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, October 18, 2012

Thinking aloud about reading and sightreading music

© Paul Marcus -

It's like a playground for the mind that's always evolving and this past week has taken me to a completely new playground - one that I'm just seeing a tiny glimpse of but that I'm so very eager to explore.  

The class in question is the accompanying class at Radford University.  Not to be confused with accompanying classes at most institutions, this class is one that is a required, year-long course that is taken mostly by vocal music education majors in their junior or senior years.  Most of the students have not taken piano lessons before and have only gone through the required group piano classes.  My job is to help them get to a level where they can accompany singers, either in a choral or solo setting, at a basic level.  This has proven to be a great challenge to me since they really aren't pianists.  In a post I wrote last year, Reflections on the first year of teaching piano sightreading, I discussed some of what I had discovered during my first semester of teaching in detail.  In today's post I'll move on from those observations to draw attention to one interesting experiment I've conducted this week and its surprising (at least to me) results.

First, here is what I've been frustrated with that I'm trying to tackle:
  • The students read note-by-note, note value-by-note value which makes reading piano music especially challenging, tension producing and tiring.
  • Because they feel they have to concentrate so hard on each and very note they rarely, if ever, look ahead in the music.
  • They count out loud in such a way that they aren't really internalizing a constant beat, shifting instead between feeling the larger beats and the subdivisions depending on the rhythms they are reading.    Often times when they try to go back to feeling the bigger beats they can't and end up counting the main beats twice as fast as they should be.  (I wish I could come up with an image or example for what I'm talking about.  I realize it's a bit confusing - sorry!)
  • Because they have a difficult time feeling a constant pulse and because they can't stand making a mistake they stop when they do something wrong.  It is very difficult to get them to keep going no matter what.
Determined to help them get over some of these issues I pulled out an exercise that taps into a technique I use all the time when I'm sightreading.  The purpose of it is to keep the eyes, brain, and hands moving in steady, rhythmic, synchronized way.  Here's what we did while we read piano duets together.  With me playing the more complicated bottom part as written I had them play the 5-finger position top part as follows:
  • First time:  playing at a very fast tempo so that 4/4 measures could be felt and counted in 2 rather than in 4, and 2/4 measures could be felt and counted in 1 rather than in 2, they looked for and played only the first notes of every measure while counting out loud.  Since we were doing this very quickly they really had to keep their eyes moving.  Because they weren't having to worry about rhythms and because I was playing with them, they could maintain the steady pulse and feel what it's like to get in a wonderful groove.
  • Second time:  slowing down the tempo but maintaining the same counting scheme, they continued to read only the notes that fell on downbeats but I asked them to add in whatever their eyes saw around those downbeats.  
It took them a few tries to figure out what I meant but once they did I think we were all shocked by the results.  On day one of this experiment, after only one attempt each, when they went to do the second play-through where they were focusing on the downbeats but allowing themselves to play what they could, they played virtually all the notes correctly at the first attempt without any problems with rhythms they had previously struggled to execute correctly.  And no stopping!  To top it off they all played extraordinarily musically, especially considering the fact they aren't pianists.  I was literally gobsmacked.  

And the cherry on the cake?

I met with one of my students today and led her through our exercise with the same exciting results, only this time when I looked at her it looked like she was going to pop.  After saying, "Brava!" I asked her, "How did that feel?"  She had this enormous grin on her face and she said something along the lines of, "This was the first time I've ever played music and actually heard another part.  I heard your part - I heard mine.  It was beautiful!"  I asked her if she realized that she had done all the rhythms correctly and she said, "Really?  I wasn't thinking about them at all!"  Coming from someone to whom rhythm doesn't come naturally, that made my day.  

So why did this work so well, at least this time?

Perhaps it worked because it showed them that their eyes and brain can take in quite a bit all at once without having to expend energy on each and every dot on the page.  This freed them up enough so that they could include their ears in the process.  They could hear the music that was being made and could respond in expressive ways.  In regards to the rhythms that they previously hadn't been able to do very easily, I now wonder if they do indeed have a grasp of rhythm but don't realize it themselves.  They don't trust that they can see a pattern and automatically be able to reproduce it without counting all the tiny subdivisions that require so much additional brain power.  

We'll see what happens from here.  I realize it's just a start but wow, at least for this week, I'm thrilled and am eager to figure out what to do next.  If anyone has any thoughts or personal stories about this topic, please do share - I always learn a lot from all of you!

If you're interested in more ideas about sightreading music, feel free to check out my page devoted to the topic.  


  1. Pretty interesting! I've tried variations of this kind of thing, but never this sequentially - and never with such immediate success, so you must be doing something right. Looking forward to giving this a try with students.

    1. Thanks, Michael! Let me know if you try it or something similar. I'd love to find out what you discover.

  2. This is exactly how I learned to sight-read piano, clarinet, marimba, snare drum & timpani! Unless one teaches, it's easy to forget that such technique was once new to us, too, and needs to be shared with those who haven't experienced it yet. Thank you for reminding me :)

    1. Stephen, did you have a teacher that taught you to read that way or was this an approach you naturally took? For me I think I come by it pretty naturally and is probably why I've always been a good sightreader. In trying to help others for whom it isn't easy I'm trying to keep exploring different ideas of how it works and how others can improve.

      I love your website, by the way. And your mission statement? How could I not love that?!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for reading!


  3. Brilliant idea, Erica - just play the downbeats to start with. Must try it. And we didn't need a visual - your explanations are good!

    1. Thank you, LaDona! If you try it let me know how it goes. And thank you for affirmation that the verbal explanations worked for you.


  4. Sightreading. Ugh. As a rhythmically challenged adult amateur cellist, sightreading can be painful unless the rhythm is fairly constant. Sightreading a piece with changing rhythms is extremely difficult and looking ahead is . . . challenging.

    1. You're right, Cellophyte. I think it's an especially difficult skill to work on as a non-pianist although I find that pianists have a challenging time finding the time and desire to get together with a well-matched pianist to read duets. I wonder if using this tactic while playing with a good recording would help. I wonder if there are any Music-Minus-One recordings for string quartets...or sonatas...or whatever you can get your hands on.

      Hmmm...I'm going to have to look into that.

      Thanks! And best wishes with it all. It truly is worth it.


  5. I have a question about sightreading -- full disclosure, I've never done it, never pursued it as a goal, and tend to shudder at the idea. :-) But I want to tell you how I'm seeing it because I strongly think my perception of it is wrong, or at least that it has to be wrong somehow.

    To someone like me who doesn't sightread as a habit, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction between the posts wherein you talk about how much careful, deliberate, hard work you have to put in to play a piece, and then here you seem to be saying there's some sort of magical "thing" you do called "sightreading" that enables you to obviate all of that and just magically play it fine without ever having seen it before, just by looking at the music.

    I know this can't be what's going on, but this is what it sounds like, and it must be what it sounds like to at least a few of your students. First, you have to play a piece of music over and over with great, deliberate effort to get it right, but second, you can play it perfectly by just looking at it. o_O

    Honestly, I don't see how these two things can both be correct. :-)

    1. Ooo, always ask such good questions. I'll think on this one and get back to you - I have a lot to say on the topic :-)


    2. OK, goes my attempt to connect it all because I do think it's all connected and is bound to show up here in a blog post in the not-so-distant future. I'll use you as a sounding board for my blog post rough draft, if you don't mind.

      Both deliberate practice and sightreading rely and build upon the exact same fundamentals...recognizing, audiating, and reproducing patterns and a strong foundation in rhythm, which also builds on patterns and repetition.

      I think too many people are taught to read in such a way that they read and process note-by-note. This can work ok with simple music and with instruments that only play one note at a time but when the music gets more complicated or multiple voices and chords are expected in a string instrument, the note-by-note approach creates a log jam in the ears and in the mind - it's virtually impossible for the brain, eyes, and body to keep up all the while keeping a steady pulse internally.

      One of my goals with my students is to help them to see, audiate, and understand music as patterns. Doing this simplifies the music learning and reading process whether the student is sitting down to learn a new piece for a performance or sitting down to sightread just that one time. Once they start to do this they will realize that there are only so many patterns that are possible and in my mind, that's a great relief. I know, I're probably saying, "But there are zillions of possible patterns! How is that a relief?!?" True, but the majority of those patterns are only used a handful of times and can be easily tackled on an as-needed basis. My goal is to latch onto the patterns that show up all the time. Once they are understood in a multi-sensory way, they are understood for a lifetime (or until we get too old to remember them.) The next time we come across the same thing, or something similar it is much easier to work it into the piece at hand.

      I've had to start doing this since I have so much repertoire I have to learn at any given time. And much of the music is crazy hard music. As soon as I started learning music in this way my practicing time has become much more efficient and fun.

      And all of this can be applied to sightreading too.

      So yes, in deliberate practice I am very careful and meticulous about looking at the music, coming up with good fingerings for the patterns on the page, figuring out rhythms, all because I see it as an investment. If I am very conscious about what I'm doing I will recognize similar passages and the physical gestures needed to reproduce them when I'm sightreading something different. It's gotten to the point that I can now look at a new piece of music, away from the piano, and the patterns jump off the page at me. When I go to read it at the instrument it is a bit of a magical experience because I hardly feel that I'm reading the notes on the page at all. In fact I am sometimes a bit freaked out because I can find myself playing something I've never seen before yet realize I'm not even looking at the music. Well, I probably am, but I sure don't feel like it. It's really bizarre...but a wonderful bizarre.

      Now I have to add here that I've always been a good sightreader, but I have definitely improved these last couple of years and I think it's because of this new approach of mine. I'm convinced that others can benefit from it as well. That's why I can't shut up about it. ;-)

      So with all that said, I'd love to hear your response to all this blabbing.


    3. ... is it the case that some music is simply more amenable to sightreading, then?

    4. Okay, I think part of what I'm saying is that BOTH of these things, the way they are stated, aren't part of an internally consistent philosophy -- unless you openly state that some forms of music are not well-suited for sightreading. They can't both be equally applicable without the domain of applicability of slow practice going out the window.

      Basically, why do you do slow practice if you can use "sightreading" to play it just fine anyway? The only possible answer is that sightreading is usable only for a subset of written music that is predictable enough for a musician to be able to look ahead and go by feel.

    5. "Is it the case that some music is simply more amendable to sightreading?"

      A resounding "yes!!!!!!!"

      There are some pieces of music that have been a complete disaster when I've attempted sightreading them. And those are the same pieces that take me a long time to learn because they are usually devoid of any patterns I've seen before. Case in point, Bartok's Sonata for 2 Pianos & Percussion. Also the Feld saxophone sonata. Killers. Truly. They hurt my brain. But it is also so rewarding when my brain finally does get it and I start seeing the new patterns in the context of the composer's language. Then I can predict more what's going to happen next, I can predict aurally what I should be hearing.

      So your question about slow practice...a good one.

      There's an odd phenomenon among sightreaders. We can sightread just about anything brilliantly the first time. After that we have a hard time. I haven't really figured out why that is but we joke about it all the time. It's almost like we'd rather people not give us the music ahead of time knowing that we can sightread it better. Giving us the music puts us in the awkward position of having to decide whether or not we're going to be "responsible" and take a look at it before having to play it. I think the reason this happens is because when we're sightreading adrenaline is playing a part and that lovely chemical or whatever it is, puts our thinking, conscious brain in a somewhat clueless state. It completely gets out of the way for that one reading. Past that our brain sticks its nose in again and messes everything up. Slow practice maintains the desire to approach the music in the same pattern-based way but does so in an organized, calm way which somewhat preserves that odd state that we're in during the first read.

      Oh man, I hope this all makes some sense.

      Let me know if it doesn't.


  6. Great post. Do you have any drills to improve on reading ahead? I would think that your exercises to get students focusing on larger chunks would be helpful along these lines.....

    The following was posted by me a few years ago at a discussion on sight-reading at another site:
    ah... a subject near & dear to my heart... or in another light, the bugaboo of my existence.

    As an advanced amateur (violinist) with a thing for chamber music I worked to improve my technique, but at one point it became obvious that technique doesn’t amount to all that much if you don’t have the music-reading skills to keep up.

    The way to get better is to just keep doing it, but at the same time I have found that it’s also useful to break music-reading into components, identify which are the ones that tend to trip me up the most, and read through material that emphasizes those components- things like ledger lines, identifying intervals (especially across strings) , subdividing/ dotted rhythms (the 1st violin part for the slow movements of many Haydn/Mozart/ Beethoven string 4tets are great for this).

    the thing that has bubbled to the top as being the most important aspect is reading ahead. It’s not just sight-reading, it’s music reading in general. I can be playing something that I have played before but if it’s not something I’ve been working on I can just as easily get tripped up on a difficult passage if I’m not prepared for it and the only way to be prepared is to see it before you play it.


    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Thank you for your comment and question. Ways to improve reading ahead...let's see.

      The exercise I mention in this post can be adapted, I believe, to instrumentalists and vocalists but I haven't yet tried it in this way. I'm wondering if it would be possible to do it along with a recording so that you don't have to try and find another individual that happens to have good rhythm and won't stop all the time. If you can find a recording or one of those Music Minus One recordings you could do the "first-note-on-every-downbeat" exercise. Especially if there was a way that you could speed up the tempo somehow that would help to keep your eyes moving at a steady, regular pace.

      Another thing I do with my students is use pattern flashcards of all different types. We have chord shape recognition flashcards, melodic snippets flashcards, chords that are broken up in accompanimental patterns, rhythm flashcards. A lot of the flashcards show notes that aren't even on a staff. The idea is for the students to grasp the shapes of the snippets while not worrying about individual notes. Regardless of the type of flashcard I hold it up for only about 2 seconds and then take it away. They have to do their best to recall the shape of what they saw and to reproduce it on the piano. Your own response in the discussion thread reminds me a lot of the flashcards. You mention that you find it "useful to break music-reading into components..." That's what I'm doing with the flashcards.

      Another thing I insist upon when practicing sightreading is counting out loud using bigger beats, not smaller beats. For instance, in a 4/4 piece I rarely count in 4/4 but rather as if it were in 2 or even in 1. I feel that counting in the smaller beats tends to suck us in to reading each individual note which can quickly lock up our brain and body.

      In regards to your final point in the discussion, I would say that starting to see your music as being groups of notes rather than individual notes might really help that issue of getting tripped up in a difficult passage. There are some challenging passages out there that really are completely random but I'd say they are the exception. Whenever I get a passage that challenges me I am insistent that I figure out what it's all about before drilling it. I look for motives that repeat, scale fragments...I look for high points, low points, name it. I look for something I can latch onto so that I can get through it without tying my brain up in knots too.

      I hope some of those ideas help and I realize I've talked about a lot of things so if you have any questions, thoughts, or ideas, please do pass them on to me!

      All the best,

  7. Excellent and interesting discussion! When I began studying the piano at age 8, my teacher would play pieces for me and when I came to my lesson I was pretty much playing them back by ear and not really learning to sightread. She figured this out and then made sight-reading hymnals a part of every lesson. I believe learning to sightread hymns helped develop the ability to see the patterns that are so key to sight-reading piano literature.

    Your comments Erica about playing duets was fascinating. Amongst other things, I am the lead musician for an improvisational performance company that uses a technique/practice called interplay to create our work. Interplay is very conscious of body wisdom and we spend a lot of time collecting, investigating, and utilizing that wisdom. Part of that research has turned up a concept called kinesthetic identification, a term to describe the phenomena of body-to-body learning and empathy. Summmed up, I can feel in my body what happens in your body. So when an experienced musician plays with a student, the student can literally feel in their own body what you have learned to do with ease.

    As musicians, we use this all the time in ensemble playing. In our troupe, Wing It!, it allows those of us who have less dance experience to literally "try on" the moves of the highly-trained dancer in our midst. Similarly, I get those dancers to sing with me in ways they didn't think would be possible.

    Keep on with your research about this and I hope all of keep playing "with" our students and not just "for" them.

  8. Melinda,
    Thank you so very much for your insightful comments. I'm really intrigued by this idea of interplay. It seems similar to many ideas I have regarding the value of professionals and students playing and working side by side. I was fortunate enough to have had teachers that ended up asking me to accompany them at various points and I truly believe that I learned more in those times than I did in the standard lesson times that we had together. I'm guessing that it had something to do with this "kinesthetic identification" that you mention. I definitely want to do some more research into that whole topic! So thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    Thank you for taking the time post a comment - it's wonderful to meet you!

    All the best and yes, let's keep playing with our students.


  9. Hi Erica, thanks for a suggestion of an interesting exercise for sight-reading! Not being sucked up into individual notes, as you write in one of the comments, seems like a key idea to me — I plan to make some conscious effort to do that in my lessons.

    Do you have, or did you come across, a video/audio recording of such or similar exercises? Perhaps it would help me understand better (I don't try to devalue your verbal explanations here, just that, you know, some of us are visual people — while having sight-reading issues at the same time, heh!).

    Thanks again for the excellent blog, I keep gradually working through your posts, thinking, learning.

    1. You're very welcome, Anton.

      This exercise was one that I stumbled across from trial and error so at this time I don't have an example in audio or video form. But perhaps I should throw one together! I will work on that and will let you know when I get it up on the blog. Because you're right, lots of folks are visual people.

      Thanks for reading and enjoy the blog! Feel free to ask anything as you read through it. I'm always eager to discuss and answer any questions.

      All the best,