Drop Dead Easy Sight Reading (Especially for Piano)

I played piano for endless years as a child (or so it seemed). I actually got fairly decent: played a little Beethoven, gave a few recitals — the usual. However, I had a secret flaw. An awful flaw, even a fatal flaw.

In all that time, I never got my mind around sight reading. I was still in sight reading kindergarten by the time I gave up piano as an adolescent to focus on the visual arts. It’s been a regret on and off for years that I never got over the hill to actually enjoy music, instead of stumbling along memorizing and counting notes.

This New Year’s Eve, I made a completely frivolous resolution for 2016: to learn to sight read once and for all. (Even though I wasn’t practicing piano and didn’t intend to start again.)

Disclaimer: I had been away from the piano so long that I made myself a reference chart of what piano key was which, because I actually got confused when I tried to play a note an octave up. It was that bad.

I had always suspected that flash cards would work, but I either never made any, or I made them and gave up pretty quickly afterward. (I think that rings a bell, actually.)

However, I’ve learned more about the effective use of flashcards since then, so I thought I would give it a shot. (By the way, for you people interested in learning languages — or anything else — by flashcard, check out Gabriel Wyner and his site, Fluent Forever. His stuff is amazing, mostly free, and applicable to more than just language.)

I made a simple set of flashcards covering slightly more than two octaves of the treble clef, going up to high C and down to low A (no minor/major notes, just basic white keys). I was going to use an internet set of flashcards, but my printer connection broke. (Try searching something like “free musical note flash cards” on the internet if you want to go that route.)

Instead I snipped out pieces of 3×5 cards and drew the flashcards by hand — the note on the front, the name of the note on the back (on some of the notes, I drew the keys on the back too). Then, I shuffled them so they would be random.

Music Note Flash Cards

I sat down at the piano and looked at a card. I had no clue what it was. It was one of the way up high ones I never could remember properly. (Pretty much anything above high C, in other words.)

My brain was blank; I didn’t want to figure out what note it was. That wasn’t the point of what I was trying to do. So before my brain could get analytical (it does that), I just plunked down my finger on a note. It looked like it was in about the right range for the note on the card. I held the note while I turned over the card with my other hand. It was about 5 keys off. I took my finger off the key and plunked the note it actually was. Then I discarded the card. It actually wasn’t that painful, despite arguably seeming like a failure.

I took the next card and did the same. Then I got one right! On the first try! I kept going until I got to the end of the deck. Then I shuffled the cards and started again.

Here’s the crazy part. I got a huge percentage of them right the second time around. A gigantic increase from the first time. It kind of blew me away, considering my past history, where I would pretty instantly forget as soon as I moved on to the next thing.

I wasn’t stopping to think when I did this. I was hitting the note first, then thinking the name of the note before turning over the card, not letting myself slow down enough to use the wrong type of recall. (After all, I don’t want any mental ‘logic’ pause, even to remember the note’s name, before I hit a note while sight reading. I just want to do it. Bam.)

Sometimes after I hit a note, I changed my mind and hit a different note instead before I turned over the card. When I did, I was right to change more often than not.

By the time I got through the second run-through, I knew I was onto something. So now I’m basically doing exactly what I just described, with only a couple tweaks.

First, when I get a card wrong (by key plunk or name), I have started shuffling it into the stack again rather than discarding it. That slightly increases the frequency of that card. That’s a trick I learned from Gabriel Wyner and Fluent Forever. Thanks, Gabriel!

Second, I realized right away that I was anticipating. I would remember that I had played a high A and would think, “That can’t be a high A, I already played that card.” I couldn’t let that stand. It was allowing the sneaky influx of reasoning back into what I wanted to be instant reflex.

So, I bit the bullet and made two more sets of cards by hand. (All you people with working printers can consider yourself lucky on that score — ha, get it? score?) I then mixed all the cards together. That made three of every note in my treble clef set. Sure enough, I found that it stopped me from accidentally keeping track of cards in my head (mostly); I pretty much stopped “counting cards” because there were so many of each card. Plus, since I was randomly mixing in ones I missed, I encountered them more than three times because those cards would repeat rather than be discarded.

I’ve already made up a bass clef set, and I plan to keep them separate from the treble clef cards. I really only use the treble clef sign to keep the cards upright (rather important, considering that’s the only way to tell up from down!) and it also shows which deck a card belongs to.

With real sheet music, I should always know whether a line is bass or treble clef, since treble and bass clef notes aren’t randomly intermixed, so there’s no benefit to randomly mixing the two sets of cards together. It would almost certainly hurt my memorization and speed to mix the two decks, since the bass and treble clef look completely alike on the part where the note sits, which is really the only place you want to be looking on the card for maximum speed and verisimilitude.

One of things I learned from Gabriel Wyner is that studying closely related sets at the same time hurts your ability to memorize. For example, if you learn all the French words for color at the same time, when you try to use them, you might get yellow and green mixed up and not be able to remember which is which. Bummer! Same with colors and numbers and farm animals and any other excessively similar set. So, I don’t want to memorize two visually identical note placements at the same time, where one is treble clef and the other is bass clef but they aren’t actually the same note. It would make the memorization less efficient and maybe even mess me up like Gabriel’s colors. I don’t like things that mess me up.

Plus, I use my right hand for playing the treble clef notes and my left for the bass (for obvious reasons, if you are a piano player). That way I don’t have to keep switching which hand is turning cards.

Here’s my result.

I went over my full deck a number of times in one night (the same day I made the deck). Maybe five or so times through the full triple deck? I wasn’t keeping track. I took several breaks in between, and every time I came back from a significant break, I did worse at first, but quickly improved again.

On my last run through, I picked out a simple, short flute version of “Auld Lang Syne” on my computer, played through my full deck once to refresh my memory (I had done other things for a while so I was already rusty), then played through the piece without pausing or worrying about minor errors (I made a couple from misreading notes, but not that many). And I did it! It actually sounded like music on the first run through!

Experiment: A Success.

And holy cow — playing a piece that I didn’t know was actually fun for once!

Here’s a final rundown of the basic method:

Turn up your first card.

If you don’t instantly know what note it is, don’t think about it. Just take a stab at it (literally, if you are a piano player). Don’t try to remember the name of the note until after you hit it on your instrument. (Also, play the note so it actually makes sound — that’s part of the benefit of the learning. Your ear gets trained too that way.)

Then turn over your card with the hand that isn’t holding down the piano key and compare. If you were wrong, first hit the right note (very important), then shuffle the card back in the pile so you will get it again later. If you were right, give yourself a moment for a smug smirk, then put the card in the discard pile.

Keep turning up cards and hitting the note and saying the name of the note in your head or out loud. Shuffle back in all the cards you got wrong (on either the name or the note). Discard the ones you got right. When you reach the end, reshuffle the whole deck.


Note: It is very important that you don’t obsess over the cards you get wrong. Just hit the right note and move on without letting it ruffle your feathers. (I have chickens, so I like feather analogies.)

Got it? Wrong answer = no biggie. You’ll get it next time or the time after, and it will only take longer if you waste time angsting about it every time you miss one. Seriously, it’s a non-event. Speed is what matters — keeping it going.

If you find yourself getting frustrated (perhaps you are new to your instrument or to reading music), cut down your deck size. For example, instead of having two octaves, limit yourself to one octave — or part of an octave if need be. Just make sure you know what range your cards fall in. Don’t just shuffle your deck and remove half. That won’t actually lower the challenge level.

When you’re starting to feel confident or getting bored and you think you’re ready, find some really simple sheet music that you aren’t familiar with and give your new skills a whirl. Try searching for common tunes in flute notation. That way there are no chords and you can focus on one hand. You’ll have to make up your own piano fingering, though.

Good luck!

Update: It’s been a few days now, and I’ve had time to go over the bass clef deck a number of times. I’m definitely slower/stupider with it, but that’s no surprise — I still have muscle memory and background from my years of piano practice, and that’s the only reason I’m as far ahead as I am. I knew I wasn’t as good with the bass clef to start with, so of course I would have a handicap learning it now compared to the treble clef.

That said, just today I played a piece with both hands from a “grade 4” piano book that looked doable (the first page of it, anyway), and I managed the run-through reasonably well, though with plenty of errors to keep me humble. Still, the improvement was palpable, even compared to my old standards back when I was actually in practice.

This was my first time trying to sight read again with both hands and a semi-complicated piece of music, and it was definitely a success. It had a good mix of the hard extra-high and extra-low notes. I used to count up to those from a note I already knew. I had to do very little counting this time, and it was mainly to confirm my memory, not to act as a crutch so I didn’t have to learn the notes.

My only wish at this point is that I had a piano book with slightly simpler pieces. This one is kind of overreaching for my current level and goals. I’ll have to see what I can do about that.

Update 2 (1-9-16): I sat down after several days of not practicing at all and got my first 100% accuracy run-through on my treble clef deck on my first try, to my own astonishment.

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