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The big secret to becoming a good sight reader

Most people who want to become good sight readers realise that they must practice that skill every day. And in order to practice sight reading, they typically do one of two things: 1. Pick up a piano anthology, open to a piece at random and just start; or 2. Choose an "improve your sight reading" book at the appropriate grade level, and read through one or two small examples every day.

These methods are OK, but there is a crucial missing step. It is the secret to becoming a good sight reader, yet few realise what that step is.

To become a fluent sight reader at the piano, you need good keyboard harmony skills. You need to learn how to think in a key, how harmony works and apply that understanding to your daily practice routine.

If you read my sight reading stories, or even if you attended my Music at Sight Workshop, you will know that I address the "seeing" part of the sight reading equation - that is, how best to read rhythms, landmarks on the stave, patterns, intervals, chords, etc. But the second part of the equation is the "feeling" part, which is to do with knowing and practicing keyboard harmony. It's a kind of knowing that entails lived experience - that of playing chords in a key and finding the movement through chord progressions with your muscle memory. Singing is also an important part of this training, especially singing using solfa or any other system that articulates the function of notes in a key. These practices lead to an embodiment of tonal harmony with all of its functions and resolutions. You feel - in your fingers - the voice leading of a chord progression. You sing the resolution from "ti" to "do". This is the key to becoming a fluent sight reader - and more.

Keyboard harmony - essential for sight readers ...and composers?

Last year, while I was writing and delivering my own applied music theory course, The Complete Musician, I came upon a surprising discovery. Keyboard harmony and applied music theory was also an important part of of Nadia Boulanger's pedagogical approach!

Nadia Boulanger was a French composer, conductor and teacher who taught a significant number of leading composers and musicians of the 20th century, including:

George Antheil

Burt Bacharach

Daniel Barenboim

Leonard Bernstein

Elliott Carter

Aaron Copland

David Diamond

John Eliot Gardiner

Phillip Glass

Roy Harris

Karel Husa

Quincy Jones

Ralph Kirkpatrick

Dinu Lipatti

Gian Carlo Menotti

Thea Musgrave

Astor Piazzolla

Walter Piston

Elie Siegmeister

Virgil Thomson

If you look on Wikipedia, you can find a longer list of Boulanger's most notable students. She taught hundreds of students from Europe, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, Canada and the United States. And it is interesting to note that every single one of them were given a routine of cadences to play (from memory!) in every key around the circle of fifths! (A woman after my own heart!)

I managed to find a transcription of these cadences taken down from one of Boulanger's last students, David Conte, who is now Chair of Composition and a Composition Professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Here's a sample:

These cadences are like keyboard harmony on speed! You're not just starting on the tonic and stepping through primary chords, as I was taught. These cadences start on different chords from the diatonic set and step through subdominant and dominant functions to arrive at the tonic, which is then a leaping off point for another cadence in a closely-related key.

And if you can do that in all 24 major and minor keys, you will be a cracking good sight reader and more!


The connection to Boulanger happens to be a bit of synchronicity for me, because this year, I am kicking off the School of Music Theory's new Composers Intensive. If you're a composer and you like this kind of rigorous approach, then this might be for you. The Composers Intensive is designed to evolve your compositional style with a unique blend of traditional and contemporary approaches. It is 3 months of community, mastermind, discovery and creation for composers. You can read more about it by clicking HERE.

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