Tag: Sight Reading
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.
The Ear is the Best Detective
Sometimes the fluency of a group of notes may seem somehow off to us, but we cannot detect just which note is the cause, so we just try to practice the entire group again and, if necessary, yet again.
A well trained ear, however, divorced from the kinesthetic sensations of moving the fingers, may be able to pinpoint exactly the location of the difficulty: for example that the second note of a rapid group of four notes is not timed correctly (starts late or has a different duration than the first)) ; or that the third note of such a group is not connected to the fourth note as the second was to the third. It is the ear that can detect such slight discrepancies, and can do so more directly than any through kinesthetic awareness of a change in the muscular sensations we experience executing the notes. In fact, often our muscle awareness tells us that things are perfectly even when a deviation from evenness is apparent to the ear (just as sometimes our left hand physically feels as if it is playing just as fast as the right hand has just played, but in fact is playing slower).
Notes that occur at various time intervals from emphasized notes sometimes are hard to pay attention to, because our attention, having been roused by the emphasized note (like a down beat, or any important beat of a measure) may now go into eclipse briefly on the way to the next rhythmically important note*. Our awareness dims or shuts off for a split second.
If the ear cannot be specific in identifying between which two notes the sound linkage is failing, or sounds different than the other connections, then a slightly more statistical process can be applied. If there is a six note group, for example, one can practice the connection from the first to second note, doing this once, or few, or may times. Then similarly for the connection between the second and third note, and so, through the connection between the sixth note and the next first note. This is a more democratic procedure, each connection is brought under the microscope. In reference to what we said about the emphasis a note gets and its position in the rhythmic group, this puts, first one and then another of the six notes, in the position of being a “first” note or emphasized note for the nonce. For just the shift of emphasis onto a note not usually emphasized in a group, makes it easier for us to detect any minor problem in how we are playing that note and connecting it to the next note.
* In the case of a six note group for example, the most obvious note connections are made between 1 and 2, and 4 and 5. the connection between 2 and 3 is harder to keep track of, as well as 5 to 6. Perhaps the easiest ones to slip our attention is 3 to 4 and 6 to 1 because our attention may already bet set on 4 when we are still dealing with 3, or if our attention is already set on 1 while we are still dealing with 6.
Advice for Teachers of Beginners – Reading the Notes
There is no a priori reason why a student who plays the piano with facility should have a parallel ease in reading their notes.
I once tutored a high school junior in trigonometry. At first the process resembled peeling an onion. For each math skill that depended on her knowing a previous and more basic skill, examination showed that she was not comfortable with that simpler ability either. When we finished stripping back these layers one by one, we ended up with her being, figuratively speaking, back in the second grade, and being confused by the multiplication table. Thus, that is where we began: with the multiplication table. When she mastered that we went out one layer of the onion, and so on patiently until successfully building things back to trigonometry.
Occasionally I will get a teen-aged piano student who excels technically, rhythmically and musically, but is crippled at sight reading. Usually the student is bright, musical and has a good year. They managed to keep their teachers in the dark about not being careful about note reading. They had devised many ‘short cuts’ for knowing what note to play – many of which were far more complicated than if they had learned at an early stage to read.
Taking my cue from the experience I had with the girl learning trigonometry, I went on a search for the more specific, more basic “component” abilities on which sight reading depends. I was surprised by what some of the missing pieces were:
These are some of the questions I have learned to put to the student:
#1, Do you see that the horizontal lines across the page come in separated groups?
#2 Is there a constant number of lines within each group? Can you point out the middle of the five lines?
#3 Are there spaces between neighboring lines?
#4 Is there a way to number the lines and the spaces?
#5 Should the lines have one set of numbers and the spaces another set of numbers?
#6 Would you say that line number ‘one’ is the top one of the five lines or the one at the bottom?
#7 Would you number them differently in bass clef than treble clef*.
Each time I encountered a student who had transferred to me recently from another teacher, I got more practice ferreting out more of these (to us) obvious descriptors of what the eye sees on the page.
#1 Describe in words the difference in appearance of middle C notated in treble clef and notated in bass clef.
#2 How does one position a note on a staff?
#3 How much does the note need to move up or down for it to change its name?
#4 What does it mean for a note to be “on” a line (sitting on a line or having the line run through its middle). What does it mean for a note to be “in” a space. (does the student look at a note that I call being “in a space” and see it instead as “resting on a line?
#5 After reviewing the recycling of the white keys at the octave, then ask: if each line or space represented a “musical” letter, or how many letters are there?
#6 Can you recite these letters both forwards and backwards?
So many components to a “single” understanding of the notation system! If any one is missing or simply unclear, how much of the entire nexus of perceptual abilities remain confusing or unclear. We depend so much on our students and the tradition that what the student is trying to learn is a coherent system of related concepts and perceptions. When the student turns out to be having difficulty reading their notes, it is so easy to blame the student and trust in the a priori sensibleness of the notation system.
-+- (to start here again with the student if necessary) See below. -+-
Can the student ‘sort’ through the three following ‘pairs’ of values, so as to match one of each pair with one from the other two pairs?
#1 the left-right space of the keyboard.
#2 the up-down space of the staff,
#3 the alphabet going forwards or backwards?
If you go “up” from a C on the keyboard do you travel left or right from the C? Is the letter I get to thereby a B or a D? If the student’s answer is B, what are the possible reasons for that answer:
#1 the student knows that the direction they are to move on the keyboard has the name “to the right” but was mixed up which is their left hand which is their right hand. So part of their answer would actually be “correct”, while a second part is incorrect.
#2. The student, knowing their left from their right, has wrongly “mapped” ahead in the alphabet onto movement to the left. Again, in part their answer is “correct” but it is based on a different part than applied in case number one.
Take nothing for granted. The teacher may be ‘confused’ about the what is the student’s ‘confusion’. Try to pin down the exact nature of the confusion, then go back to square one with the student, and start over again showing the student how to associate terms together
(see above: “start here again with the student if necessary”
I did not know my left from my right until I was 11 or 12 years old. I still have trouble with it. Every time I try to describe, in one of these blogs, anything involving relationships in space, I have to check and recheck that I am describing it correctly.
If it is difficult for the student say the alphabet backwards, let alone map it onto a staff or the keyboard, start with small and easily reversible ‘chunks’ to say out loud, such as:
ABCBA then CBA
CDEDC then EDC
EFGFE then GFE
FGAGF then AGF
Here is a miscellaneous kaleidoscope of activities for students with sight reading issues, each one helping to reinforce the others, and thus best done in concert with the others:
#1 The student says out loud the name of the note they are currently playing, without having to double check the name by looking down at the keyboard and seeing where their finger is.
#2 The student describes the position on the staff of the note they are about to play.
#3 The student says things out loud like: “That’s a ‘B’ because it is on the middle line of treble clef”; “this is a Middle C because it is one line above bass clef”; etc..
#4 Make sure the student has the vocabulary to describe both what is similar and what is different about two notes that have the same letter and staff position but which have different rhythmic values.
#5 Have the student say whether the next note to be played lies “up” from the previous note, “down” from the previous note, or is the same pitch twice in a row.
#6 Have the student give the letter name for one note from a piece they are about to learn, and then ask them to go through the remainder of the score and identify all other instances of the same pitch.
#7 The teacher points to a random note in the score and asks the student to play it. This, at first, is somewhat effective in preventing the student from thinking “up” or “down” from the previous note in the score, though eventually the student will simply retain an afterimage of the previous note to which to compare the current note.
#8 Use the “Joe Bloom note reading program for PC computers”. I am happy to send you a copy. Sorry, it doesn’t work on an Apple. I am also happy to send some strategies on how to make the most effective use of it.
#9 Use the “Wright Way Note Finder”. Though I don’t think it is marketed any more, you can find them on Amazon and Ebay. Young students like turning the knob and causing the (single) note to move up and down against the background lines and spaces of treble and bass clef. This is useful to make precise the vertical positioning of a note that is in a space, or on a line; or to determine the exact point, when gradually turning the know, that the note changes its letter identity.
The student can randomly change the note and have the teacher either play or same the name of the note (or both). Doing this gives the student instant feedback to satisfy their curiosity about what changing the pitch of the note means and how it maps onto the keyboard. Plus it gives the student a sense of power and control over the teacher – always a good thing.
#10 Jumping to conclusions
Students are always looking for ‘patterns’ that will make things easier for them and cut down on the amount of mental effort that goes into figuring out the identity of first one and then another in a stream of notes. For instance, in a measure of 4/4 times there are four quarter notes. The first three are moving up the staff step-wise. The fourth note has the same pitch as the third. The student is inclined to think that the “solution” to the problem is to find the unifying concept or pattern that applies to all the notes, and assumes the fourth note is a step higher than the third. Another example would be in a piece that repeats a four bar phrase identically except for one note alteration.
#11 One of two ways to use note-flash-cards. Put two or more cards in a line from left to right, all in the same clef, each one being a position higher than the one to its left. Tell the student to watch closely because the teacher is going to rearrange the order of the cards, after which it is the student’s job to return them to their original order. Start by switching the leftmost and rightmost cards, and do it with exaggerated physical gestures. At this point the student may garner all the necessary information simply by watching the physical movements of the teacher. Then start mutually exchanging the positions of two cards, starting with cards that are adjacent, and eventually any two randomly chosen cards. By the time you have finished this phase of the process the student most likely will have developed an intuitive understanding of the criteria for ordering the cards. Then, one can do more complicated shuffling of positions: among 3 cards, 4 etc.. It is not necessary to keep track of what criteria the student is using to restore the original order among the cards; it is sufficient that the rearrangements get, gradually, more and more complex, and entail more and more cards.
#12 Another and more elaborate and robust way to use flash-cards. Allthe cards are spread out in an random arrangement on a flat surface. The student is asked to pick two at random. Inform the student of the identity of each. Then hide them momentarily, randomize their order, then show them one at a time and ask the student to name the note.
Then begins a process by which, one at a time, new cards are added to the ‘deck’. With the addition of each new card, the ‘deck’ is shuffled and the cards shown to the student one at a time for identification.
Before adding the next new card to the deck, the cards that are currently in the deck should be reshuffled a number of times (more times when the there are more cards). With each shuffle the same cards appear but in a different order. This prevents the student from memorizing the order of the cards. When enough shuffles have occurred, the student chooses the next card to add to the deck.
By letting the student shuffle the deck each time before going through the cards again, and by letting the student choose the next card to add to the deck, the student is ‘controlling’ what notes they are learning.
Each time the student chooses a new card for the deck, the teacher tells them what the new note is.
As the student becomes more proficient at this ‘game’, the teacher can control how long the student can look at the next card in the deck before giving an answer. For instance, if the student takes longer than a second to identify the note, the teacher can provide the answer for the student, without implying that anything negative is happening. This is a way of steering the student away from “figuring it out”, instead of instantly recognizing the note from its clef and staff position.
Please let me know if you want me to post more teaching ideas for beginners learning their notes.
* If the student has learned their notes starting with middle C and radiating out in both directions, it is not uncommon for the student to call the bottom line of treble clef “line number one”, and the top line of bass clef, again, as “line number one”.
An Addendum to Sight-Reading Blogs
Links to previous blogs on sight reading are at the end of this post.
Today, we devoted Irving’s entire lesson to sight reading. During the lesson we noticed that these things were recurrent themes.
Trust your ear to judge if there is you have played a wrong note, but that sometimes though a note sounds wrong to the ear it is still correct because you are playing the piece in a slower tempo.
Remind yourself of the key signature in each new measure that you read. If you have an excellent visual imagination, just place the key signature after each new bar line.
Keep track of accidentals that have arisen in the current measure and remember to honor them throughout the rest of the measure* (be on the lookout for a natural sign as one of the accidentals in a measure).
Make sure all the notes your fingers are pushing down are actually sounding.
Try to think ahead.
Try to make the bar lines “transparent”. See if you can use any of the time playing the current measure to read ahead and figure out some or all of the next measure.
Sometimes try to sight read in “real time”, I.E. with no pauses or hesitations. Keep up with the beats, even if it means skipping over notes or even measures.
* even though the accidental sign only shows up the first time it applies in the measure and not the remaining times that it may apply.
Links to previous posts about sight reading:
#1 Habits that produce good sight reading: https://joebloom.com/habits-that-induce-good-sight-reading-skills/
#2 New rule for Irving regarding Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/a-new-rule-for-irving-about-sight-reading/
#3 Rhythm & rhythmic coordination in Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/rhythmic-coordination-between-the- hands-in-sight-reading/