Pianists: Should you always sight-read in tempo?

Hey Improvisers,

Have you ever heard that “you always have to keep a steady tempo while sight-reading?”

This is good advice at times, since when you’re sight-reading in a rehearsal with other musicians, or even during a public performance, you can’t slow down, right? That would mess everybody up. So it makes sense to practice keeping a steady tempo while sight-reading at home. This means that you’ll be prioritizing the tempo, while leaving out some notes when the music becomes too complicated.

But it this the only way to effectively practice sight-reading?

No, it isn’t, and this is where the word “always” in the phrase “you always have to keep a steady tempo while sight-reading” becomes problematic. There are other benefits we can receive from sight-reading, and we lose them if we always keep a steady tempo.

For example, let’s say that you want to improve your ability to “take in” vertical structures, as in chords. When you’re practicing for this particular goal, you’ll benefit by slowing down when you come across a big chord, so that you don’t have to omit any of the notes. In these cases, you’ll want to play each and every note in the structure so that you become accustomed to assimilating the whole vertical structure of the notes on the page. If you always play in tempo, you won’t improve as fast in this respect.

When I was a teenage, I spent 45 minutes each day for about a year playing Bach’s 4-Part Chorales, reading from the piano version. I would slow down every time I came across a chord I couldn’t easily play, and after a while I became able to read chords very well. At that point, I switched to the other method and began keeping a steady tempo.

When you’re learning how to sight-read, you’ll benefit by using both of these methods to fully develop your musical skills. I discuss this more fully in this video:

Piano Myth-Busting #3: You always have to keep a steady tempo while sight-reading.

Good luck with your sight-reading!


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