Tag: Sight Reading

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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The printed score and its limitations

A lesson with Irving on the Chopin: F Minor Nocturne

He is an intermediate level student, and has not had enough years of experience in reading scores to not be thrown off by ambiguities in the music notation.   In particular the rhythmic counter-intuitiveness of even an unusually fine edition like “Henle.”  Here are some of the issues we encountered.

Issue 1:

Sometimes it is difficult to tell that a series of eighth notes in the right hand line up simultaneously with a series of eighth notes in the left hand.  This is simply because of the optical illusion produced when the stems of the notes in one hand go up and the stems of the notes in the other hand go down.  We tend to be less aware that the note centers are vertically aligned and more aware of the left-right offset of the stems.

Issue 2:

The printed symbol for a whole note often takes up more horizontal space than that of a shorter note, for example a half note.  If there is a whole note and a half note in the same chord played by the same hand, before we can interpret the rhythmic relation between the two notes, we have to first ‘translate’ the feeling of horizontal imbalance on the page into a more mathematical sense of the ratio of the durations of the notes.

Issue 3:

In the edition of the Nocturne we are using, the first measure of the cadenza-like, cascading downward run in sixteenths, begins after a quarter note.  The publisher has left very little horizontal space between the quarter note and the first of the sixteenth notes.  The intuitive impression is that the sixteenth notes start sooner than they actually do.  As a result we may find it harder than usual to  play the simple rhythm of a quarter followed by four sixteenths.

Issue 4:

The width of two measures containing the exactly the same number of notes and in the same rhythm, vary because of the extra horizontal room taken by accidental signs, especially the double flat sign.

Issue 5:

Near the end of the piece there is a wonderfully chromatic and somewhat dissonant pair of voices converging in the right hand. The printed notes are already counter-intuitive because of a sort of staggered chromaticism between the two voices.  This makes the notes even more difficult to read because the edition compresses the width of that particular measure to save room.  The notes seem harder to read, not as much because of the composer’s unique choices of pitch, but because they are jammed together left and right.

One can adduce many more such examples.

In general, a publisher assumes that the exact rhythm of a passage can be gleaned from, or sometimes in spite of, the horizontal spacing of the notes on the page.  That it is up to the pianist to “translate” the spatial information into a durational awareness of what the rhythm is.  Only sometimes does the rhythm on the page “look like” what it “sounds like” through time.

We forget this because of years of unconsciously making this translation, but for the less experienced pianist it helps to point out the when the appearance of the notes on the page make the rhythm even more ambiguous than usual to discern.

In Irving’s case we discovered just how strongly his subconscious brain rebelled against all of the above types of visual incongruities on the page.  And since this was occurring on a subconscious level, he did not stop to make himself aware of the cause of his discomfort.  He assumed that he somehow was doing something badly, or was having more trouble than other pianists learning the piece.  But once he became conscious of these ambiguities, he was able to stop blaming himself for the results of those ambiguities.  Irving could feel himself in the privileged position of a critic who is looking down upon the spatial appearance of the rhythms, but who out of kindness will correc in his mind the incongruities so that the rhythm sounds as the composer intended.

Singers have a particular issue with one aspect of the printed display of rhythms.  It results from which notes are beamed together with others notes as against a note having its own self-standing flag.  The publisher is more interested in showing where the last note of one syllable changes to the first note of the next syllable and does so by not beaming together those two notes.  They have prioritized syllabification over a clear portrayal of rhythm.  The result of seeing all the resulting isolated stems is to confuse the eye so that we cannot divine even simplest of rhythms, as when a quarter note divided into four sixteenth notes.

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Rhythmic coordination between the hands in sight reading

At a recent lesson, Irving* tried to sight read from “For Children” by Bartok, and experienced difficulty keeping the two hands coordinated rhythmically.

Isolating rhythm from pitch:

We tried to isolate rhythm from pitch so he could focus more entirely on the former.  This is similar to what happens in mathematics when all but one of the variables are held constant, while focus is concentrated on the remaining one which is still free to vary.

This is the particular procedure we used at his lesson:

We closed the fall board so it could act like a drum surface.  Then we tapped out the right hand rhythm with the right hand, then the left hand rhythm with the left hand, and then the two together.  This separated the rhythm from the pitches.  This step had the extra benefit of making him aware of how much of his reading difficulties were rhythmic in nature, both in one hand, and regarding rhythmic coordination between the hands.

Then, with the fall board open, he played the actual left hand.  Then he did that again but added his right hand, focusing on rhythm by playing only one constant pitch as a universal place holder for all the different written pitches.

We then reversed things.  He played the right hand as written, and played just a single pitch in the bass at the moments the left hand was expected to play.

Doing these things made sight reading the piece easier for him.

*Name has been changed

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A new rule for Irving about sight reading

Irving* plays at an advanced technical level, but has significant difficulty sight reading at an intermediate level.  We practice sight reading at every lesson.

There is a predictable sequence of events when something goes amiss as he is sight reading:

1) He comes to a stop.

2) He gets frustrated and angry (but not angry at anything in particular).

3) He voices his frustration long and loud, expressing an existential angst about what is happening to the flow of the music.

4) As quickly as possible he tries to figure out what went wrong, as if it counted (I.E. made up for things) just how fast he could make the correction.

5) He resumes playing the piece from exactly the same location where he left off.

This is not a very fruitful pattern of behavior for him, in fact it seems to me to guarantee the likelihood of making more mistakes.

A week ago, at his previous lesson, we agreed that for step 3 (voicing his frustration in a long string of words), he could substitute just a single word, “Darn.”  I suggested that he say the word with an affected, theatrical accent.  No matter what the problem – rhythm, hand coordination, notes, etc., the response had to be always the same and always said with the same accent.

At today’s lesson I wanted to go further and try to modify the entire cycle.  I thought the best way to do this was in “real time” – i.e. as each step was happening.

To create the right circumstances to make this modification, I suggested that instead of reading a solo work we sight read four-hand works together.

With much good humor and mutual supportiveness, we agreed to a new rule which would (except for making a mistake in the first place) would replace all five steps:

It’s fine to make mistakes, but don’t allow yourself to pause. Keep the flow of the piece going in your head and try to re-synchronize with your four-hand partner.

This means having to deny yourself the negative pleasure of an emotional reaction to making the mistake.  The latter takes too much time and makes it more difficult to jump ahead and try to re-synchronize with his partner.

Whether you stop because of a rhythm issue, a pitch issue, or just simply that the spot is too difficult to sight read, part of you has to keep advancing in the time of the piece.  No matter how many beats, or measures, or even lines, pass by with only the other person continuing to play, try, and if necessary try again, to re-synchronize.

I stressed that the ability to do this is separate from, and has no relation to either whether the mistake happens or whether he tries to make a correction if there is a mistake.

At first it was very hard for him to follow this rule.  But gradually he got better at it.  A new habit was being born.  He began to use his ear and his musical intuition to locate a place in the score that meant to sound together with what I might be playing at that moment.

The reason we had to agree beforehand to this rule, was that if a teacher ignored him and kept playing on when he had to stop, it would characterize the teacher has being mean, intolerant, and unbending, and other not nice things.

Thus we have taken the first steps to incorporating into the definition of sight reading: never stopping the pulse.  And if playing with another, don’t expect the other person to be a nice guy and adapt to him.**  Rather, mimic the more professional situation where sight reading with others depends on continuing on ahead regardless of what happens, and depending on the ability to re-synchronize.

*Irving, by the way, is my default pseudonym for any of my students, male or female. 

** Adapting to the other person is something so easy for me to do by default because of my professional experience over decades as an accompanist. 

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