Joe's Blog

A new rule for Irving about sight reading

May 30, 2018

Irving* plays at an advanced technical level, but has significant difficulty sight reading at an intermediate level.  We practice sight reading at every lesson.

There is a predictable sequence of events when something goes amiss as he is sight reading:

1) He comes to a stop.

2) He gets frustrated and angry (but not angry at anything in particular).

3) He voices his frustration long and loud, expressing an existential angst about what is happening to the flow of the music.

4) As quickly as possible he tries to figure out what went wrong, as if it counted (I.E. made up for things) just how fast he could make the correction.

5) He resumes playing the piece from exactly the same location where he left off.

This is not a very fruitful pattern of behavior for him, in fact it seems to me to guarantee the likelihood of making more mistakes.

A week ago, at his previous lesson, we agreed that for step 3 (voicing his frustration in a long string of words), he could substitute just a single word, “Darn.”  I suggested that he say the word with an affected, theatrical accent.  No matter what the problem – rhythm, hand coordination, notes, etc., the response had to be always the same and always said with the same accent.

At today’s lesson I wanted to go further and try to modify the entire cycle.  I thought the best way to do this was in “real time” – i.e. as each step was happening.

To create the right circumstances to make this modification, I suggested that instead of reading a solo work we sight read four-hand works together.

With much good humor and mutual supportiveness, we agreed to a new rule which would (except for making a mistake in the first place) would replace all five steps:

It’s fine to make mistakes, but don’t allow yourself to pause. Keep the flow of the piece going in your head and try to re-synchronize with your four-hand partner.

This means having to deny yourself the negative pleasure of an emotional reaction to making the mistake.  The latter takes too much time and makes it more difficult to jump ahead and try to re-synchronize with his partner.

Whether you stop because of a rhythm issue, a pitch issue, or just simply that the spot is too difficult to sight read, part of you has to keep advancing in the time of the piece.  No matter how many beats, or measures, or even lines, pass by with only the other person continuing to play, try, and if necessary try again, to re-synchronize.

I stressed that the ability to do this is separate from, and has no relation to either whether the mistake happens or whether he tries to make a correction if there is a mistake.

At first it was very hard for him to follow this rule.  But gradually he got better at it.  A new habit was being born.  He began to use his ear and his musical intuition to locate a place in the score that meant to sound together with what I might be playing at that moment.

The reason we had to agree beforehand to this rule, was that if a teacher ignored him and kept playing on when he had to stop, it would characterize the teacher has being mean, intolerant, and unbending, and other not nice things.

Thus we have taken the first steps to incorporating into the definition of sight reading: never stopping the pulse.  And if playing with another, don’t expect the other person to be a nice guy and adapt to him.**  Rather, mimic the more professional situation where sight reading with others depends on continuing on ahead regardless of what happens, and depending on the ability to re-synchronize.

*Irving, by the way, is my default pseudonym for any of my students, male or female. 

** Adapting to the other person is something so easy for me to do by default because of my professional experience over decades as an accompanist. 

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