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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.

Ideas:

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.

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/how-to-improve-sight-reading-at-the-piano/

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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.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/piano-lesson-fritz-age-7-performs-his-composed-piece-finding-gold-video/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/piano-students-as-composers-stimulating-a-creative-teaching-environment/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/music-theory-and-piano-study-video-it-doesnt-have-to-be-drudgery/

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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!

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/piano-instruction-singing-a-melody-to-help-shape-it-and-then-translate-into-physical-motion-video/

A father sings at his 4-year old daughter’s piano lesson:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIlAjYCKVaM

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

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How long should a piano student stay with a piece?

As a teacher, I’ve often pondered this question, concluding that there are varying answers which depend on the advancement and motivation of individual students. Certainly no fixed formula addresses the length of time a pupil needs to fully realize his potential when practicing a given composition.

By way of example, I have an adult student, who pursued piano as a child into her teenage years, and had a long hiatus from lessons until mid-life when she resumed studies. I had observed that she was very motivated to learn the Classical repertoire because she had grown up with a strong cultural exposure to music of this genre, and she was willing to develop a strong foundation based on a regimen of scales, arpeggios, and ground up learning of minuets, to sonatinas, to fully developed sonatas. The commitment was strong, and the time allotted for practicing was substantial and consistent.

But these particular circumstances would not be common to every pupil taking lessons.

In this woman’s situation, within three years she had the potential to play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and the Chopin Waltz in A minor, though she realized that she would probably be practicing these pieces in layers from the ground up for a significant time if she desired to reach a level of proficiency that she desired.

That meant being attentive to fingering, phrasing, separate hand practice, dynamics, harmonic analysis, etc. without feeling that she would have to reach certain milestones at a fixed deadline. There were no value judgments attached to learning curves.

Where a student commits to this paradigm of study, the journey is the reward instead of a formulated end game. Whether a student needs six to eight months to develop the skills to play an advanced work, is not the issue, unless he makes it so.

In most cases, a teacher and student can come to a consensus about what variation in repertoire is best recommended to hold the pupil’s interest and keep him enthusiastic about learning.

The Chopin Waltz had been the centerpiece of the adult student’s practicing until it reached a plateau, and was then joined by Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” which benefited from the time, and depth of study applied to the Chopin. The second piece also added a variety of musical styles that enriched and advanced the student’s knowledge of the piano on technical and musical levels. Each piece had its own learning landscape and complemented the other.

In a collaborative student/teacher environment, the “feel” for the right time to move from one piece to another presents naturally without stress or strain. Sometimes adding a composition (popular or otherwise) invigorates the student and gives him an enlarged perspective about his whole learning experience.

Where younger students, with less time to practice, grow tired of even short pieces far too early during their exposure to them, a discussion of goals with parents and pupils is probably needed.

Due to the impatience of youth, many youngsters would like a more espresso passage through many pieces, skimming the surface, and moving on to the next. Sadly, this type of learning can breed discouragement quicker than it takes to discard one piece and replace it with another. Before long, the student has lost interest in taking lessons entirely.

Even if a pupil insists that a particular piece will energize him, at least at the outset, if practicing habits and commitment to working out a piece in a step-wise way are unappealing, then whatever flavor of the week composition is assigned, it will not stand the test of time to develop to a level of proficiency where the student feels happy about the outcome.

Back to the same question about staying with one piece or another, and for how long?

For me as a teacher, I believe that when the student has done his best within his potential and skill level to take the necessary steps that will allow a piece to ripen–to be played smoothly, with an attached level of confidence that gives him satisfaction –then it can be rested, and revisited at a later time.

And this brings up decisions that are made by teachers where it concerns choice of repertoire, and whether a particular piece can be so far from technical reach that it will be a guaranteed journey of frustration.

For many students a combination of pieces that are challenging enough to be practicing motivators, alongside those that can be mastered more readily and used perhaps as sight-reading adventures to develop those particular skills, might offer a balanced musical diet.

Striking this desired balance, presenting the student with compositions that stimulate growth and require a consistent, long-term relationship, beside diversified repertoire that may be more readily assimilated, should keep the student moving along while simultaneously exploring musical depths.

In short, there are no easy answers associated with the amount of time a student spends with a particular piece. The best approach, in my opinion, is mixing things up, and having an open dialog with the student and parents about progress, goals and what’s realistic given the pupil’s schedule. Collaboration, above all, heads off any authoritarian time lines that stratify learning and send students out the door before they have stayed around long enough to appreciate the joy of music-making.

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How to Improve Sight-reading at the Piano

A universal complaint among piano students relates to sight-reading. They find themselves stumbling through the first playing of a brand new piece, not knowing if an end is in sight. The faltering, (wrong note, right note in treble and bass clefs) can keep a “reader” so contained in one measure at a time, if not one note at a time, that a crash and burn feels imminent. Psychologically, the player has boxed himself into an all or nothing retrieval of “right” notes, eye- jumping from the page to his hands and back, often losing his place in the process.

By the last bar of music, the “reader” may be a sum total of jangled nerves combined with a never again attitude. (especially if featured as the life of the party, pressured to play a pop tune that everyone wants to sing around the piano) Imagine the crush of cocktails, shuffling, cigarette smoke swirling around the poor sight-reader–A guarantee of night sweats, hand trembling, and an imminent emergency appointment with a shrink. (Might that, by chance, be the piano teacher?)

To avoid crippling anxiety associated with losing one’s musical virginity with each “new” piece of music, or with any score a teacher, neighbor, friend, colleague (at a cocktail party) places on the rack, I have a few suggestions.

1) Before “reading” the very first note of music, have the presence of mind to scan the composition starting with the very first notation of Key and Meter, found to the extreme left of the beginning line.

Review the content of sharps, flats, or “Key signature.” It’s always beneficial to know the progression of Major and minor keys around the Circle of Fifths, and to have explored all scales and arpeggios in these tonalities. But even without a solid background in this complex universe, knowing the key autograph of a piece or what sharps or flats permeate it, is a good head start. It’s a form of MAPPING that begins before the very first note sounds.

Knowledge of the Time Signature goes hand in hand with Key awareness–It’s an orientation that relates to a piece’s rhythmic framing.

With these two bits of rudimentary information consciously stored, the sight-reader can move forward with less trepidation, but still needing more assists.

Oh, and while visually perusing the music, the sight-reader should review it for sections that REPEAT themselves. That’s always a relaxant before giving it a roll.

2) Approach the “new” score with an attitude that you can enjoy the “spontaneous” adventure, without ever having rehearsed a herd of notes in a laborious practice session, congested with fingering, counting, and coordinating challenges. You should “let yourself go” to the moment, without making strict self demands to be perfectly accurate. Even if you’re crowded in by party goers, the background noise will probably drown out your clunkers, and the most important ingredient of your “read” will be to move along, and keep the festivities rolling.

Okay, so you’re not at a party with “noise” cover, and you find yourself in the light of day, “reading” the piano part in a chamber ensemble, or accompanying a singer who threw a score at you without notice. Back in the hot seat?

Same advice applies in these situations. Enjoy the ride, and hedge your bets for a positive journey by adding the following to your sight-reading skills arsenal.

3) Take big gulps of music. (in slow motion, if possible) Don’t play note by note, or even measure to measure. Ingest two measures at a time, by being simultaneously in the here and now and in the future. Of necessity this means you can’t look down at your fingers and up at the music as the piece moves along. Train yourself to focus exclusively on the printed page, “feeling” your way through the score with the guidance of notes mapped out on the staff for your visual disposal. In this regard, an understanding of SKIPS and STEPS, up and down, helps. If you can translate the motion of intervals between notes on the page into your fingers, you’re ahead of the game. Internalizing their sound helps. (More about this in the paragraph on EAR TRAINING)

Repeated notes are always a blessing amidst those accursed leaps of hemi-demi-semis (really scary fast notes) Take a deep breath with these, and ride the waves, gathering as many little devils as you can, keeping a steady, underlying beat.

A side bar: EAR TRAINING is of great assistance to sight readers. Take the time apart from your impromptu reading adventure, to play MELODIC 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. and listen carefully to them. For 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths, you can learn about their MAJOR and minor forms. Again, condition your ears to the content, sound and color of these intervals. These same distances can also be sampled vertically with a harmonic dimension, acclimatizing your ears to their sound, color and MAJOR/minor quality.

I recommend Solfeggio study that goes hand in glove with ear training. (Use Do re mi fa sol la ti do as syllables of a scale) Being able to sight-sing (to yourself) what is on the treble staff, if not almost simultaneously in the bass, helps with internalizing the shape of the melody and other musical lines. I use a movable DO, so as keys shift or change within the music, there’s a newly defined tonal center.

In an ideal world, a sight-reader should be armed with knowledge of theory encompassing chords, intervals, etc. and their relationships, (functional harmony) If he has studied piano in-depth, going around the Circle of Fifths playing scales, arpeggios, chords, and cadences, he would have had HANDS on EXPERIENCE with tonal geographies that would further enrich his reading experience, but the vast majority of sight-readers will not have had this deep exposure to music.

4) Without the benefit of substantial ear training and theory grounding experiences, you, the humble sight-reader can still move along with grace and dignity. If your particular weakness is bass clef note recognition, focus more on the lower staff as you “read” with a simultaneous gulp of the treble clef notes above. I like to flesh out the bass as a remedial step in my general practicing, but as a sight-reader, I might do the same, if I know this will hold the piece together without sacrificing a rich bass musical dimension.

5) Observe FINGERING as best you can. If the editor did a good job, it will help your “read” along. If not, any scale patterns or open five-finger positions on the printed page should lead you in sensible directions. (Better if you have had generous exposure to playing scales and arpeggios along the way in your studies–your fingers might flow more effortlessly and in the right directions)

6) Be attentive to phrase markings. These notations should help music flow in larger groups and not as compartmentalized note-to-note progressions. Throw in observance of dynamics, and you’re on the way to a nice listening experience for yourself and those in close proximity.

7) For the more advanced player and sight-reader, be aware of “voicing,” counterpoint and harmonic rhythm. Draw on fingering from scales, arpeggios, and chordal exposures. Be attuned to parallel and contrary motion of notes and attentive to overall form: A B A (ternary), Rondo, etc. Spot melodic and harmonic sequences going up or down. Scanning the piece prior to the sight-read with attention to all these elements, should go a long way in making it a continuous, satisfying flow from beginning to end.

FINAL TIPS FOR ALL SIGHT READERS:

Make daily sight-reading experiences for yourself. It takes PRACTICE to improve your skills. If you have the time and inclination, broaden your horizons with ear training and sight-singing activities, scale playing, and theory study. A firmer bed of knowledge in these areas should assist your whole musical growth process.

RECOMMENDED MUSIC BOOKS:
Enjoy your Sight-Reading by Paul Harris (Faber edition)
(in various levels)

John Kember – Piano Sight-Reading – Volume 1

A Fresh Approach
Series: Schott
Publisher: Schott
Composer: John Kember

An approach based on self-learning and the recognition of rhythmic and melodic patterns.

RELATED: Why Play Scales?
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/why-play-scales/