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.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A mind abuzz about sightreading

Image from Wikimedia Commons
After spending the past thirteen years declaring quite strongly that I could never teach a class in college, I have recently found myself in quite the interesting little spot.  A local university approached me in the middle of the summer and asked me if I would be willing to join their music department as an adjunct faculty member with the hopes that I could work with their students on a topic I feel so passionately about - practicing and learning music more effectively.  I've sort of shocked myself by being so excited about this new avenue but I do think that's a good thing.

This first semester I have been asked to teach one course that is called "Piano Accompanying" but I should say right off the bat that this isn't the type of piano accompanying class I'm used to.  It is a required course at the 400 level for music education majors but is also open to graduate students, most of them vocal majors who have taken 4 semesters of the required piano proficiency courses.  In other words, these kids probably won't be accompanying any instrumentalists on the Franck violin sonata.  The main purpose of the course is to get the kids ready for when they are teaching in schools, more often than not conducting choirs.  Being able to play from the piano and to read choral scores or to simply accompany kids auditioning for all-state choir is almost mandatory these days with budgets rarely allowing for a person whose sole job is to accompany ensembles and choirs.  So my job will be to help these students get the skills they need.  

Wow.  This will be interesting.  I think it will also provide me with a wonderful place to test out some of my thoughts about teaching piano sightreading and some of the other skills that go hand-in-hand with being a well-equipped musician that's able to work anywhere anytime and with anyone.  

In preparation for teaching (which starts next Tuesday!) I pulled out a paper I wrote back in my Eastman School of Music days when I was assigned to teach the piano sightreading class that the freshmen piano majors were required to take.  I had gone through the class myself and unfortunately by the end I felt that my mind had been played with so much that I could no longer sightread as comfortably as I did when I went into the class.  I tried teaching the class the traditional way for a semester or a year, I can't remember, but was very frustrated with how it was turning out so I signed myself up for some cognitive science classes and some human development and education classes hoping that those would inspire me and give me some knowledge to base some change on.  One of the results of all that work was this paper that I wrote, Redesigning the Piano Sight-reading Class at Eastman.  If you're interested in reading some or all of it, please do click on the title - it will take you to my paper as I wrote it way back then.  Re-typing the paper into my blog was a good way for me to get back into thinking about the whole topic and to remind me of the some of the conclusions that I had gotten to after teaching the class for a while.  

So here's hoping.

I'm also reading Leonhard Deutsch's book, Piano Guided Sight-Reading, which is proving to be an interesting but perhaps controversial read.  It was written back in the 50's but I don't believe I had ever heard about it before.  I'll be going through another reading of the book soon so I anticipate at least one blog post on the subject before long.

If anyone out there has any comments, suggestions, stories, or recommendations of books to read, by all means, please do pass them on here.  I'd appreciate any input.  


  1. First of all, congratulations on your new position, and it's an important one. Having taught in schools where I was both accompanist and and conductor, I was grateful for the piano skills I brought to my job. I have known several choir teachers who don't play piano, and it is a hard go. You can know that you are doing a great service.

    I don't know if you are familiar with 'Keyboard Strategies' from Schirmer, but it is a text that was designed for older beginners. It is very broad in scope and covers theory, scales, chords, transposition, improvisation, and also includes ensemble playing. Here's the link.

    Also, Tammy Goforth has written a great book on playing chord piano that is heavy into theory but presents it from a ground up approach.

    Best of luck in your new position.

    Wishing you a song in your heart,
    Miss Leslie @ Music with Miss

  2. Thank you so very much, Miss Leslie, for your congratulations, encouraging words, and suggestions. I am eager to read whatever is out there so I will check all those recommendations out. I remember hearing about Tammy Goforth's chord system so I'm really eager to look at that.

    I hope all is well with you and all your wonderfully thoughtful musical endeavors.

    All the best,

  3. I agree very much with what you say in your paper about the need to emphasize real, no-stopping-to-fix-things playing, even if that means faking, leaving things out, spraying wrong notes here and there. The emphasis needs to be on making music in the moment, with command of tempo being the one area where cheating isn't allowed.

    I entered college as a pretty average or below-average sightreader and what made all the difference for me was my first job as accompanist for the college choir. This was because the conductor never waited for me to figure things out. It was sink or swim, and I found myself developing better and better instincts as time went on, and of course that what's it's all about, developing instincts. (If I'm really honest, I think one reason I've become a very fluent reader is because I'm fairly lazy and used to show up to lots of rehearsals less prepared than I probably should have; but I came to love the challenge of staying afloat. I don't know how easily this translates into a pedagogical technique, though. "Your assignment this week: be lazy!")

    As you know, I've often compared sightreading to the experience of playing video games (at least the fairly simple ones I grew up playing) and I think it's a surprisingly close analogy. Both are so often about hand-eye coordination, developed through repetitive responses to rapidly incoming visual information. In each case, the visual information is always changing, but is full of patterns and cues that one learns to rely on. And each depends on split-second timing. Stopping to think doesn't really work well, although thinking about overall strategies can definitely help.

    The trick is to get aspiring readers to think of the challenge as fun, or at least engaging. Of course, reading can be frustrating, especially for perfectionists. But it's odd to think that we so easily think of it as fun to learn to make little lights on a screen behave a certain way, but we resist the idea of taking pleasure in making music spontaneously. At its best, sightreading is like an unbelievably rich, multi-dimensional video game with incredibly complex scoring that would need to take into acount sensitivity to harmonies, melodic shapes, etc. I still get a thrill from navigating a tricky new score successfully.

    We used to have all of our piano proficiency students read 4-part hymns for sightreading, which was a pretty bad idea (not mine!) since 4-part texture is hard to read and not as practical as learning to read melody+accompaniment textures. But I'd always tell students they were better off just practicing 2 voices, or even 1, at a real musical tempo than slaving away trying to get from chord to chord. There's no substitute for developing a rhythm as you read.

    All that said, I can't say I've found any magic formula for turning poor readers into good ones. It certainly requires a lot of time and patience.

  4. Michael,
    So many good insights here, thank you! You know, I'm not so sure it would be such bad pedagogical advice to lean on the "be lazy!" line, especially from the perspective of the teacher. In the sightreading course I took I think the teachers felt that they had to give sightreading assignments even though in the end, they didn't end up serving any purpose aside from busy-work. I think I'm going to try and be very careful about what work I assign out of class, especially at first, since there would be virtually no way for me to make sure they're practicing sightreading in the most effective ways. Anyway, so yes, maybe I will be lazy and not feel strapped into giving assignments for the sake of giving assignments.

    But I am guessing that's not exactly what you meant ;-) And I completely agree that the sink or swim approach is really what works best although I don't want them necessarily to sink...for too long, that is.

    I also love your video game analogy. I really think it would be great if someone could develop a video game for folks to use with sightreading. It could kind of be like those typing games out there where you are supposed to type at a certain speed and keep up with a given text that is scrolling across the page. I used to love those games! Do you know anyone that could pump a game like that out? You're pretty saavy it seems.

    Oh my goodness, hymn reading. Don't get me started with those. I think they are fine for experienced readers but wow, they are just way too thick for the beginning reader. Same with Bach chorales although I admit I have assigned those a lot in the past (reading only 2 lines at a time) simply because, well, I kind of like Bach.

    So we'll may be hearing from me in the near future to seek more ideas/thoughts. I enjoy discussing this stuff with you.

    All the best at the beginning of the school year,

    PS - I am still very tempted to head up your way sometimes to try a Piano Hero/Heroine stint. I think about it often!

  5. Hi Erica...trying again.

    I've encountered sight reading in two areas: my day job and piano.

    Day job. Sight reading in ancient Greek and Latin courses is a staple. I was never much good at it - just couldn't force myself to bull ahead, mangling syntax and meaning. I ultimately did get good at it, after I had those languages down cold (= maybe a decade out of grad school). As a result, I never, ever require sight reading when I teach the languages.

    Piano. Same thing. Couldn't bring myself to mangle the notes. I think my being cursed by perfection :D played right into the "never play a wrong note" syndrome that most piano teachers have. Yes, I did get good at it, once I felt really secure. As in having learned a couple of the Paganini Variations.

    The difference is no one except professional classicists needs sight reading for languages, whereas lots of music people do, as you wrote about so eloquently.

    My thoughts. I suspect you'll get a fair number of people like me., What might work, being self-analytical, is break the "bad wrong note syndrome". Force them out of their comfort zone. But don't just order that. Sneak it up on them. Maybe by improvising, where there's no such thing as a wrong note :D. Or noodling (ditto). Or have one student sight-read just one hand, and the other the other, at one piano.

    People with sight-reading problems won't lick their demons by just keeping doing it...that NEVER worked for me. And you've not got the time, or the mission, to get them to Those Variations :D. That's why I made the recs above.

    Of course, is just based on me. But even if they all seem wacky ideas, they may be the basis of your finding a True Solution.


  6. Robert,
    I knew you'd have something helpful to say. Your comments were very confirming of the path I'm leaning towards, especially the bit about being a bit sneaky and tackling the note-perfectness issue via improvising. I'm also planning on using literature that they are interested in and that directly relates to them, in most cases, vocal lit stuff. I have a feeling they wouldn't be very jazzed about reading strictly piano stuff.

    So we'll see what happens. I'm pretty excited and determined to make the activity of sightreading seem more like entertainment than fear-induced drudgery. Before long they'll be sightreading your Paganini variations, LOL!

    Thank you, as always, for your comments. It's good to hear from you again.

    All the best,

  7. Hi Erica,

    Making sight-reading like entertainment -- a GR8 concept!

    You've got absolutely the best instincts. Trust them!

    On sight-reading and Those Variations. Reminds me of when Grieg went to Liszt with the manuscript of the concerto. Liszt sat down, read it up to tempo, and made a running commentary while he was playing.Grieg later remarked that it was the best performance the concerto had ever received!

    Am making a definite effort to...stop being a stranger....


  8. If I was teaching this course, I would focus 90% of my attention on getting my students to know how to go from beginning to end with perfect rhythm and NOT STOPPING even if they were omitting notes, playing wrong notes, or overall sounded like an gorilla stomping around... but at least it would a gorilla with rhythm lol

    Then after they learn to secure rhythm, other things would be easier to add on.

    Then 5% of not looking at your hands...studying scales and chords and inversions with eyes closed, or blindfolded if necessary. Then the other 5% wishing them good luck :)

  9. Oh, and how do I follow your blog?? You have a lot of interesting articles but I don't see a follow blog area! : (

  10. Dustin,
    It's great to find out about you! I just popped over to your own blog and I'm eager to do some exploring there!

    You can follow this blog by clicking on the "Join this site" box which is in the section called "Followers."

    Hope that helps! And I look forward to finding out more about you.

    All the best,

  11. Oh, and Dustin,
    Thank you also for all your great suggestions about teaching kids to sightread. Completely agree with all that although I think that fingering and not looking at the keyboard might get a few more percentage points in my book. ;-)

    But I'm just beginning so we'll see!