before we attempt to realize that information through our fingers.

It’s definitely true that the more comfortable you become with applied piano theory, the better you’ll get at reading music. The reason is that we don’t read all the individual notes any more than we read each individual letter in a book. Instead, we subconsciously learn to recognize patterns. Learning harmony is about recognizing those patterns.

Good luck and keep in touch!

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