A website devoted to teaching/playing/writing for/ the King of Instruments
May. 6, 2021
Sight Reading, Part V
(con't from Part IV) Generally speaking, the more musical talent the student has, the better will be their ear and memorization. This presents a slippery slope for serious students in that over time, without attention given to sight reading practice from the very beginning, the ear and memorization will begin to soar far above their ability to sight read, which can have them looking at a score with information overload (photo). Without some attention paid to learning how to read from the page -- THE basic skill which more than any other sets the wheels of progress in motion -- keyboard students are laboring under a serious misconception and, in time, a crippling handicap. A sophisticated state-of-the-art automobile can have everything else in place. Remove one wheel ... and nothing else works. All organ playing is balance, and, unless intercepted at some point and reversed, neglect of sight reading practice is certain to extract its progressive and insidious toll on the equilibrium needed between the organist's eye and ear. Organ music is so captivating, and the desire among students to learn it is so great, that they're constantly tempted to take on new repertoire that's simply beyond their current ability to work their way through new material with dispatch. Under these conditions getting what's on the page into the fingers and feet can become a real bear. Talented students who have a great ear and can memorize with ease can get to where they're capable of performing a very limited number of pieces from the standard repertoire quite well, perhaps even on the level of a college senior majoring in organ, while their ability to sight read may be scarcely past beginner level. Some very fine players -- admittedly too many -- for a variety of reasons all good and sufficient -- have been situated on this square for many years; the foundations of their playing are well in place, their playing of a few things they've worked inordinately long on for many years is very fine, but they're also acutely aware that learning just one new major work they don't know means a grueling long-term commitment. For them, learning new work is drudgery; they're overworking, measure after laborious measure for months on end, sometimes over a span of years even, just to learn the notes in one piece -- all because they've never trained their brain sufficiently in this skill. It happens to some of the best performers -- but this should not be. Since sight reading ability requires no musical talent whatsoever -- the performer simply sees symbols and pushes keys, just like with typing -- the solution is to go back to basics and retrain the brain starting with simple music. It's always best for students to start sight reading practice with material at or a little below what they can just manage without mistakes, slowly at half concert tempo or less -- perhaps each hand separately at first before putting both hands together -- and gradually take on more complicated material after that. This is certain to seem frustrating for proficient performers to find themselves going back to this zone and may fool them into thinking that they're not getting anywhere with it, day to day, but, they do progress this way, and it's the correct prescription needed for busting up and pulverizing the log jam that's blocking their progress. TIP: touch typing is all about the idea that each finger has its own area on the keyboard; the 8 fingers are assigned to 8 keys called the "home row" and, thanks to that fact, we can type without looking at the keys; regular practice will quickly teach the fingers their location on the keyboard through muscle memory; the same concept can be integrated into sight reading practice; a "home row" of white keys (such as tenor C to B for the left hand and middle C to B for the right hand, for example), can be selected once for all, each hand can be placed in the same "home row" position and kept there, and this can be programmed into muscle memory; we can always start from these same keys and always return to them and make this idea of a "home row" of keys work for us in a similar way. This system as with typing will seem foreign at first and have the student in a different zone for a while, but if students keep using it and relating each note on the page to the home row of white keys they've selected it may succeed in helping them to digest their way through unfamiliar music with much greater speed. No one starts out an Olympic sprint runner; natural development requires us to learn to roll over before we crawl, learn to crawl before we stand, learn to stand before we walk, learn to walk before we run, and learn to run before we get into our first foot race; thus, when first adopting this approach, it's important to remember to do the same -- not to rush, to take our time with it to avoid mistakes, and speed up only when our fingers hit the right keys out of habit; speed will pick up with repetition, being consistent with it, and keeping good habits going. It's also important to remember, as with typing or when reciting prose, that bad reading proceeds one symbol, one word, or one beat at a time; the eyes need to get into the habit of ALWAYS scanning ahead (by a few symbols, a few syllables, a few beats) in advance of present action to get the big picture and take in as much information as they can; this requires us to train ourselves to concentrate and tune out any possible distractions until we get the hang of it, after which it will become automatic -- but if as our eyes are preceding our hands by a couple of beats we find that we're making a lot of mistakes during practice we should take a break and come back to it when we feel more refreshed. A few minutes of this every day or every other day will produce better results than one long session scheduled once every week or two. We learn about a topic in 4 different ways: by 1) reading about it, i.e. using only the eyes, 2) listening to it being described, i.e. using only the ears, 3) discussing it in small groups, i.e. verbal interactions and shared experiences using only the mouth, and 4) by actually doing it, i.e. using the "hands on" approach; in the case of sight reading, besides the 4th way, the learning that comes out of the 3rd way is invariably helpful and productive. Discussion groups will usually tell us that knowing the scales well so that we have a good understanding of key signature, i.e. which sharps and flats there are for any keys, will be very useful, and, if we make a mistake to keep the tempo going and not to overthink it. If we try to sight read pieces at our current repertoire level some of the notes are usually missed due to the complexity of chords or something; on the other hand, some players prefer to sight read at their current repertoire level and very, very slowly to make all the notes rather than be concerned about maintaining timing and a steady tempo. Exam boards usually ask us to sight read excerpt about 3 grades easier than our repertoire, but some players prefer to sight read just to be able to discern whether or not they think they can manage a piece, and, if it's too hard, they lay it aside for the time being. A good starting place is to choose sight reading material a few levels easier than our repertoire level, try to play it accurately at a very slow but steady beat in 2 tries, then move on; the Bach chorales, hymnals, and any piano song books with simplified arrangements are great for sight reading because there are a million of them and one can just keep turning the page. Here's another tip: any time spent looking at scores is going to improve one's reading ability; study the page before playing, look at the time and key signatures, get a mental idea of which notes are sharp and flat, locate any spots where there could be any melodic intervals by leap, tricky rhythms, accidentals, repeats, D.C., D.S. codas, etc., set a slow steady beat in your head, and then go; with practice the mind will learn to do all of this in a minute or less. It also helps to ask one's self: Why is sight reading important to me? ... Is it to pass exams? ... Is is for my own personal reasons? ... Do I want to get better at it or simply maintain the level I'm at right now? ... Finally, how much of my time am I wanting to spend on it as a percentage of my time at the keys? ... Some of it (25%)? ... A good part of it (40%)? ... Most of it (70%)? ... The more we practice the the easier it will become to just play a piece of music we're never played before.