Sight-reading: An acquired skill or natural phenomenon?

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markymark
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Sight-reading: An acquired skill or natural phenomenon?

Post by markymark » 21 Oct 2008, 18:32

Sight-reading: An acquired skill or natural phenomenon?

Well which is it? Joseph, Descombes and I have bounced this topic around on and off as a side step to the immediate theme of the threads in which we agreed that sight-reading is a skill that can be taught and developed, but what does everyone else think?

Consider:
How does one develop sight-reading skills if the skill has not been taught?
Have you been taught how to sight-read?
How do you approach sight-reading?
Which skills are involved in effective sight-reading?
Of course, that is providing that it can be taught....?

louttrim
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Post by louttrim » 21 Oct 2008, 22:43

isn't the first time you have a bash at any new piece 'sight reading'??
I'm not sure I've been taught sight reading - or at least, if I have been, then it's been a sort of unconcious proces, part of getting to the nuts and bolts of the piece.

Before I had lessons, I'd look at the score, make mental notes of the loudness (!), and counting, and then just have a go.. my teacher has taught me to look at the notes in more detail, and get a idea in my head as to which fingers are to be used, to take notice of the dynamics etc etc. I'm sure there's a lot more to it, but hey, I've only been having lessons for a few months :oops:

can you recommend a good 'how to sight read' book please, Mark?!

Lx

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Post by Moonlight » 22 Oct 2008, 13:23

louttrim wrote:isn't the first time you have a bash at any new piece 'sight reading'??
Yeah, or is it called learning a piece? whats the difference? I really want some clarification on the word 'sight reading' I asked this in another post 'Easy Classical pieces from beginners' but no one gave me a reply to my question :( .

Is it the abilty to play a piece straight off? or is it just the abilty to browse through the music away from the piano? or is it both??

Well, if it is both then I think yes it definitely can be learned at any age; after all its just another language. The thing is though is it easier to learn then another language? what are other peoples views?

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Post by Moonlight » 22 Oct 2008, 13:43

This is what I do when I learn or sight read a piece:


I first get an overall look of the piece, how hard is it, i.e what notes are used. Are they nice long notes like semibreves or minmins or are they shorter ones? and the dynamics.

I then look at the key signature and the time signature

Then I look for repeating ( repeating patterns) phrases or bars, I also look at the intervals to see what they are, and you can get a very rough idea of what it might sound like.

If there is any finger signs I look at them. If not I try to think what they might be by looking at the pattern of notes to see what kind of scale they form.

Then I attempt to play it :shock: :lol: . It roughly takes me a few hours to learn a grade one piece. I don't spend all my time on it as I do other things like praticing scales so I don't allways learn it quickly, unless I gave it my full attention. I do think my reading has improved, playing harder music has help me become more familar with the notes, and reciting the names of the notes on the music every day.

Does any one else find it harder and slower to learn a piece they find boring?

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Post by Moonlight » 22 Oct 2008, 14:18

dave brum wrote:Yeah, that's why I insist on only playing stuff I like. I tend to chicken out of playing stuff I don't. Which doesn't make me a good sight reader, does it?
I'm forcing myself to play through everything in my John Thomson book. I'm supposed to be learing a tune in it called 'The dancing lesson' but I have got sidetracked as I decided to learn the fist movement of the Moonlight sonata, then a nice tune I got off the internet ( it reminds me of the theme tune to Gremlins! ) and now Bach's prelude in C major! :lol:

I won't play any other tunes in the book until I have done that one, I don't skip the pages! So instead I had a break from the book.

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Post by Moonlight » 22 Oct 2008, 15:00

Yeah, theres a good etude ( study ) in my John Thomson book, and you need to jump octaves to play the same pattern about two octaves lower. Its really fun to play, and really helped me to get my hands off of the 5 finger postition. I like to play it quite fast and I find after doing some Hanon I make a lot less mistakes on faster pieces like that one.

Did you igore the finger signs before? I always try to follow the finger signs but I have recently started I change some of them ( is that ok? ).
I find doing it my own way combined with the finger signs is better. Sometimes the fingering suggestions are to difficult for me so I need to change it.

Another thing I want to know, is it really such a crime to look at your hands while playing ( I see pianists on tv do it all the time ), I mean not all the time but so you know were you are going. Once I learn a piece I don't really need to look down anymore. But I think its a bit hash not to look down at all.

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Post by Moonlight » 22 Oct 2008, 15:38

No I don't stare at the keyboard when playing! :lol: But when I'm learing a piece / section that isn't in the five finger postion I do look down. I think I have more of a confidence issue with not allways trusting myself to play the corect key, so I look down to make sure its the right one! :roll:
dave brum wrote: in 'Liberty Bell' there's a really odd one in the LH, middle C to the G below it is fingered 1-3. 1-4 makes more sense!
Yeah I know what you mean about the finger signs being weird, when I see them like that I tend to play it the 'systematic way' my way. However I noticed when playing the Bach prelude yesterday it also had werid fingerings but really they are not weird as they are tring to prepare you for the next bar so you don't need to move your hand at all.

Also you may notice other 'werid' fingerings when you need to play the same note agian in the same bar. I think this is to help give it a signing sound to it. As playing it with the same finger takes longer to press it again but using another one helps to strike the key before it has had time to come up completetly.

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Post by Moonlight » 22 Oct 2008, 16:10

dave brum wrote: 'spatial awareness' ie just sort of like 'knowing' over which notes your hands are above, which will come with many years of playing.

I've seen some pianists Anna and it's like they've got twelve eyes or something, two in the head and one on each of the finger/thumb tips!!
:lol: wow I can't wait to get twelve eyes! one for every tone! 8) It would be a bit painful though if pianists did actually have eyes on their fingers! :shock:

Yeah that guy on that documentary was playing a Chopin etude ( i think ) and his hands were like a machine! I like to call people who can play like that piston fingers! :lol:

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Post by Moonlight » 22 Oct 2008, 16:27

*sigh*

Yeah, if we keep it up I'm sure we will get there! :wink: I would love to have ago one day at doing a Chopin etude! :shock: :shock: :shock:
( several years later and many Hanons later! ) not a realy hard one though. I don't care too much about playing it brilliantly, I would just like to woo some friends and family, and most importantly myself.

I would so love to play the Butterfly etude of Chopins then go straight into Joplin's Entertainer! they are both really funky tunes! 8)

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Re: Sight-reading: An acquired skill or natural phenomenon?

Post by Descombes » 22 Oct 2008, 17:19

markymark wrote:Sight-reading: An acquired skill or natural phenomenon?

Well which is it? Joseph, Descombes and I have bounced this topic around on and off as a side step to the immediate theme of the threads in which we agreed that sight-reading is a skill that can be taught and developed, but what does everyone else think?

Consider:
How does one develop sight-reading skills if the skill has not been taught?
Have you been taught how to sight-read?
How do you approach sight-reading?
Which skills are involved in effective sight-reading?
Of course, that is providing that it can be taught....?
Mark has given us a lot to think about, so I thought I'd spend the day thinking about one aspect (I have done other things too, but it IS half-term): why can I sight-read, and as far as I can remember, always could, whereas so many of my current crop of pupils find it hard?

I think the answer to learning sight-reading in a natural way lies in wanting to play music for fun. (Most of the posters here qualify, as they make clear in their comments.) However, I'm thinking mainly about young learners (those beginning under the age of about 14).

When I began to play, I wanted to play music I knew. (And I'm talking about what I did IN ADDITION to the stuff my teacher set). We are talking about a different world, but I was at a school where there was hymn-singing every morning (I was in a church choir too) and lots of singing in music lessons, (The New National Songbook, if anyone remembers that.) As a result, I couldn't wait to try playing these hymns, once I got my hands on a hymnbook, and folksongs. Note that both these genres are harmonically straightforward and rhythmically simple. I lapped them up; it was repertoire I knew, so I spotted my mistakes immediately. I also learned a sense of key and, before long, how to adapt a hymn tune to a more idiomatic piano style (ie octaves in the LH and the tenor part incorporated into the RH.) It also gave a good basis for later studies of harmony.

I am convinced that this made my sight-reading skills instinctive. These were also the days of people throwing out piles of music. Often they would come my way: lots of rubbish, but also good SR material, including the hits of an earlier age.

Now...... what happens today? They want to play the current hits. That would be the equivalent of my folktunes and throwaway piles of music, BUT they are faced with complex arrangements with completely confusing syncopations. They give up in despair.

As a result, I find that today's pupils do not explore music in the way that I used to (and most of my contemporaries too.) This means that SR is poor and the SR section of exams has become such a burden. (We used to treat it as a way of getting easy marks.) So the books of Paul Harris and others have to fill the gap. They do it excellently, but not as naturally as the way described above. Does anyone share my view?

So yes, Mark, SR does need to be taught these days. I'll give some thought to your other points.

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Post by markymark » 22 Oct 2008, 18:46

This is something I have encountered to be one of the most precarious topics in piano teaching and learning which is why I brought it up. It is a very useful skill and, for the sake of your piano playing and the enjoyment of it, would say that it is an essential skill.

Have you been taught how to sight-read?
It was not until I reach Grade 5 and changed teacher that I started on the journey to developing sight-reading skills. My first teacher did not teach sight-reading although she herself was a very capable sight-reader. Given the number of adults who can not sight-read music straight off without being given 10 minutes to prepare (and I'm talking about one page of music) if even managing that at all, makes me concerned about the way in which it is being taught to musicians. I personally feel that this lacking skill is a major reason for the insecurity that accompanies so many average piano players.

How do you approach sight-reading?
-Besides the obvious things to do (look at metronome, key signiature, time signature, accidentals, repeats, etc.) I have a few strategies for sight-reading unfamilar music, the main one being the ability to scan music, taking in intervals in music as opposed to trying to read each note I see in the space of one beat across both hands.
-Looking ahead in music also helps speed up sight-reading.
-Keeping an awareness of pulse and tempo.
-Although accuracy in sight-reading is the goal, it is not absolutely essential if a note or two is being missed out - take this advice with some care because I'm not advocating playing some parts well and some parts carelessly because there is a lot to read in a given phrase or section!
-Aim to convey the rhythm and mood of the piece by observing dynamics and markings.
-Developing less reliance on looking at the keys for the position of notes is also important. Upper grades will need to develop a very competent awareness of note placings within larger intervals to cope with the greater pitch ranges in the more sophisticated pieces.

I may add on to this post later, but these are some of my feelings about sight-reading but I do believe that sight-reading, simply by the experience of reading music on a regular basis, allows some musicians to develop what they may perceive to be "natural ability", much like some of us were 'taught' to read - simply by exposure long before synthetic phonics was ever heard of. People who haven't developed this skill CAN learn it in the same way that the latter type of person did - by trying to do it by building up confidence and competence slowly.

You probably do get your prods who just can do it but for the vast majority of musicians, to greater or lesser extent, sight-reading is a learned and acquired skill. As I said, how quickly this is acquired depends on the musician.
Last edited by markymark on 22 Oct 2008, 18:59, edited 1 time in total.

markymark
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Post by markymark » 22 Oct 2008, 18:57

louttrim wrote:can you recommend a good 'how to sight read' book please, Mark?!

Lx
The Paul Harris range is very good. I personally recommend it and the material is such that you don't really need a piano teacher to work through it. Although I am a Trinity Guildhall supporter, the ABRSM sight-reading books are also worth checking out for giving you graded though more importantly, appropriately levelled examples to work through.

As I said, trying to play new material for the first time that stretches your current sight-reading ability by forcing you to read will be of equal value.

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Post by Descombes » 22 Oct 2008, 19:11

Another thing to add about sight-reading: Try to play with other people!

Those who play orchestral instruments soon have (or ought to have) the opportunity to play in ensembles and orchestras. There they learn the perfectly respectable technique of leaving things out if necessary, but, above all, keeping going. Pianists should get together and play duets; there are some extremely easy duet books available. In addition, they should take every opportunity to accompany other players (any instrument) or singers. How many elementary pianists are roped in to accompany the family, playing carols at Christmas these days? It's a superb way to practise sight-reading and if you get lost the singing continues anyway.

I have a hunch that difficulty with sight-reading is more common with pianists than with any other instrumentalists, because of this neglect of playing together.

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Post by markymark » 22 Oct 2008, 19:16

Yes - I know when I take orchestra, the rehearsal success is dependent on the children's ability to sight-read the music fairly well. A teacher can not demonstrate (even if they had the ability to) with each and every instrument among the ensemble. Piano players don't have the same opportunity to play as part of a group but I can not help but wonder if piano sight-reading is more difficult to come to terms with in the early phases at least, due to the fact that there are two lines of music to deal with.

I know this seems rather simplistic, but as I was learning to play piano, I found it harder to sight-read piano than to sight-read my single-lined tuba arrangement!

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Sight reading

Post by yourforte » 26 Oct 2008, 00:59

Some people are naturally good at sight reading but I've found as a teacher that everyone can get better if they really try. A lot of my pupils don't believe me and just give it up as a bad job but those of my pupils who really do take my advice and actually make a point of sight reading something every day do indeed improve noticeably within a week.

I actively discourage pupils from memorising music if I think their sight reading is suffering as a result because I find that those pupils who learn by memorising take much much longer to get going on a piece. Of course I don't want to stop people from memorising if their reading is good but memorising, in my opinion, should never be a substitute for inadequate reading. Ten minutes set aside everyday for sight reading practice works wonders.

Best, Elaine
Regard music as a precious gift. See me at www.yourforte.net. Elaine

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Re: Sight-reading: An acquired skill or natural phenomenon?

Post by Paul Sparham » 25 Mar 2009, 03:20

In the description of my methods I’ll move over some of the preliminaries such as recognition and realisation of key and time and security in static hand positions for more advanced reading. However at all levels of sight-reading I stretch the eye-hand span.

The eye-hand span is the distance between what is being read and what is being played. In order for the music to be fluent it is necessary that the eye keeps well ahead of what is being played. This skill may be acquired by looking at several beats of music for several seconds then closing the eyes and playing it from memory. The length of time spent looking at the music is gradually shortened while the length of the passage is gradually lengthened to a complete phrase. The eye-hand span is thus increased. When this skill is competent I repeat the process but now, while covering the memorised phrase with a bookmark, the student is reading at the next one while still playing the first.

Too much time is taken by pianists in looking down. Sometimes it is necessary. Under these circumstances I recommend moving the eyes only and not the head. Feeling for intervals up to a 5th and then an octave should be acquired early. Scales or arpeggios often necessitate a change of hand position. If these have been properly learned then looking down should be unnecessary. Also largely unnecessary is reliance on written fingering. If basics (such as scales and chord inversions) have been learned with correct fingering then looking at printed fingering is superfluous. For wider spans I teach the topology of the keyboard by feeling for the gaps between the groups of raised black keys.

Understanding the structure of tonal music in diatonic systems is invaluable. (non-diatonic and/or atonal/pan-tonal systems are excluded here because most music played on the piano is still tonal/diatonic).

The underlying harmonic structure of diatonic/tonal music repeats itself over and over again. Once the underlying harmonic rhythm is understood it may be anticipated - especially as harmony is a function of metre and visa-versa. Strong beats, especially the downbeat over the bar line, is usually articulated by a change in harmony. The reading thereafter is one of executing the decoration of the underlying harmonic structure - arpeggiated chords, auxiliary and passing notes etc.

I start off with teaching the recognition of tonic/dominant relationship in simple keys and the especial importance of the leading tone. Ability to play the tonic and dominant chords (including the dominant 7th) in all inversions is important. (Too many students are unsure what fingering to use. If chords and their inversions (as well as scales) have been learned then the fingering response should be automatic.) Even if the actual notes played are not the ones written the important thing is to read the harmony in chunks (chunking) and not look at every note. Improvise if necessary - just keep the harmonic pulse steady.

Later I introduce the sub-dominant. Think how much music uses just the primary chords of the subdominant-tonic-dominant. If these relationships are understood then they may be realised in performance from key to key and from piece to piece with ease. The surface of the music may then be read as textural decoration of the same old harmonic structures. Again, if necessary, I encourage the student to improvise rather than to loose the flow by stumbling over surface detail.

Later still I teach recognition of:
* secondary chords
* cadential and passing 6-4 chords
* chromatic chords and their progressions (augmented sixth forms, Neopolitan sixth etc)
* resolution of discords and voice leading in diminished chords
* understanding of related keys (subdominant - tonic - dominant and their relative minors/majors) and the relevance of key structure to form in music.

Before giving a tonal work to an advanced pupil to play I tell them the key and then ask them questions. For example if the form is binary what key will section A end in? What is the leading tone in that key? Can you play the primary chords in the relative minor in first inversion? Can you play a perfect cadence in the tonic key?

I’m probably not alone amongst experienced pianists and musicians in feeling that when faced with a tonal/diatonic piece I’m playing for the first time at sight that it is not, in fact, a new piece at all - and that I’m only playing the same old re-hashed music over and over again. Anyway, that’s what if feels like to me. Sorry if it all sounds a little dull.

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