Category: Technique

Habits that induce good sight reading skills

Those who have difficulty sight reading may shy away from the following techniques, but please give them a try.  They are designed to leave you with no choice but to improve your sight reading skills by derailing your usual work-arounds.

1. There is a procedure that is favored by students with a good ear, good chops, and bad sight reading skills: when they get stuck somewhere in the score, their fingers go on an exploring mission, trying this note or that note, until finding one that sounds right.

A better procedure is to immediately remove the hands from the piano.  Then, switch control from the fingers to the eyes and brain, and patiently try to locate the place in the score at which the mistake has occurred.   This is not a physical skill or one that is usually aided by a good ear.  Rather it is a reading comprehension and ear skill.  Next, keeping control with the eyes and brain, closely examine the score to discover the identity of the correct notes.  This may take some time.  Only then play the notes.

Even after a piece is thoroughly learned, sight-reading remains a real-time component of playing the piece.  Things are going along swimmingly and then an uncertainty arises as to what comes next.  The hands feel lost.  That is the moment to switch into sight-reading mode, continuing in this mode until the hands remember where they are and continue on their own.

2. Learn to start playing the piece from any point in the score. A person with sight reading difficulties will tend to have to go back to a ‘known’ place in the score, even sometimes having to begin again at the beginning. The ability to start the piece from any beat in any measure in the score requires and encourages maximum sight reading skill.  Continue playing in sight reading mode, until you pick up the flow of the piece again.

3. Some students become dependent on playing a passage with both hands, so that if you ask them to play just the right hand or the left hand at a given spot, they cannot do so. The only way to satisfy the request is to sight read the notes for that hand.

4. Wrest control from body, and become more like a conductor. In lieu of a baton, count out loud and require that the musicians (the ten fingers) follow the voice of the leader.

I would like to publish any other techniques that people have found that are useful to improving sight-reading. Please comment below.

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And may there be no moaning at the bar line

Irving is an intermediate student.  We are working on one of the numerous, smaller Schubert pieces: a Waltz in A Minor.

I am aware that at various places he hesitates before going on to the next note.  This seems to happen especially when going from the last beat of one measure into the first beat of the next measure.  It happens much less when going from one beat inside a measure to the next.

This situation reminds me of a “steeplechase,” or any other race in which horse, or human, must periodically jump over hurdles.  In between the hurdles, the path is flat and so it is easier to maintain momentum.  In Irving’s case, it is as if each vertical bar line is a literal hurdle or obstacle to be overcome through a greater amount of effort, although the connections over the bar lines are not generally any more difficult than the connections inside a measure.

Could it be that the bar line is just a psychological hurdle and no more?  Is it the mind’s reaction to seeing a vertical line that, visually, appears as a barrier to be crossed or surmounted to continue in the piece?

It could be that the effect is due to the fact that the first beat of the (next) measure often requires extra energy to create the ictus due to a downbeat?

Or, it could be that there is a certain limit to how many upcoming notes the mind can digest before having to pause and take in some more notes, and that a convenient place to fill up the mental buffer is at the beginning of a new measure.

Let us consider instead the cases where the transition between bars only seems more difficult than the changes that occurred within the measure.

Solution One:

In our case, given the 3/4 time of the waltz, the student should play four (sic) consecutive beats at a time.  Doing this will always involve going over one bar line.   Let us say, Irving is playing from one downbeat of one measure through to the next downbeat.

Having executed these four beats, pause.  Repeat the same four beats as necessary until there is no hesitation going over the bar line.*

Continue by advancing one measure at a time, starting with the downbeat that ended the previous four beat segment.  Advance through that measure and come to a pause on the following downbeat.  Repeat this process, updating the starting point from the downbeat of one measure to the downbeat of the next measure.  In this way, the student continuously updates his mental cursor to the position where he had previously stopped.

Solution Two:

Here is another, more direct technique for crossing bar lines: Get rid of the bar line.  The neatest way to do this is to mentally erase the bar line.  We chose to erase every other bar line.  The result is that piece in 3/4 time now seems to be in 6/4 time.  Doing this often automatically removes any hesitation that occurred between what used to be beat three of the first measure going into beat one of the second measure.  The forward motion flows freely through where the bar line used to be.

* Part of the advantage of practicing this way is that how we play the next measure’s downbeat is not interfered with by any mental or physical preparations we may be making about continuing beyond the new downbeat and further into its measure.

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Two thoughts on playing Legato

Both blog entries today have to do with the undefined, yet very definite influence, that sounds, as imagined in the pianist’s ears, have over the extrinsic sound coming into the listener’s ears.

First thought:

Legato.  Connecting a longer duration note to shorter duration note.

The connectivity of a legato melody is most often broken when a note that has been present for some time (in other words a relatively longer note) is followed by a shorter note.

An example would be a half note tied to an eighth note followed by an eighth note.  The longer note (the half plus the eighth) has had more time to decrease in loudness, and so it is harder to focus the ear on the fainter part of that note that at the point i time just before it connects to the eighth note.  This continuity is also broken because at the moment the eighth note begins there is a sudden change in loudness, as the fainter part of the sound that is left over at the end of the longer note tries to connect smoothly to the suddenly louder beginning, or attack, of the eighth note.

While playing a legato line it is easy to overlook moments such as these and forget that a smooth connection between notes is still required in spite of the change from soft to suddenly loud.  The result, if not handled wisely, will sound to the listener like a sudden and jagged accent instead of a fluid legato.

When we are near the end of the longer sound, we must learn to focus our ear on what’s left of that sound.  Curiously, just the act of becoming aware, a second time, of the same note, causes a subjective sensation of that note suddenly getting a little louder.  The act of awareness acts like a re-kindling the note, like blowing on a fire.   It is then easier to connect the later part of the long sound in a legato manner into the beginning of the next note.

Second thought:

Taking a percussion-like instrument such as the piano, and making it sound melodic (lyrical) to the listener, is a magician’s feat that involves “smoke and mirrors”.  An example of this is what was just said about rekindling the sound of a note near to its termination in time.

The basic fact we are confronted with is that a note on the piano sounds much louder at the beginning than at the end.  The moment of attack arouses a cluster of high overtones which might leave us confused, if all we were to hear of the note was that attack, about the identity of the intended pitch of the note.  This is literally and figuratively a poor beginning to a process that is meant to link one pitch to a succeeding one in a smooth manner.

What should we do, or what can we do, when a sound begins in a chaotic cluster of higher pitches, and then, once the attack is over, what continues is a remnant of the sound that gets softer and softer until crossing over to silence?

If the effect of legato had to do with how we connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next, we would create a ziz-zag curve oscillating rapidly between very soft and very loud.  We would never sing a note this way, and a violinist would never bow this way.

It would almost seem that what is needed is some magical way to connect the middle of one piano sound to the middle of the next.  The middles of piano sounds are special.  They are still loud enough to posses a warm resonance (which emerges out of the louder attack which has now subsided), and not yet soft enough that we would get the feeling that there was nothing left to tangibly connect into the next note.  The piano will sing when we connect the middle of one note to the middle of next: one rich resonance to another rich resonance.  But how would we do such a thing.

This is where the magician’s technique of sleight of hand comes into play (or is it sleight of ear).   This is a reliable principle: what we hear in the sound the audience will hear.  If we hear resonance connect to resonance so will they.  While legato would seem to require a magical transformation of the sound of a piano note, instead it only requires a combination of memory of the recent past and seeing into the immediate future.

As the career of a note ends, we remember what it sounded like just a moment earlier when the sound was most resonant and had the clear sense of singing on a single pitch that was so hard to find in the attack.

We are jugglers of the tenses of time.  Like a juggler we seem to confound the senses of the audience.  We fuse into the current moment a memory of the sound’s resonance a moment or even an instant earlier, and, the anticipated resonance of the note whose attack we are about to execute.  We revive the past and tell the future: at least in the small, privileged unit of time we call the present…the advancing present.*

Maybe this helps explain why the great piano composers chose to write their most lyrical pieces for the piano.   By overcoming the acoustic odds, our magic leaves in its wake an impression of smoothness and consistency to the flow sound.**

In summary, we rely on the fact that the middle of the note’s duration is usually the sweetest and most melodic.  By ignoring the attacks, as well as the last instants of a sound, we begin to be able to link middle to middle, richest moment of sound to richest moment of sound.**

* Most pianists start out earlier in life by being most aware of the onset of each new note: because this is the moment within the course of the sound when the most sudden and acute muscular action occurs.  What we do physically during the remainder of the sound is usually passive in comparison to the beginning.  But, as we have shown, this moment is also when sound is at its least pleasurable, when it is raucous and disagreeable.   The result is that the pianist, usually unconsciously, switches their awareness, at just this moment, from the realm of hearing to the realm of feeling.  In doing so the pianist tends to conflate one sense with the other: I think I heard it when I actually felt it.

**The audience might not be aware of this process as the piece begins, but the more the pianist continues in the piece to try to connect middle to middle in her or his imagination, the more the sound ingredients are there for the listener to believe that it is happening too.

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“Chorale-ing” – the inner illumination of a passage

Transforming a passage into a chorale for harmonic clarity.

This is an excellent skill for the pianist to develop, though it depends on a well developed sense of harmony and the ability to recognize a chord in the piece even when all its notes are not sounding together.

What does doing this achieve?

Playing becomes more assured and more “informed,” as if you are simultaneously playing a passage and explaining it to the audience, only the “explanation” is not verbal or conceptual.  It lies in the very sound of the notes.

Two basic skills are required:

  1. Identifying what chord is ‘controlling’ the current notes in a piece (see “details” below).  The chord is like a magnet which is surrounded by a magnetic field that causes nearby objects (note) to realign themselves.  We need to determine the ‘domain’ of the chord: how far does it’s control and influence extend over the notes (what notes are under its spell).  Where, in a measure or measures, does that control begin; where does it end.

This skill entails knowing which notes to weed out because they are still under the influence of the chord.  They are not notes that belong to the chord (chord tones), but rather tones of embellishment (passing tones, appoggiaturas, neighbor notes, etc.).

The last part of this first skill is creating a version of the chord that specifically has four notes (sometimes more) and lies in the range of a vocal chorus (within an octave and a half to two octaves of Middle C).

2. Taking the chord just created, and “voice leading”* it to the next such controlling chord (and so on). By repeating this and ‘voice leading’ from one controlling chord to the next, we can turn a passage into something like a Bach Chorale.**

These two skills are most often taught in music theory classes at college, where unfortunately they are approached conceptually, with pencil and paper, but not at a piano.

Details of using this method:

It is a basic tenet in music that there is ordinarily something simpler and more basic that underlies the notes that are sounding.   Sort of a distilled version – a more basic idea or concept of what is going in all the notes.  If you find that more basic idea, you will be able to think of the previous totality of the notes as literally an embellishment on the notes of the more underlying entity.

Underlying all the notes of a melody, even when unaccompanied, are certain chords that go well with the melody – which make sense when sounded with the melody.  In that sense the chords represent a more fundamental aspect of the notes that are sounding one after another.

How does one find these chords? 

If, by no other means, then by randomly playing in the left hand, one chord and then another.  Your tonal intuition will be able to tell you that some chords go well with the melody, others go just OK with the melody, and some just sound silly or awful with the melody.   Eventually your ear will find the chord that goes best with the melody, the one that seems to best elucidate its character.

As you play through the tune, you may find that a left hand chord that worked well with melody up to a certain point in the melody stops working well.  This is the time to find another chord that takes over for the first chord.   Knowing these boundary lines between the sway of one chord and the sway of the next is a very important part of the process we are describing.

You don’t need to know anything about formal harmony to do this.  Simply experiment randomly with chords, and using your aesthetic judgment as to whether a chord is a good or a bad match for the current group of melody notes.

Why chorale-ing is good.

I can best describe it by analogy.

By abstracting the piece into its underlying chorale, your role switches from that of a single member of an orchestra to being its conductor.  No longer are you playing just the notes assigned to your own instrument, and tuning out the notes from the other instruments. You become the conductor who understands the music as a whole so that you are able to guide the various players and form them into a good ensemble.

While playing, by bringing back into your present consciousness the memory of what the chorale sounded like, and fitting the sounds of the individual notes that you are playing into that chorale, all the notes you play will suddenly seem more translucent: every one transmitting its meaning in the whole.

“Chorale-ing” is a good term because of the suggestion of a pun on ‘corral’ (the process by which the cowboy rounds up a dispersed group of individual animals and herds them into a smaller, more defined, more concise, space, where they can be dealt with all at once).

If you would like specific examples of applying these principles to a particular passage from a piece you are playing, let me know and I will provide it for you.  In the meantime, I will try to find out if there is a way of printing music notation into a blog.  If anyone happens to know this, please let me know (I am using WordPress).

* A simple but acceptable definition of voice leading is: a process that makes the change from one chord to another sound as smooth as possible to the ear.

** You can find a model of a chorale in the “chorale” movement” of any of Bach’s 215 Cantatas or Passions.

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Playing in Extreme Speed

Play a passage slowly, then play it in extreme speed, and you will notice that the motions the body makes have changed.  Faced with speed, the body abandons the muscular coordination that worked in the slower tempo. Suddenly, almost instinctively, the body invokes or brings into play other group of muscles that it didn’t previously use.

To discover these alternative motions for speed, it is rarely of use to start practicing the passage slowly and gradually increase speed.  The body gives us little prior indication of what it will do in speed when we are playing more slowly.

Arpeggios:

The origin of an arpeggio, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneous chord and not a sped-up melody.

How to “riffle” through a chord:

Example: to play C E G at extreme speed.  First, play it as a simultaneous chord (C-E-G).  As before, after playing the chord several times, “tilt” things a little so that the chord, in spite of the pianist’s “best intentions,” (sic) comes out slightly skewed: for instance, with the C first sounding just ahead of the E which in turn sounds just ahead of the G.  A slight change of inclination will cause the sounds to come out in the order G E C, or, E C G, or E G C.  Regardless of the order in which the notes sound, the important thing is for the pianist to feel that she is playing a (simultaneous) triad.  If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding chord.

The result of this procedure is an arpeggiation that is at an extreme speed, a speed beyond any one that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially.

Scales:

The origin of a scale, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneously sounding diatonic cluster and not a sped-up group of single notes.

How to riffle through a cluster:

Example: to play C D E F G at extreme speed (using all five fingers).  First play it as a simultaneous cluster (C-D-E-F-G).  After doing this once or twice, try it one more time but this time a little more haphazardly so that the notes come out in a quick sequence.  The intent is still to play the cluster simultaneously, except one “misses” by a fraction of a second, so that the notes in rapid succession.  If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding cluster.

The intent remains to play the notes simultaneously.  Even though the result is sequential the hand retains the feeling of playing the notes simultaneously.  The result of this procedure is a scale in an extreme speed, a speed beyond any that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially. By being this ‘sloppy’ in articulating the cluster, the result is a scale, but one that is so quick that it cannot be matched by moving the separate fingers.

Moral of the story:

Speed is better attained by starting even faster and slowing down than starting slower and speeding up.  There is a speed-barrier which resists being approached from the slower side, but offers little resistance to being approached by the fast side.  One simply jumps over the barrier.

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