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.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reflections on the first semester of teaching piano sightreading

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.

Phew.  That's a lot of thoughts all in one place.  I guess my mind is still a bit of abuzz about this whole sightreading thing.

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!


  1. Thank for this post. I am a 51 year old semi-pro musician returning to classical piano. I can relate to your students' urge to look down, as I play jazz by ear lot and tend to look down when I shouldn't. Also, stride bass scares the crap out of me, too. It's something about being right handed and having to find those bass notes without looking.
    My current reached gave me a wonderful book by Ruth Slenczynska called "Music at Your Fingertips." In it she says the same thing as you: "Communicative Performance is the glorious beacon that can make even humdrum practicing a joy."

  2. Brighton,
    Thank you for reading and sharing your own issues with playing piano. Playing by ear does seem like a bit of a different issue since you're not having to alternate between looking up at the music and then looking down at the keyboard. I'm curious to find out if you think it would help you even in jazz playing or in playing by ear to not look at the keyboard? Perhaps it would help by forcing you to rely more on feel and to find a way to play that would keep you more anchored to the keys?

    And yes, stride bass. Tricky stuff but so much fun when you can get it, not to mention really impressive to other people! One of the tricks I've found with stride is this - usually the top "part" of the left hand stays in relatively the same spot in the keyboard. It's the bottom part that does more of the movement. When I latch on to that fact I usually have an easier time at it since it's not quite as overwhelming.

    Thanks for metioning the Slenzynska book...I hadn't heard of that one before so I'll have to check it out. And yes, what a fantastic quote! I'm definitely on the same page as her.

    Nice to meet you, Brighton, and I wish you the est as you return to classical piano.

    All the best,

  3. Bravo, Erica! What wonderful observations and techniques. These students were very lucky to have you!

    As far as looking at music/hands is concerned, educators at the piano have one more thing to worry about: looking at their students/ensembles. I have to remind myself when i'm teaching/conducting from the piano that I need still need to look at my singers while playing. I can give cues with my head (or with a hand when I'm lucky) but I can't expect my students to truly connect unless I connect with them. I know the students you are working with already have a lot on their plate but it might be good to remind them to look up as often as they can and connect with their choir (or whatever ensemble they're teaching). Wouldn't a "Choral Conducting Methods at the Piano" class be fun? :)

  4. Brandy,
    Yep, you are so right about one of the reasons it's good, no make that imperative, that we learn to play from the keyboard without looking. As teachers and conductors these students are going to need to maintain connection with their students the entire time they're up there. Not making eye contact is like a death sentence for a room full of kids' attention spans! Look away and they're gone!

    And yes indeedy, a class like you mentioned would be fabulous and I think I know just the person for the job, hint, hint!

    All the best,

  5. Interesting post--and one of the above commenters brought up something else that might have contributed to my complete inability to play without looking down at the keys--the fact that my teacher sort-of integrated Suzuki training, and I ended up doing a lot of playing by ear (more than even she wanted me to). That, on top of the fact that I was playing on a nonstandard-sized keyboard for years, pretty much ruined any spatial sense of where the keys are (but, on the upside, if I can ever get my hands on one of those 7/8 size retrofitted keyboards, I'd have no trouble adjusting to it, and I could actually play Brahms!)

  6. Nicole,
    It's nice to see you here again! I believe you mentioned your issues with being more used to 7/8 size keys earlier and it has stuck in my head ever since. I now make a point of checking with my students to see what kind of keyboard they're using and whether or not they are full-size. I had never thought about that before but knowing that now I realize that expecting my students to go from a keyboard to a normal piano isn't very realistic and probably isn't very comfortable for them.

    So thanks again for bringing it to my attention!