Sight reading tips for Grades 1 and 2 ABRSM

When accessing the sight-reading for the ABRSM exam we have 21 points at stake. The pieces and scales should be the main focus as you know what you will be asked and you are pretty much guaranteed a pass by conquering these two parts. The sight reading however helps to access the pieces faster and is where the really good scores come from. What is the examiner looking for?

The easiest way to think about it is to separate it into 3 aspects of musical fluency.

  1. Rhythm
  2. Note accuracy
  3. Articulation and Dynamics

By getting all of these elements correct you will get top marks.

Part 1

How do we work on these features?

First of all we need a method book and there is no better than Paul Harris’s Improve your sight-reading. It goes through key by key, adding rhythms and difficulty at each stage.

I always ask my students to work on sight reading the way I ask them to start learning new pieces. I give a set of practice steps which are specific and non ambiguous. I despise ambiguous teaching instructions! A student should always know precisely how to practice.

These are the practice steps I give when a student 1st begins to sight read. Probably for stages 1-7 of the Paul Harris book.

1st set of steps:

  1. Tap and count the rhythm of the exercise out loud
  2. Work out the key and play the scales, 5 finger scales and arpeggios (if appropriate)
  3. Find starting position
  4. Play through counting out loud

Notes: Tapping of the rhythm should always be worked on till there is no hesitation. Rhythm is learnt and recognised in the same way as any other vocabulary.

The 5 finger scales is the playing of a scale modally whilst also playing the 7 triads of each scale. (And naming them if possible)

Part 2

Once this is mastered for all of the keys and rhythms that are tested within that grade the next part is to be mastered. This is close to what they’d do in the exam.

This would apply to stages 8 and 9 of the Paul Harris book. I would also recommend that the student buys the ABSRM specimen sight reading tests for the relevant grade.

2nd set of steps (to be used nearer the exam):

  1. Key and starting position
  2. Play through (Silently) counting out loud (In your head
  3. Check for dynamics and in particular the starting dynamic
  4. Play for real counting out loud and don’t stop.

The key and starting position is the most important aspect of passing the sight-reading test. Once you have this skill and you are able to find the position and key in under 5 seconds then you have a lot of time to play through the remaining music. I challenge students to a stop watch like race. E.g: Find the key and starting position to exercise number 23 (In the already open ABRSM specimen sight-reading test)

Then i would do another and another.

It is important that the student counts out loud in practice as it makes sure they are doing it consistently and it gives it emphasis and an importance.

Steps to be used in the exam

In the exam the student is allowed to play the piece out loud as they prepare and they get 30 seconds. They should follow the below steps in the actual exam.

3nd set of steps (to be for the exam):

  1. Key and starting position
  2. Play through (Out loud) counting out loud
  3. Check for dynamics and in particular the starting dynamic
  4. Play for real counting in your head and don’t stop.

These final steps should be practice at least 2 lessons before the exam. Also encourage the student not to make any noises if they make a mistake as this can often give a mistake away that would have slipped through the net. Also iterate that it is possible to make lots of errors and still get a great score.

Added exercise to improve the most important areas.

In all sight reading exercises the most important thing is that you don’t stop.

If a student plays the correct rhythm with completely the wrong notes but the correct dynamics and articulation they will get a score in double figures. If they play all the correct notes with no rhythm and no dynamics and articulation they will get a much lower score.

The main factor here is a fear of playing and hearing the wrong pitched note. For this I have a very fun exercise.

3rd set of steps to conquer fear of mistakes (to be used in the lesson but they can try at home too):

Step 1

  1. Lay hands flat on the piano with no concern of which note they are on.
  2. With no previous knowledge of the piece count them in and they must play the piano like a drum making a lot of awful noises. (They’ll love this!)

Step 2

  1. Now try again but choose any 5 finger hand position again with no concern of which note they are on.
  2. Ask the student to do the same thing but use their fingers

Step 3

  1. Now try again but choose any 5 finger hand position again with no concern of which note they are on.
  2. Ask the student to do the same thing but use their fingers and move in the general direction that the pitch of the music goes.

Good luck!!!