My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A dare for college piano departments

Previously on my blog, I wrote a post encouraging teachers to help young pianists take on a broader view of what being a pianist can actually mean in the real world.  I mentioned several other ways one can use their piano skills - as a choral accompanist, collaborator, ballet pianist, musical theater pianist, vocal coach, symphony pianist...I know I'm leaving someone out...As I see it, however, there's a slight problem.  Actually, it's not a small problem - it's a pretty big problem.  In order to be successful in any of these types of jobs, you have to be able to sightread music fluently and just as with any language, learning to sightread music is not as easily done in later years as it is when the brain is more pliable.  Although some teachers of young pianists do spend time with their students working on this skill, I believe many others do not.  I do understand that time is short and that it must be very difficult to fit in so many different skills into such a short amount of time; however, especially for those students who seem like they might continue on to music school someday, I think it is imperative that sightreading be a regular part of the learning process.

So where does my dare come in?  Here goes...I dare college piano departments to start making piano sightreading a part of the entrance examination process.  I think it would be a fantastic idea for several reasons...

  • listening to a student sightread would instantly tell the piano faculty who was naturally musical and who was not, thereby eliminating a lot of grief later on.  It can be so hard to tell how musical some of these kids are when they come in to audition playing pieces that they've been playing and performing for a year or even longer...playing pieces in which their teachers have shaped and colored each and every note...When you hear a pianist sightread you either get a kid that plays without using the pedal, without any correct rhythm, no phrasing, no dynamics, note-by-note, or you get a pianist that uses the pedal in clever ways (to help cover up some iffy parts), plays most of the correct rhythms, has plenty of dynamics, and basically makes you forget that they are sightreading.  In other words, the latter are usually the naturally musical ones.   
  • if most of the major music schools started to include sightreading, you can bet that piano teachers of younger pianists across the country would start to focus a bit more on sightreading rather than just on performing.  In turn, young pianists might get exposed to more duet playing and ensemble playing which would lead to more fun which would lead to more kids turned on to music and on to different career possibilities in the music field.  Sounds good to me!
 So music departments...I dare you!!  No, I double dare you!!


  1. Bravo, thanks for saying this! I, myself, am surprised that this is not a requirement for college auditions. I recently landed a job as a church pianist, choir accompanist and choir director this past fall, and it has been a musical training in itself from all the sight reading required. It will truly make or break you but the work is so worth it if you're dedicated to music!

  2. Hi Erica,

    Terrific idea!

    Several yrs. ago, I was 1 of 5 accompanists hired for a 2-week voice seminar. One of my colleagues was 19, about to be a soph at Juilliard. Piano performance major.

    He was cute. All the women @ the seminar flocked around him in the lobby between classes. He entertained them with stories of waking up early to play Liszt w/o warming up. (I don't know if this was true, personally... ;) )

    WELL, then came his 1st performance. He appeared w/an experienced singer who was probably around age 40. They started w/one of the "24 Italian Songs and Arias," a slow song.

    This guy went SO SLOWLY, the singer ran out of air after the 4th note!

    Reality check: what do performance majors do when they graduate? Play for VOICE LESSONS to pay the RENT??????? It was SO obvious that he had never seen a singer before!

  3. Thank you, Annette, and Gretchen, for your comments. Yes, choir accompanying will certainly give your brain a workout - a good workout and it teaches so many other good skills as well. It also ensures that you're never lonely :-) And Gretchen, your story is funny in a very sad, ironic way. It's that type of situation that gives accompanying a bad rap.

  4. Interestingly, in the UK, not only does sight reading (for any instrument) form a part of all Grade and Diploma Examinations but it is also included in the music conservatory audition process. I'm amazed that in the US the same practice isn't followed.

  5. Couldn't agree more! I was thinking the other day how much more enjoyable my university experience would have been if they'd required sightreading.

    Like Annette, I found myself playing for a churc, which for me was a huge shock as I had to bring my reading skills all the way from non-functional to merely dysfunctional and then mediocre (I'm grateful for their patience!). Looking back, I imagine if I'd been required to have some sightreading skills to pass the audition I'd have had a much easier time learning both the solo repertoire and collaborative pieces and probably wouldn't have felt so overwhelmed and stressed at times.

    In the end I decided that whatever our schooling might miss, being out in the world wouldn't, hahah!

    By the way I just discovered your blog Erica and am enjoying reading my way through your thoughts :)

    1. Rob,
      Thank you for reading and for your comments! There's nothing like making music work in the "real" world to get the real experience necessary to improve some of those skills. I think it's difficult and almost artificial to try and practice sightreading by ourselves so it's perfect when we have an opportunity like playing at a church to work on it. And kudos to you for being willing to do something about which you probably didn't feel really comfortable. That takes guts.

      Happy playing and musicking and I look forward to hearing from you again!