As a new semester approaches and the reality hits me that we are indeed at the start of a new year, I thought it was about time to reflect back on my first semester of teaching piano sightreading to mostly non-piano majors. In case you missed it, I was approached by a local university in August to teach a class that they offer called "Accompanying." As I described in my post, "A mind abuzz about sightreading," the official name is a bit of a misnomer. Here's what I wrote about the class a few months ago:
It is a required course at the 400 level for music education majors but is also open to graduate students, with most of them being 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 yes, there is accompanying involved and it is our final goal to make it a part of the course, but what I suspected, and what was proven with flying colors, is that we had to address many other important issues before we could even begin to expect any accompanying or genuine useful abilities from the piano. It was a fascinating semester and one that involved me changing my picture at every turn but it was very instructional to see first-hand the struggles, the fear the students had, what exercises clicked with them, what didn't when it comes to reading music at the piano. Here's what I observed and learned...
|Music-Slashin' Pianist, with a|
pen in her right hand and some
serious scissors in her left hand.
- I couldn't approach the class is if it was a sightreading class. The students, most of them not primarily pianists, didn't have enough basic piano skills to be able to sightread, especially at the piano where they are required to read two lines of music at once.
- All of the students, each one, couldn't believe that music could be played and even performed in an altered way. Some even seemed to get downright angry and upset with this concept. It took me the entire semester to help them to understand that it is better sometimes to alter the music if that enables one to give a more musical, smooth performance. In the end I think I won some of them over as they saw the freedom that comes with "music slashin'" as I like to call it. It might have helped that I even came up with my own super-heroine called the "Music Slashin' Pianist." (See photo to the right.)
- Everyone was absolutely terrified of my class. I don't think this was a reflection on me but rather a sign that music reading is rarely done these days. This is not good! If people don't feel like they can sit down and just read music to experience it it's going to all feel like too much work for them, without any place for leisure in their music making. It was good for me to come to grips with all of this. Their terror also helped me to not take for granted how fortunate I am to be able to read music pretty easily and without much fear. My hope is to take away some of their fear by giving them enough joy and confidence at the piano that they slowly take on more and more at the piano.
- The students had a very difficult time with the concept of looking for and finding patterns in the music. As with so many people, they were used to reading one note at a time which might be fine for instrumentalists and vocalists that only have to read a single line of music, but for pianists this makes reading very difficult.
- In an effort to see if their eyes can grab patterns quickly when isolated, I made a series of large flashcards which I would show them for a few second and then take away. They would then have to play whatever it was they saw on the flashcard. Sometimes I would have the notes of a particular chord written out, not as a chord, but as a melodic line and I would then ask them to play those notes blocked, or as a chord, with all the notes played at the same time. Other flashcards would have melodies written out but not on a staff. Their job was simply to recreate the shape of the melody, without worrying about specific notes. They would line up at the piano and take turns doing this quickly with each person doing one and then quickly moving to the back of the line. It was a great way to warm-up in the morning and they shocked me by asking to do this exercise frequently. I was also surprised to see how well they did after they got the hand of it.
- One of the biggest issues I addressed with them was their tendency to constantly look at their fingers on the keyboard to orient themselves. I thought this would be fairly easy to solve, ("Just don't look!") but quickly found out that other things needed to be addressed first, like fingering.
- I came to the conclusion that if the students don't know some basics about fingering and about seeing common patterns in music that can guide fingering and hand position choices, it was unfair to expect them to feel comfortable not looking at the keys.
- After we talked about fingering and I had encouraged them to choose and write them into their music, it became apparent that actually following one's fingerings is another matter altogether. I realized what a conscious effort it is for them to do the same fingering two times in a row, with thought and purpose. But when they did follow their fingerings, as long as they were decent, they didn't have to look at the keyboard and they didn't make mistakes as often.
- I learned a simple truth - if one switches back and forth between looking at the keyboard and looking at the music one is bound to hit a wrong note virtually every single time.
- I found myself reminding them again and again to stay close to the keys, to stay in the keys to play more legato, and to hang out more in the middle of the keys to reduce the need to move around as much and to keep them anchored to a sense of connection with the keyboard's topography. Since most of them are not pianists, they tend to play as if the keys are burning hot.
- I gave them a relatively easy Scott Joplin rag (they would argue about the "easy" part) and I was stunned at how adamant they were that it was impossible for them to learn the left hand line. Unfortunately I didn't set aside enough time to really get them to a point where they believed me that it was possible for them so next time I will make sure that more time is spent on this project. I think they like the idea of learning a rag, or at least part of one, and of being able to play stride and it's definitely a nice change of pace for everyone involved.
- I struggled to help the kids understand the concept of blocking, which involves taking music that is made up of broken chords, for instance, in an accompaniment, and playing them as solid chords as a way to ensure that all of the notes of the chord are seen at once rather than note by note. (See example below.) I regularly block out music myself to facilitate reading and to help me gain a consciousness of hand positions but the students had a difficult time doing this. When it worked, however, it really worked so I'm planning on sticking with this method and encouraging them to do this more and more.
- The students don't have much of a strategy when if comes to learning music. They tend to go to the keyboard lab and to play it over and over and over, regardless of errors, until they could sort of play the music, if they were lucky. This wasn't terribly surprising given the fact that most musicians have a difficult time practicing efficiently and productively but it makes me all the more determined to help them find another way.
- Another important skill I need to work on with the students is building more of an internal metronome within them. So many of them practiced diligently with the metronome while they practiced but rarely, if ever, played without that constant pulse automatically given to them. When they played for me, they would often stop and start, failing to keep a constant pulse, and this led to more and more mistakes. I discovered that if I jumped in and acted as their metronome, they often got right back on track and finished out their exercise with quite a lot of success. Now we just need to get them to be their own metronome.
Anyone else have any thoughts about it all? I'm about to start semester number two so I'm sure the students and I would appreciate any ideas!
Happy sightreading and whatever you do, DON'T LOOK DOWN!