The ‘Stubborn Duet’ Secret to Teaching Sight Reading

Teaching sight reading skills to piano students is not always as simple as teaching them great reading skills. To be a great sight reader you need more than just note names and intervals. You need to be able to translate those into movements which make sounds…quickly.

The difference between reading and sight reading is time. Or, rather, the lack thereof.

When we read music we’ve never seen or heard before, in the moment, we have to move quickly. We have to be fast on our fingers and make guesses when our brain doesn’t have time to figure it out.

Solid sight reading skills are a wonderful asset to have as a collaborative musician or accompanist. They’re also super useful to have in your back pocket for any performance situation to get you out of a jam. 

But after teaching our students to read, how do we take them beyond the slow deciphering of notes and towards cat-like sight reading reflexes?

The Pianist Problem

Pianists have two problems standing in the way of them developing great sight reading skills:

  1. We read 2 staves at the same time.
  2. We have fewer opportunities to play with other musicians.

The first issue is a fact of life. Being able to play more notes at the same time than most other instruments is a blessing and a curse. But whichever way you see it, it is what it is.

It’s the second barrier we’re going to tackle in this article. How can we get young pianists to play with others more often? And why should we?

The Secret to Sight Reading

Let’s dial this back and look at YOU. 

Do you consider yourself to be a good sight reader? If so, where did you learn those skills?

Most of the truly wonderful sight readers I’ve met tell me they learnt in some kind of a group setting. They say they started playing at their church at age 15 or were roped into accompanying for a musical at their school. 

There’s a reason for this. 

The secret to sight reading skills is not perfect reading. It’s the ability to make educated guesses and to let go of the imperfections.

Just. Keep. Going.

I personally got much better at sight reading when I started playing more duets with my students. It’s one thing to ask a peer you’re duetting with to slow down or go back, but when it’s your students you simply find a way to make it work!

What Duets Can Do

Over time, I’ve included more and more duets in my lessons so that my students can experience playing with others as regularly as possible. 

This is not an equal substitute for playing with a large group, and I still try to provide those group opportunities for my students as often as I can. (You can find ideas for incorporating group opportunities into your studio on my Planning Lessons hub page.)

But the teacher duets can play a role, too, and they’ll usually happen more frequently than any group experience will. Which brings me to my final question for you:

Do you play duets with your students in every lesson?

If you don’t, start there. And if you do that already, here’s the secret sauce you’ve been missing: Stubbornness. 

I believe we teachers should have two different modes of duet playing.

The Easy Mode

There’s the easy mode where we use our expertise to help students along. We retrace when they do and point out the spot for them to come back in.

This mode is great for beginners, and should be our default for any performance.

The Stubborn Mode (AKA the secret sauce)

The stubborn mode, however, is where your students will develop their sight reading and duet skills. 

When you’re entering stubborn mode, warn your student that the train is going to keep moving. They need to try and come back in when they get lost and fit their rhythm with yours. 

Then channel your inner robot, count in and set the train in motion. Do not stop or go back. Keep a sense of humour in the room, but don’t revert to easy mode!

In the beginning, this is HARD to do as a teacher. It’s so tempting to go back or help them out. And of course you’ll help them when the piece is over − but not until the train reaches the station.

Improvising Duets

We’re talking about sight reading here but if you have a student who really struggles to play with you I suggest improvising together. We make that super easy with the Creative Candies cards!

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Bonus: Backing Track Tip

Backing tracks are another great way to work on sight reading skills and can be a good stepping stone when you’re struggling to go from easy mode duets to stubborn mode duets. It’s easy for kids to understand that a track won’t wait for them!

If you’re looking for ready-made backing tracks, Reading Railroad is an awesome resource to teach piano sight reading skills. There are 6 levels of 30 sight reading snippets, each one with custom backing tracks. Each exercise can be done in about 3 minutes, making it easier than ever to include sight reading with every lesson.

Sight reading challenge

Members of Vibrant Music Teaching can download Reading Railroad 1 from the VMT library today, and scroll to the bottom of that page for links to access all 6 levels.

Not a member yet? Still not sure? Reading Railroad is only 1 out of hundreds of amazing resources for members to access in an instant. Check it out!

Your One Thing.

This week’s homework is a big one: I want you to find time for a duet in every student’s lesson. And, if they’re beyond their first year of study, challenge yourself to make it a stubborn duet.

What’s the secret to your sight reading skills?

I’d love to hear your how you learnt to sight read in the comments below. 🙂

4 thoughts on “The ‘Stubborn Duet’ Secret to Teaching Sight Reading”

  1. Thank you for this helpful advice! Yes, I was thrown into church service playing and choir accompanying when I was 14 and that provided invaluable sight reading experience. Last week I showed up to a choir rehearsal and sight read the unfamiliar songs without the slightest worry.

    Since I’m a virtual teacher, I’ll really have to adapt the tips you’ve given. Tracks seem to be my only option at the moment, although I so wish I could duet with them!

  2. Sight reading the pitches have always come easy for me. However, I was one of those students who struggled with accurate rhythms and keeping a steady beat. Unfortunately, backing tracks were not available 40 years ago. My teacher’s solution to help me was to sight read duets during concerts. I did not like it at the time but now I am a piano teacher and church musician who can keep a steady beat and play correct rhythms at sight. I still struggle with complicated off beat patterns. To help with this I keep most of my recreational playing in the jazz and popular genres.

    • Many thanks indeed Beth for this interesting feedback and the methods you use to help with complicated rhythms!


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