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A fresh approach to sight-reading

10 years ago


Joining the Dots author Alan Bullard reveals how these books can bring benefits not only in sight-reading but also in the development of all-round musicianship.


Sight-reading can be the aspect of learning that pupils find most difficult and frustrating, and which fills them with most fear when exam-time comes along.

Sight-readingWe all know that the skill of playing at sight is one of the most useful – and time-saving – for any musician, but helping our pupils to progress with their sight-reading, rather than merely undertaking tests in it, is a challenge to which there is no easy answer.

Having been one of the team involved in preparing the current ABRSM Piano sight-reading tests, and working as an examiner and teacher, I often found myself re-considering how we learn to sight-read. There are many interrelating reasons why the more experienced sight-reader manages to ‘keep going’ but amongst these must surely be a reliance on an inbuilt knowledge of the different keys, and the finger patterns and musical shapes within them.

Joining the Dots embodies this approach by not only joining the musical ‘dots’ but also joining together different aspects of music making – knowledge of keys, technical exercises, improvisation and playing at sight. The aim is to enable more efficient and effective learning of new music by developing a greater awareness of keyboard geography. It is a resource for regular use within lessons and at home, between exams as well as in preparation for them.

Joining the Dots, Volume 4The five books in this series for the piano cover the keys found in ABRSM’s sight-reading tests at each of Grades 1 to 5, with a separate section for each key used within the tests at the corresponding grade. Imagine, for example, that your pupil is learning a piece in the key of G major. He or she will already have explored the key to an extent by playing the G major scale and arpeggio/broken chord, and will be starting to develop a feel of where that F sharp falls under the fingers and on the page. Joining the Dots will help to reinforce that sense of key, and the G major section will provide technical exercises and warm-ups, opportunities for creative work, and short pieces to sight-read, all in that key and therefore with a starting-point in common.

Similar activities are presented at an equivalent level in each key, so that your pupil can jump in to any section, using the varied but logically organised material, alongside pieces, scales and arpeggios/broken chords that are being learnt in that key. Looking in more detail, there are usually four activities in each section.

Key Features

Joining the DotsThese are short exercises for each hand separately, provided for those keys that are new to the sight-reading requirements at the relevant grade. They are designed to help the pupil establish basic hand shapes and the feel of each key under the fingers. Thus they form a supplement to scales and arpeggios and, like them, can be a good way to begin a practice session. Within each book, the same patterns are used for each of the different keys, which helps to introduce the concept of transposition, without making a feature of it at this stage.


Next come hands-together exercises for warming up the fingers and hands, and which explore a range of techniques and styles. There are two for each key: the first is the same throughout each book (transposed for each key to help reinforce key familiarity), while the second is different for each key.

Make Music

This provides an opportunity for your pupil to build confidence in (and through) creative and imaginative work, and to develop their aural skills. Like the activities above, these will also help to familiarise the pupil with the geography of the keyboard and the feel of the key, but using an approach that is not primarily notation-based. They range from simple teacher-pupil echo responses to more creative possibilities.

All of these ideas have titles to help stimulate the imagination, and both teacher and pupil can approach them together in the way they both find most comfortable: for most pupils this will involve exploring the keyboard with some trial and error! In time, this experimentation will develop greater confidence and a closer sense of oneness with the keyboard, benefiting the learning and performing of all music.

Read and Play

Having established the feel of a specific key with technical exercises and exploratory improvisation, your pupil is equipped to apply that knowledge to reading at sight in that key. Read and Play is the goal of each section – a number of short, characterful pieces with titles, to be played at sight or after a short practice time, with the focus on keeping going. In terms of technical requirements, these lead up to and include the standard to be found in the sight-reading for the grade, and will provide a useful extra source of sight-reading material for those preparing for exams.

The final section of each book includes more solo pieces (of varying lengths, characters and moods) and a duet. Although in most cases longer, these are broadly of a similar technical standard to the Read and Play pieces earlier in the book. They can be used as additional sight-reading practice or as pieces to learn quickly and play through for fun.

With its eye-catching design, and range of approachable musical styles with descriptive titles, Joining the Dots will appeal to those looking for a wider range of sight-reading specimen tests. However, the purpose of the books is more extensive than that, seeking to encourage joined-up-thinking between eye, brain and hands in the interests of developing an all-round sense of musicianship. I’ve really enjoyed writing these books. By imagining myself in the position of a novice pianist, re-living the excitement of exploring the keyboard, it has been a voyage of discovery for me, and I hope that it will be for you and your pupils as well.

This article was originally featured in the January 2010 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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