Category: Sight Singing
When Practicing is Emotionally Painful
S.B.’s lesson on 6/25/19
S.B. is sensitive to good music, his soul clearly derives sustenance from it. Part of him loves being at the piano. The fly in the ointment is his sight reading.
Because of his love for music he periodically subjects himself to prolonged periods of discouragement by trying to learn pieces. The discouragement stems mostly from the difficulties he experiences in sight reading.
He could possibly become better at sight reading if he did more of it. But without a proximate aesthetic reward to be gained from the playing of the piece, there is little incentive to practice sight reading.
Reading pieces that are simple enough for him to sight reading produces apathy on his part. The music has little to offer his rather refined artistic sensitivities.
Difficulty in sight reading leads to prolonged practicing time before
the musical qualities of a piece begin to emerge in the player’s consciousness, which can then be savored by our aesthetic sensitivity. The longer this delay, the more bogged down the pianist gets in the tangled web of a forest–with no apparent way out. Just more and more forest, without
Eventually, the displeasure of making gradual, fitful, disconnected small gains in learning the piece, that cumulatively don’t seem to be leading anywhere, outweighs any pleasure, even anticipated pleasure, that the learned piece would bring him. Thus a lot of work is continuously required without the goal of enjoying the piece seeming to get any closer. This is compounded by the growing feeling that he is incapable of learning the piece. Eventually one is forced to the conclusion: “this piece, musical as it is (when I first heard it in performance), may not be worth the effort I have to put into learning it.” With great patience, discipline and fortitude, one might hold out against this discouragement, even for a long time, but time always wins in the end … the discouragement does not go away.
A tall order:
As a first step in dealing with these issues, I suggested that during the coming week’s practicing, he should take notice of the moments of
pleasure that may occur, even if they are in the minority. To identify to himself that THIS is the state he wants to experience at the piano; the one that makes it all worthwhile. Then to stay with that a moment before going on, to stave off heavy and seemingly ineluctable drift of displeasure that is waiting to take over.
Sight Reading: Isolating Variables
In learning a new piece, the rate of progress is a function of a combination of variables. Two of these, which are closely integrated, are level of ability to read the note symbols in the score, and the level of ability to translate what’s read in the score to the fingers in the hands. If these two are not on par with each other, then the entire process of learning a new piece is thrown out balance. Both the student and the teacher may not be conscious of the exact source of the difficulties observed in the student’s progress on the piece. Incidentally, it is probably doubtful if there are man pianists are equally adept at the visual comprehension of the score and the tactile realization of what they are comprehending. I’d like to talk a bit about the latter part: translating the score into physical actions.
Here is an exercise that evaluates, as well as isolates, the student’s tactile responses to the keyboard versus visual placement of the hands. It is based on how strongly developed a topological sense of the keyboard resides in the student’s imagination. We want the hands to find the notes on the keyboard as quickly as the eye recognizes them in the score.
Ask the student to play any single note near the middle of the keyboard. Let them use whatever finger and hand comes naturally. Next, ask the student to close their eyes.
The teacher prompts the student to go “up” or “down” to a given other note, and to try to make the connection legato.
This step is repeated over and over. Each time, the teacher suggests a new “next” note, and the student tries to connect, with eyes closed, from the “current” note to the new note.
There are various forms of feedback that are useful for the student:
The teacher can say whether the student has gotten to note selected by the teacher. Or, or the student can open their eyes momentarily to see whether they are indeed on the note that has been proposed. Or, the student can try to locate the next note without sounding it, and then open their eyes and see if they have located it. Or, the student should judge whether they have found the next note on the basis of the sound of the next note (in comparison with the previous note). All these permutations are useful. Or, the teacher can play the next note, and have the student find it directly or through a process of elimination (all done while the eyes are closed).
As the student improves, the teacher can gradually make the next note harder to locate from the current note. Smaller distances on the keyboard can grow to larger ones. Changes of ‘altitude’ can occur by mixing black notes and white notes.
One technique that will sometimes be of a help to the student is to use a sort of “Braille” approach. The finger tips feel for the cracks between the white notes and the bumps of the black notes as a way of tracing their progress from the current note to the next note. This technique helps the student to develop their tactile abilities based on subliminal cues based on the hills and valleys of the notes, and to combine this data with a sense of the distance in space to be covered between previous and new note. As these tactile abilities improve so will the visual image of the keyboard in their imagination.
When doing these exercises, there is an advantage both to having the student choose the next note and having the teacher choose the next note.
A further complication would be to start with two notes held at the same time and suggesting two more notes on the keyboard to find without looking on the keyboard, Agree on the order in which the new notes are named. Customarily it would be the lower first and then the higher note.
Later on one can start with three note, and ultimately four notes. The difficulty moving from one to two to three to four notes, increases in more than a linear fashion. They get harder, faster. There is an advantage to the student if at first the destination chords be tonal.
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The Challenges of Sight-Singing
Teaching sight reading skills to others is hard for me. It is the negative flip side of the positive fact of my having absolute pitch.
I start from the opposite end of the spectrum than most people. I know what the notes are going to sound as soon as my eye sees them on the page, even if I haven’t heard the piece before. If I am asked to identify an interval by its sound, I already know what the two notes are and from that I can, if I want, calculate the interval.
There is also for me a complete fusion between hearing the sound in advance and my hands going to take the notes on the keyboard that produce that sound. Additionally, I have a strong and well developed sense of harmony. Once I know what the chord is, which includes the particular spacing between the various notes of the chord, my hand simply distributes itself automatically on the keyboard to effect that chord. And, as I read, before I am conscious of the names of the individual notes in the next chord on the score page, I am conscious of the name (the root note, inversion, spacing… of the chord). It’s as if I see chords and not notes. It is a bit like the person who, before they are conscious of feeling any pain, has already withdrawn their hand from a hot object or a fire. As I recall from Junior High biology class, this results from part of a nerve signal making a U-turn in the spinal cord, and the other part of it making continuing to the brain. When the latter happens, then we know why we just drew our hand away.
I have a strong sense of pulse, which keeps the piece moving forwards even when sight reading. Part of that has to do with rhythm. As soon as I foresee a rhythmic pattern among the next group of notes in the score, my body also knows what that rhythm is going to feel like in its execution. This happens when or a fraction of a second before I read the identity of the pitches of those notes.
Anyway, Irving wants to continue with his diet of 10 minutes of sight reading every day. We talked for some time about it. I had to be very quiet and take in what he was saying, and not jumping in with half baked ideas that were based, without my thinking it through, on the things I do with greater ease when I sight read.
I learned from him one interesting point. If a person’s sight reading is too “slow”, and if there are too many misplayed notes, the pianist does not get a sense of what the music is like that they are playing. The latter, though, is what brings enjoyment to the sight reading process itself, and forms the motivation for continuing sight reading, both further into the piece and to want to spend time in general sight reading. The joy of discovery.
I have to figure this out… (I would love suggestions: please share your ideas)
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Sight Singing Exercises for the Obsessive: Singing Between Notes
Here is a statistically based method for practicing sight-singing. It is based less on musical, harmonic or diatonic context and more on the mathematical permutations that can occur between any notes.
Exercise one. To be done over one or more days or weeks.
Choose a scale. Choose a note from the scale. Let us say as an example you choose the C Major scale and the note E which is the third step of the scale.Sing from the E to each of the other notes in the scale:
thus: E C E D E E E F E G E A E B E C
E C E D (downwards motion)
E E (no motion)
E F E G E A E B E C (upwards motion).
Sixteen notes in all, in eighth pairs.
What was just done for the C Major scale starting always on E, can be done for the same scale starting on any of the other notes in the scale.
If you want to do this in an systematic start with lower C as the first note for a set of sixteen notes, then start with D for another sixteen notes, then E, etc.. until you start with the higher C.
C D C E C F C G C A C B C C
D C D D D E D F D G D A D B D C
Having exhausted the links between two notes of the C major, one can use the Harmonic and the Melodic minor scales in C.
The entire process outlined above can be done for other possible tonics.
Tonic C# / Db
If you sing the name of each note that you sing, then there would be an advantage in doing C-Sharp major and D-Flat major as two separate exercises.
Then proceed with tonics D, D#/Eb … B
Same general principle as exercise one, but based on the notes of a chromatic scale.
Find the lowest pitch you sing easily; the same for the highest pitch you sing easily.. An example might be from Middle-C up to the second G above Middle-C. Or, a more expansive example, might be from a low A up to the second A above that A.
The idea is to sing from one note chosen from that range up to, or down to, every other note in that range. Let us use a somewhat simple example: a lower C to the second E above that.
The first series of notes to sing would be:
c c# c d c d# c e c f c f# c g c g# c a c a# c b c C* c C# c D c D# c E c F c F# c G
* lowercase letters indicates a note in a lower octave, and UPPERCASE a note in the higher octave.
As with exercise 1, you can repeat the exercise starting on first one and then another step of the chromatic scale.
Her e is the beginning of the example of starting on “g”.
g c g c# g d g e# g e g f g f# . . .
If you choose to sing the names of the notes you are singing then sometimes use sharp names and sometimes use flat names.
Mathematical permutation of a chosen number of notes in a scale.
Consider spreading this exercise out over months to a year, so that you don’t have to spend too much time on it on any day.
3A: Choosing 3 different steps:
A good beginning would to choose just three notes from a single scale, later going on to four steps, five, etc..
The simplest choice of three scale steps would be the first three steps of a scale. In what follows we will use the numbers (1, 2 ..) and not letters of the musical alphabet. so that the examples below can be used for any scale with any tonic.
There are only six permutations of the first three steps of any scale:
123 132 213 231 312 321.
Or, three scale steps, using scale steps 1, 2, and 4.
Here are the six permutations:
124 142 214 241 412 421.
Or, three steps: 2 5 and 7:
257 275 527 572 725 752.
3B: Choosing 4 different steps:
By moving from three to four notes chosen from a scale. we significantly enlarge the number of possible “permutations”.
Here is full list of the 24 permutations of the scale steps 1 – 4:
1234 1243 1324 1342 1423 1432
2134 2143 2314 2341 2413 2431
3124 3142 3214 3241 3412 3421
4123 4132 4213 4231 4312 4321
Or, the 24 permutations of the four steps: 1 2 5 and 7
1257 1275 1527 1572 1725 1752
2157 2175 2517 2571 2715 2751
5127 5172 5217 5271 5712 5721
7125 7152 7215 7251 7512 7521
3C: Choosing additional number of steps:
Adding the number of steps chosen from the scale rapidly increases the number of permutations. Choosing 5 different steps leads to 120 different permutations. If you pick the first five steps of the scale you would get 120 permutations starting with 12345 and ending with 54321.
It doesn’t make much sense to go much beyond five steps. By the time you have considered an ample number of different groups of five steps you will have pretty much created singable phrases covering every note of the scale.
3C: Changing the step numbers of the scale into printed notes on the staff:
If I get enough requests, I am willing to create a “Finale 25” file that would flesh out all the exercise sets using each tonic and scale type. Hey, it will take a long time, but why not.
I recommend reading the blog entry “Singing in Tune” published on July 14, 2018. There it is suggested that:
…learn to play the chord that is present in the accompaniment when you are singing a single note, and learn to tune you note into the chord. Learn to do this also if the note sung is not a chord tone but a tone of embellishment.
…when you are sight reading a passage whose notes all belong to a common scale, make a cluster out of all the notes of the scale played simultaneously, and learn out to single out each note with the voice.
Additional Ear Training exercises:
Get used to hearing two notes played simultaneously and learning to sing the lower note then the higher pitch (and if you want the lower pitch again).
Same as the above but hearing three notes played simultaneously, and learning to sing the bottom, middle, top, middle bottom.
Also learn to play a note in any range on the piano, especially the very low or high range, and transpose the note up or down one or more octaves until it lies within the normal range of your singing voice.