Joe's Blog

The Challenges of Sight-Singing

November 21, 2018

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   It is a bit like the person who, before they are conscious of feeling any pain, has already withdrawn their hand from a hot object or a fire.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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