Joe's Blog

Sight Reading: Isolating Variables

November 28, 2018

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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