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Sight-reading is an appetizer to main course detailed practicing

I’ve often met very skilled sight-readers who were not necessarily adept at playing their assigned pieces smoothly with good fingering and well shaped phrases. It’s because they viewed the first “read through” as a primary goal. They had gotten so used to a superficial overview of a piece, that to go to the next step, buckling down to practicing each hand alone, counting carefully and observing phrasing with dynamics, required a load of patience.

From my perspective as a teacher, the biggest treat that comes out of mindful practicing in detail, is the joy of playing a piece with confidence and complete musical surrender.

The question is how to motivate students to go the distance from the starting line “read” to the finish line, deep layer absorption of a selected piece.


A teacher might play through a composition showing a student how she parceled out voices along the way. Singing a sample line while having a student READ another voice in slow tempo can spark interest in a more detailed approach. Or turning the selection into a slow motion duet, with individual lines shared between pupil and teacher is another strategy.

If you take a more advanced composition like the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor where the opening bass line ascends in 4ths from A to D to E to A, such a readily digestible path of notes could launch interest in a layered learning process from the ground up:

While the student played the opening measures of fundamental bass notes without after beat chords, the teacher could play the melody above framed by her counting. This “reading” would provide the sense of wholeness instead of fragmentation.

Hopefully, during the week, the student would follow through with separate bass line practice, imagining the beautiful melody above. In the course of time, the pupil might take the lead, playing the soprano line at the top, while the teacher traced the bass line. The after beat chords occurring on beats 2 and 3, could be separated out as NEIGHBORS, with their close alliance to each other. A student could play these slowly as the teacher provided the missing FIRST impulse of each measure.

The collaboration of part parceling would provide a modeling process that could build on itself.

Very young students love duet playing, and a teacher can capitalize on this engagement by doing the same kind of sharing that she applied to more advanced music.

For Primer pieces there is often a duet (secondo) part for the teacher. While a beginning student practices the melody, usually divided between the hands, a feast par duo awaits him, as rich harmonies expand his musical universe.

Along the learning path, a teacher can help a pupil understand the outline of a melody by fleshing out note repetition, echo phrases, and skip or step-wise movement.

Playing a Baroque of Classical era Minuet, affords the perfect opportunity to divide parts or voices between student and teacher, then flip them around for variety. Many beginning adult students also enjoy being able to trace one voice while the teacher “fills” out the texture, adding one or more parts.

Students who have the patience to learn their music in stage layers, generally end up playing compositions with more ease and agility than those who are eternal sight-readers.

It’s no big surprise. A patient approach underscores the whole music-learning process and applies to so many diverse areas of study.

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Sight-reading through two pieces: Putting myself in the hot seat! (Videos)

I vowed at some point to do a hands-on follow up to my sight-reading post, and tonight was my chosen time to brave the virgin territory of two compositions from “Anna Magdalena’s Notebook,” edited by Keith Snell. I randomly picked “Polonaise in G minor” BWV 119 (Anonymous) and another of the same form, BWV125 by C.P.E. Bach, that were by no means Evel Knievel leaps into finger-burning bravura landscapes. Nevertheless, they were still modest Baroque period excursions with unique technical and musical challenges.

Here’s the footage, unedited. I suggested that a visual scan of the score was a great helper before I laid my fingers on the keyboard–a necessary form of mapping the terrain. I noted the key signature and meter; I sight-sang a bit, which I’m always doing in one form or another when traversing a piece I know or don’t know. I scanned the fingering which was fortunately in abundance, where more often than not, it would be scant or in light gray tone. In those instances, the reader might need a magnifying glass or a pair of binoculars to make it to the final cadence.

The intervals on the page jumped out as singable and I could see melodic sequences in this process. Same held for pre-absorption of harmonic relationships/modulations just by LOOKING. For those with more extensive theory backgrounds, this type of screening would be a helpful jump-start to a decent read.

Okay, enough with what I did BEFORE I took the plunge into reading unfamiliar music. Let’s see what happened. In the first video, all you see is my hands, but trust me, I did not allow my eyes to depart from their focus on the score. If nothing else, this singular attentiveness, without head bobbing, or key-to-score shuffling back and forth, helped me get through both pieces without falling apart. I think the goal should be to keep the music going from beginning to end without stopping for this or that, and even if a hand drops out here and there, the sight-reader should still aim for continuity to conclusion. (one hand taking up the cause of the other missing in action)

Above all MEASURE GULPING is a major advantage when sight-reading. Looking ahead while simultaneously being in the present, if you can manage it, will boost your skills.
The being in the present part prevents you from having an overload of anticipatory anxiety and it GROUNDS you through the course. Basically, you have to be in two places at the same time without a worry in the world.



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The Ideal Piano Lesson as the main course

If I could devise a recipe for an ideal piano lesson, it would contain the following ingredients:

A 15-minute warm-up including a scale (one or two plus octaves in parallel and contrary motion) played legato and staccato–adding 3rds, 10ths, and 6ths depending on student level, with an additional assortment of arpeggios.

For a Beginner, practicing five-finger positions would be the routine: exploring Major and parallel minor keys with fingers moving in the same and opposite directions in Legato to staccato, Forte/piano. Such warm-up appetizers, nicely paced, would lead to the main course:

Repertoire learned in layers with separate hands, would keep a well-studied composition percolating. A student who’d thought he had thoroughly ingested a composition after weeks and months of study, might find it slipping away or going stale. Taking it apart as often as needed would restore its freshness.

Compositions of contrasting style periods, or pieces of diverse character, one lively and the other, somber, would tweak the ear buds. A memorized piece placed beside a newly learned one–and a composition on the back burner requiring more than a spot check would fill out a generous musical serving.

Sight-reading would be next on the menu–Choosing one or two short compositions from the current level, and another, a notch above would stimulate musical taste buds. (Include sight-singing as a sight-reading helper, with Solfeggio as the central ingredient: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.)

For the finale, the Theory portion of the lesson, (usually the tiniest serving) should not be a menu add-on. Instead, on a perfect lesson tray, the student should have composed a short melody that fulfilled the prior week’s assignment. Integrated into composing would be Ear Training experiences such as identifying skips and steps, major and minor progressions: listening for the outline of intervals in the melody that suggest a bass line and adding major/minor duality into the mix to widen a student’s aural palette. Theory indirectly spoon fed in this way would eliminate groans and grunts because feasting on creative activity would be a boon to learning.

In a perfect world, the ideal lesson would play out in this way but barely in the space of 45 minutes to an hour. Still, a teacher should plan on a sit-down for two including some of these menu items. It would go a long way to sustain a piano student’s learning appetite over months and years.




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Piano Study and the value of SINGING against a cultural backdrop of vocal inhibition

Singing has always been a basic, if not primitive form of communication between parent and infant. A tender melody often lulls a colicky baby into blissful sleep along with rhythmic rocking motions.

As the tyke eventually babbles and coos high-pitched sounds that prime his vocal cords, mom or dad will respond in the same squeaky voice range, preserving a bond that began at birth.

When toddler-hood arrives, the singing activity might take second place to parents shifting attention to nursing along walking efforts, and just about then, CDs and DVDs with children’s music will be introduced replacing human vocal interactions. Mom or dad’s knee-jerk, technology-based response reflect their inadequacy about pumping out tunes in an imperfectly raw voice. They would rather sing in the privacy of the shower.

In the meantime, big screen tvs are blasting music videos at ear-piercing decibel levels making passive viewing and listening the rule. (The exception of programming GLEE on Cable TV, is a light in an otherwise dark musical wasteland)

At this point the child begins to sense that his parents are reserved about singing, so he/she will gradually absorb the same inhibition. A similar situation plays out at day care centers and pre-schools unless a teacher happens to have special musical gifts. In that case, it will be a year-by-year dice throw whether singing will be sustained and celebrated as part of a school’s program, depending on faculty shuffling and turnover.

Over months and years, the growing child will internalize the notion that singing imperfectly in the native voice, is frowned upon. And when his teachers reinforce this perception by saying, “I have an awful voice, so I won’t even attempt to sing this song,” then the seeds of singing avoidance are inexorably sown.

In this regard, I remember my mother having told me about her heart-wrenching experience over seventy years ago in primary school. Apparently, students were lined up and auditioned for choir class, asked to sing their Do Re Mi’s starting on C, ascending in half steps through two or more registers. Not a few notes into her musical trial, she was resoundingly labeled “tone-deaf” and sent briskly on her way.

How devastating to receive a vocal death sentence, wrongly rendered as it turned out.

In truth, my mother had a remarkable singing voice along with excellent pitch sensitivity. In any case, she shouldn’t have been excluded from singing activities because of the school’s rigid performance standard.


When a child comes for piano lessons at age 7 or so, most of his singing inclinations have been extinguished. In fact, he may already be hooked up to an iPod beside his pocketed cell phone. Ringtones and pre-selected tunes have been pre-siphoned into the auditory environment by parents, or these songs are on the pop list of peers. A rigged up child will often tap rhythmically on a table but not sing one syllable.

If I ask a young beginner to sing a phrase of music with me at the piano, he/she will usually drop out, leaving me to sing a solo. To make matters worse, supportive music programs in his school would have dried up due to budget cuts, making choir, chorus activities basically non-existent. And the home will probably be equipped with a digital piano that has an assortment of bells and whistles to tinker with. (Put on a pair of earphones and the electronic keyboard is SILENCED.)

Gone are the days when the family gathered around the parlor piano to sing “Home Sweet Home” in robust voices.

But why all the fuss about singing when pursuing piano studies?

1) Intrinsic to producing a singing tone at the keyboard, is knowing what one wants to hear before laying hands on the keys. In this preliminary musical engagement the teacher becomes the vocal energizer, preparing the student for a collective vocal journey replete with shapes and contours.

(She need not have a trained voice, to steer the student in sound musical directions)

2) Sculpting phrases springs from the vocal model.

3) Singing at lessons on a regular basis filters down to the student, just as language passes from parent to child. The vocal inhibition lessens in time through repeated exposures.

4) Using Solfeggio or integrating the musical syllables, “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do” into lessons allows easier contouring of musical lines than reciting note letter names. The syllables flow smoothly through phrases and individual lines in a musical mosaic that can be examined by separating soprano, alto and tenor voices when necessary.

5) Solfeggio introduces the inclusion of Sight-singing activities as a regular part of piano instruction. (At the New York City High School of Performing Arts, where I was a student, we were required to have two years of Sight-singing to develop our ear training skills alongside theory and keyboard harmony.)

But Sight-singing doesn’t have to be associated with a performing arts or conservatory related curriculum to be relevant to music study. It’s part of a well-rounded exposure to any instrument whether piano, violin, cello, clarinet, flute, etc.

And while sight-singing may appear to be tied to vocal study alone, or choir participation, it is a vital ingredient of all music instruction that aims to flesh out good phrasing, and accrued progress in note reading.

Finally to the adults, children and teachers who might be inhibited about singing at piano lessons, I suggest that freeing the body and mind go hand in glove with producing beautiful music, enjoyed to the point of ecstasy.

So sing out with spirit as Handel exhorts in his “Alleluia” chorus and let the Trumpets resound right along!


A father sings at his 4-year old daughter’s piano lesson:

She was enrolled in Music Together Classes with Jill for many years. (Fresno, CA)

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Should piano students listen to recorded performances of pieces they are first beginning to learn?

I was thinking of Palmer’s edition of Chopin, an Introduction to His Music, and when I first purchased it years ago there was no inserted CD of recorded selections contained in the album.

With subsequent published editions, a CD popped into an envelope, beckoning a player to sample another pianist’s interpretation of music he had just barely sight-read through.

I am here emphasizing the fledgling who is embarking upon a virgin learning process, finding correct notes, counting out beats, piecing out fingering, etc. with a guiding teacher at the helm.

In this regard, I remember telling Claudia, one of my ten-year old students who was feasting on a new journey into the Romantic period, about to study the Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous, NOT to listen to X pianist’s CD sample of the work, not because it might not have been a sterling interpretation, but because it could, in my opinion, stultify her individual, creative, developmental musical process.

An additional reason for my admonition was that I felt listening so quickly to a piece played at performance tempo by a competent pianist, might make the child feel intimidated by a composition she was just beginning to learn. Polished to a high level of performance, it would separate the student from the baby-step approach I would encourage and implement over weeks and months.

One might say, that jumping too quickly into trying to COPY another pianist’s performance, or benefit from exposure to various nuanced interpretations could prevent the pupil from trusting his/her own musical intuition, with the assistance of the piano teacher.

Now I’m sure that I will be barraged by opposing opinions which will have valid arguments at their foundation.

I, for one, can say, that I like to listen/watch performances on You Tube of compositions I have lived with over time, studied in-depth, struggled with on many levels, and put my autograph on as best I can, because after all, we’re all exposed to performances of our pieces through studies with our piano teachers, and on the Internet when we least expect to encounter them.

But I always hesitate to consult another artist’s performance until I’ve fully absorbed a piece on many intricate levels. At that point I feel open to other pianists’ interpretations and ideas. Let’s say that I feel that I can most benefit from these outside musical influences on You Tube, CD, whatever, after I’ve allowed myself an unassisted deep-sea dive into the composition.

Here are a few counter-arguments to my premise that are valid where it even applies to my particular music-learning journey.

1) I’m having difficulty with a passage because of meter complexity or rhythm, and I’m not near a teacher, or have one at the moment.

Why not find a You Tube of Perahia, Richter, et al, playing the piece, and use as the clarifying reference.

2) If I’m a beginning student, or one of intermediate or advanced level, I can resolve the problem with my teacher at lessons. But If I’m advanced enough to have the issue addressed by way of a sample recording in between lessons, why not use an outside resource.

Most of the time with beginners, however, they need the teacher to help them along with the basics of rhythm, articulation, fingering, etc. so You Tubes performances, CDs, DVDs, whatever will usually not do the job.

Therefore, my premise of not being CONDITIONED to another interpretation at the very BEGINNING of a learning experience still holds, though I open myself to this resonating opposition to my thesis:

Well, then, isn’t the piano TEACHER the biggest outside influence upon the student in the artistic shaping of a composition?

Okay, YES, I would have to admit that, but I would NOT sit down and keep playing the whole composition at a polished level, at every lesson while the student was struggling along. That would be the perfect antidote to the pupil’s engagement with the composition. She would feel discouraged before she began to piece out measures at a time.

If I was an empathetic teacher who wanted to advance a student along the path to fluency, I would put myself in the shoes of the pupil, and take the baby steps, one at a time, with her. Over weeks and months, where individual measures led to mastery of phrases, sections, and finally to an absorption of an entire piece, the teacher and student would have been on the same wave-length.

In addition, where interpretation was concerned, I would expect the teacher to have an understanding of performance practice, so that certain choices made by the student could be considered in the context of a musical historical period and the style of the time. (This opens the door to a long-winded polemic about tempos taken, and various turns of the phrase which will be deferred. Two hot topics in one blog are a NO NO!)

So, yes, the teacher’s spin on the piece would have to factor in and be considered in this discussion.

In this connection, one of my basic reservations with the Suzuki method of teaching piano is that at its core, the approach is based upon COPYING THE TEACHER along with ingesting the contents of a CD loaded into the program. A student must be on playback after the teacher delivers a “live” musical sample, supplemented by a recording that is supposed to saturate the student for days and weeks. That is, if the Suzuki method is applied in its purest form.

One could say that a standardized performance is the rule, with deviations at beginner level being discouraged.

On that score alone I am decisively opinionated but open to feedback from students, teachers, and all music lovers.