Joe's Blog

Sight Reading

February 5, 2018

A student who prefers slower tempos.  Is there a hidden reason?

B. (the name I will use to refer to the student) plays beautifully.  His favored tempo is to play slowly, even for “fast” pieces.  I asked him if he was willing to go outside his comfort zone and try to play faster.  In particular, I wanted to track down whether sight reading had a role to play in limiting speed.

We tried three types of exercises, the first of which involved playing “in the dark” (with eyes closed).  This to help separate and diagnose two things:  Looking at the score and knowing what the notes are, and if the fingers have any difficulty embracing the correct keys on the keyboard.

  1. Learning to ‘navigate in the dark’.

These are the things that we tried (there is no particular order in which to do them).
In every case, the parts that  you do ‘correctly’ are the least interesting or useful.  When you have more difficulty or do something ‘incorrectly’ that is a rare insight into how your mind works, and is valuable knowledge.

a) With eyes open choose a note that will be the lowest note of a chord.   Close your eyes.  I then propose to B. what the other notes of the chord should be.  I give him this information in ascending order of pitch.

b) With eyes open choose a lowest note on which to build a chord.  Close your eyes.  The difference with the procedure above is that B. gets to choose what the other notes in the chord are to be.  As he chooses them one by one, he says the name of the note he chooses, and does his best to put a finger on that note.   When the chord is complete, first keep your eyes closed and try to name the notes of the chord (this is for memory).  Then open them to confirm what notes are actually under your fingers.

c) Give yourself a starting chord of any number of notes – tonal or not tonal.   Close your eyes.  Transpose the chord up a half step, and repeat this process until you are back on the original chord, though it is now an octave higher than when you started.   Sometimes, during the process you can pause to name the notes currently under your fingers.

d) Keeping the eyes only on the music, and not on the keyboard and the hands, try to play a piece that you working on.  If you need to confirm that things are going alright, open your eyes to check.  Just make it a conscious choice when do open them.

e) With the eyes closed play a random note on the piano.  Feel around in the neighborhood of the note and figure out what note you are playing.

f) Close your eyes.  Propose a note to play (for example: middle C, or the second G# below middle C, etc.).  Begin the search with your hands in your lap.  Open the eyes and check whether you did it.

g) Pick a note on which to start the exercise.  Close you eyes.   Play a chromatic scale (up or down, an octave, with either hand).  Give a name to each note you as you play it.  Sometimes use sharp names for the black notes, sometimes flat names.

Next, do the same sort of thing but moving two at once.  It doesn’t matter what the notes are.

Then do it for triads (tonal or not tonal), and finally for four note chords.  When naming the notes that are currently sounding, if you are unsure, it is OK to take a peak.

  1. Things to do while the eyes remain open.

a) Looking just at the score, say out loud the names of the notes in a measure.   If two or more notes are written so as to sound at the same time, name them in a particular order (for instance from the lowest pitched note in the left hand to the highest pitched  note in the right hand.*

Do the procedure a number of times but vary the speed at which you do it..   We looked for changes, not so much in terms of right or wrong notes, but the effect the tempo had on his psychological sense of certainty about what we was doing.

* Though order is probably not vital, is in keeping with custom, which in turn is in accord with acoustics and overtones: that the sounds of treble “rest on” the sounds of bass.

  1. Thinking and Speaking Exercises

In parallel with his preference to play at a slow tempo, he exhibits the same preference when talking.  So I thought it might be interesting to approach the musical side of tempo with the proxy of his speaking voice.

a) I asked him a question, like “name 4 different colors”.   The relevant data was how long did he pause before starting to answer, and at what tempo did he speak the answer.

Sometimes I followed up a question like that with a question like:  now name to or three more colors.  I wanted to see what effect having to remember the previous colors had on the act of choosing colors not in that previous list.

I said that I thought of piano playing as being often a ‘fast’ paced skill.  I wondered whether we worked on the speed of his talking, it might act as proxy to help make changes in the his piano playing – a bit of extra leverage from outside.

We went back to the piece he played before.  Though meant to go moderately fast, he played it slowly: by automatic choice.  He played very beautifully with personal expression.  Then I asked him if he would be willing to play it again, very fast, trying to provoke as many wrong notes as possible.  Even enjoy with bemused indifference what transpired.

The result was that he could play it a good deal faster than he thought he could without encountering difficulties.  There were just a few mistakes or hesitations. The only thing that changed, interestingly, was that the beauty of the playing went away.  When I asked him if he could recapture that beauty but still play fast, he could.

  1. Doing these exercises at home.

When repeating the exercises at home, it’s OK to open your eyes at any time for confirmation.  It may alleviate any onerous psychological stress  or discomfort involved in doing the exercises.  You are teaching yourself the way to go back and forth between visual and tactile, and help establish a certain rhythm in doing so.

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