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.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Music Sightreading Tips Part II: In the Moment Strategies

Last week I wrote a post that covered my top tips for how to prepare oneself before sightreading a piece of music. Today I want to share with you some of the things I think about and do once all that prep work is done and it's time to give it a go. Hang on - sightreading can be a wild, but fun ride!

Tip 1: Selecting a good tempo
Finding a good tempo requires a combination of observations that I made in my prep work. First I remind myself of the fastest, most regular note value - usually it's sixteenths (semi-quavers) or eighths (quavers.) Next I hear in my head, or physically play a passage of those faster notes at a tempo that seems appropriate and doable while also bearing in mind the title and/or tempo indication. Once I find one that I think will work I figure out what the pulse is and use that for my tempo. Sometimes, if the piece seems like it might be on the more challenging side, I'll knock the tempo down just a little bit to give myself a little extra breathing room. It's always good to strike a balance between what's indicated and what's realistic in terms of setting me up for success. 

Tip 2: Counting out loud as a lead-in
Once I've found a good tempo and I'm ready to go I take a good breath in and out, count a measure or two in the tempo and, without a pause, begin the piece. I say, "without a pause" because I've noticed some people will do a count-in measure but then break the pulse momentarily before starting. That defeats the purpose of the count-in measure. For me, those preparatory pulses are to help me get in the groove so that I'm more likely to start playing at the desired tempo. It also gets me in the mindset that it's the pulse's continuity that is the priority. 

Tip 3:  Prioritizing what's important
People often think that the priority when sightreading should be playing all the correct notes. My answer to that is, "No!!!!!!!" My first priority is keeping the pulse and playing rhythmically; second priority is playing as many of the notes on the page as I can musically. That last word, "musically," is really important here. If I can't play all the notes musically, then I don't try to play all the notes. I keep simplifying the music until I can deliver it with some musicality. It's that simple and there's no shame in that. 

Tip 4: Look ahead and listen
Sightreading is a mix of being in the moment but also looking at and processing what's coming up. How far ahead I look depends on the speed and complexity of the piece. If it's more difficult and/or fast I generally don't look as far ahead. For easier pieces, on the other hand, I try to look as far ahead as I possibly can. For an extra challenge, I also try to listen ahead as well, meaning I try to hear what's coming up so that the aural picture can guide my hands into playing notes that will sound good. This is a skill that usually needs to be practiced and developed over time but it's well worth the challenge. I also try to be actively listening to what's happening in the moment as well so that I can be responding musically to what I'm doing. Amazing isn't it? That we can be looking and hearing ahead while also playing and hearing what's happening in the moment? You can thank an amazing brain for that!

Tip 5: Read by patterns rather than note by note 
Processing the music by seeing it in patterns makes tip 4 even easier because it's less information for the brain to process. Patterns come in all shapes and sizes. Chord, scales, and arpeggios - these are all examples of patterns that pop up all the time. Then there are more complex ones too. I have a whole dictionary full of patterns I've grown to recognize and that help me read more fluently and musically. This also enables me to be able to read farther ahead in the music. 

Tip 6: Take advantage of phrases, cadences, ritards, etc...
Whenever I have an excuse, like at the end of a phrase, at big cadences, in spots marked with tenuto marks, or where there are ritards, I make sure I take time to breathe, blink my eyes, give myself a brief pep talk, regroup, or look ahead at what's coming next. Especially in slower pieces, rubato is my friend. As long as I don't add beats that aren't there and the sense of pulse is still there, even if it's stretched and pulled a bit, I feel that's perfectly acceptable. 

Tip 7: Keep eyes on the music
This is a terrifying concept for a lot of people but it's a really important skill to develop in order to be able to sightread more easily. As much as possible I keep my eyes tracking where I am in the score and a little bit ahead of where I am, as discussed in tip 4. If I break that tracking to look at my hands or the instrument, I more often than not find that I'm lost when I look back up at the score. It takes a moment to reorient myself and feel like I know what I'm doing which jeopardizes my ability to keep the pulse consistent. I've worked with a lot of pianists on sightreading and I can assure you that just about anytime a pianist looks down at the keyboard and then back up at the music, there's a microsecond of two extra that's added into their pulse. That's not fun to listen to and can be an issue if you're sightreading with others.

Tip 8: Sightread with others
There is something magical about sightreading with others, especially when there's at least one person in the group who's good at keeping a steady pulse. I also think it makes the experience more enjoyable because I can play off the other person and respond musically rather than having to come up with musical interpretations on the fly all by myself. I can focus instead on successfully reading more notes. 

Tip 9:  Don't expect perfection and have fun!
I already touched on this in tip 3, but I'm going to say it again in hopes that it will really stick. Dropping my desire for perfection is imperative when sightreading, otherwise I am sure to get tense and discouraged which leads to me not having fun. If I'm not having fun, I get even more tense and discouraged get the point. It creates this circle of unpleasantness. With that said, I want to mention that there are days where I am simply not in the optimal frame of mind to sightread. When I find myself in that situation I either try again another time, when I'm in a better headspace, or I purposefully select more straight-forward music that I can sightread more successfully. Those are definitely not times to pull out something that is extra challenging. 

There you have it! Those are my tips. I imagine I left something out. If you think of something to add, please do add it in the comments.

Happy sightreading everyone!

If you would like a downloadable PDF of this sightreading prep tips sheet, please check out my Patreon site. For only $3 a month you can have access to downloadables such as this one. For $10 or more a month you'll have access to all the downloadables I post, including practice tips. You'll also be helping to support me in my quest to make practicing more accessible, interesting, and effective for everyone! 

Friday, July 17, 2020

Music Sightreading Tips Part I: How to Prep

Sightreading music is one of the most daunting and mysterious tasks for a lot of musicians. It's really no wonder when you think about all that's involved. There's a lot of information to process in order to bring what's on the page into reality, especially in a way that is palatable to receive. There are pitches and rhythm of course but there's all the other information on the page that we need to process in order to make the performance musical, or at least remotely musical. And then there's our constant quest for "perfection," whatever that is, which really has no place when one is sightreading (that's your first important tip!)

Every Sunday during the past few months, I've spent an hour livestreaming myself sightreading in a show I call "Sightreading Maverick." Friends on social media send me requests of music in the public domain that they've found on the fabulous internet resourse, IMSLP, and I read through them one at a time. Since sightreading is an activity I have always enjoyed - I consider it the musical equivalent of extreme sports - risk filled, adrenaline pumping, and energizing - I've loved just about every moment. I've also discovered a lot of new-to-me composers who write fabulous music and I've even had a few composers bravely send their own compositions my way to appear on the show.

During Sightreading Maverick, before I begin to play each piece, I narrate what I'm looking for in the music to make sure I'm somewhat ready and not caught off guard. I thought it would be helpful to share my process and tips with everyone in two blog posts so that others might get curious enough to try their own sightreading game. This first post covers the things I look for and ask myself before I play a note. The second one, coming next week, will cover some tips for when you are in the process of sightreading.

All of these questions and tips do take time to process but with practice it does become easier. My hope is that you'll also find that the prep work will make sightreading much more satisfying and successful. And please feel free to leave your own suggestions as a comment below the post.

Question 1: How long is the piece?
This may seem silly, but I find it's helpful to know how long the piece is so that I can pace myself. If it's a really short piece, I know that even if I get flustered somewhere in the middle, it won't be very long before it's over and I can breathe again. If it's longer, I know that in this preparatory stage I'm going to want to find places to breathe, blink my eyes, and regroup.

Question 2: What is the title of the piece? 
This might also seem trivial but titles can often give you a lot of information that you can use to your advantage. Pieces with titles like "Elegy," "Nocturne," or "Reverie" are my favorite because I know that I'll be able to take a slower tempo and use more rubato. Pieces with titles like "Tarentella," "Etude," "Toccata," or "Theme and Variations" immediately put me in the frame of mind that I'm going to need to carefully and thoughtfully choose a tempo to avoid trainwrecks and tears.  I should also note that in general, if I have a choice, playing one of these more challenging ones is reserved for days when I'm feeling brave and on top of my game. 

Question 3: What is the piece's tempo indication and does it change?
Most people check out the initial tempo indication which is a good thing. It's important to get an idea of what the composer wants and what was intended. Often the tempo will change though so it's important to keep flipping and scanning the pages visually to find those instances. If there's a faster section in the middle, I usually take a moment to tell myself that when I get there I might want to pick a conservative tempo. If there's a section that's slower, I rejoice and take note that when I get there that will be a really good place to breathe, blink, listen, and enjoy a bit more.

Question 4:  What is the key signature? Major or minor? Does it change sometime during the piece? 
Always good to know the key, and especially whether or it's major or minor. It'll help you set up your ear to have the right expectation. Especially for younger pianists, playing a scale in the key of the piece can also be helpful to get it in one's ear and to get the feel of the key in one's hands. It's also good to know if and when the key changes and what it changes to. If it's a particularly challenging key, I like to see if the tempo also changes at the same time. If it happens to change to a slower tempo, hooray! That means I have more time to settle comfortably into the new key. If it changes to a faster tempo I remind myself that I better try and stay calm when I get there and to choose a conservative tempo.
 Question 5: What are the different note values involved and in particular, what is the fastest? 
Answering this question is instrumental in me choosing a good tempo. It also can help set up a rhythmic framework for what to expect. I typically start with finding the fastest note value used consistently. Usually this will be the sixteenth note (semi-quaver) or eighth note (quaver). I will then count a measure out loud and clap through the different main note values that are used, starting with the main note value (usually a quarter note/crochet) that equals the beat and then subdividing for a measure at a time until I get to the fastest note value. While doing this, I'm very conscious of how the subdivisions sound and feel, especially in relation to the beat so that I can call on the sound and sensation of them while sightreading. 

Question 6: Are there difficult rhythms or passages that leap off the page?
If I see a rhythm that looks particularly complicated I take a moment to see if I can make sense of it quickly. If I don't have time to properly analyze it I try to make sure I can see where the beats are so that I can come up with a strategy for how I'm going to try and pull it off.
If there's a passage with a lot of accidentals I try and ascertain if they're there because it's a chromatic passage or if it's because there really is a key change but the composer chose not to change the actual key signature. Often times that's the case and noting it is enough to allow me to breathe more easily and not freak out quite as much. If it is a really chromatic passage I tell myself that some interesting things might happen and that my goal will be to keep the pulse and make it through. 
If there's a a passage with a lot of notes that intimidate me, or a cadenza-like passage with lots and lots of tiny notes that don't seem to stop, I look for patterns. Almost always they are there to be found; arpeggios, scalar motives, or other types of motives. Finding these can help structure the section so that I have some sort of guide to improvise around since in those types of passages, being note perfect is not the goal. It's more important instead to get the gist across without a lot of fuss and stress. Easier said than done, I realize. 
And last but not least...

Question 7: Are there any repeats?
There are two reasons why I like to look out for these. Repeats can be handy because they can give me an opportunity to give a section another go. Of course I can also choose to ignore them when things aren't going as well. There are first and second repeats, da capos or dal segnos where you return either to the beginning of the piece or to a specific sign, and there are also codas. If I'm not aware of these before I start they really can cause a lot of stress, especially if I'm sightreading with someone else. It's always good to know the general roadmap. 
So there are my tips for you! Happy sightreading and come back next week to get some tips on how to approach sightreading once you've started playing!

To read part II in this series, click here!

If you would like a downloadable PDF of this sightreading prep tips sheet, please check out my Patreon site. For only $3 a month you can have access to downloadables such as this one. For $10 or more a month you'll have access to all the downloadables I post, including practice tips. You'll also be helping to support me in my quest to make practicing more accessible, interesting, and effective for everyone! 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

New YouTube series - Bach in 5 Minutes!

Video editing has always intimidated me but I've been determined, especially after putting up my Patreon page, to start working on doing more of them. Here's the first hopefully of many. A Bach friend of mine recently recommended I take a break from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier to learn Book I. I was hesitant at first but after reading through it I realized that for the most part, it's a breath of fresh air compared to the second book. So I thought, why not try to learn them as quickly as possible? I most likely will regret those words but I do always like a good challenge. So I'm going to try to spend as little as possible time learning as many as I can, relying on my typical pattern-hunting and analysis method, then spending around 5 minutes walking through each one, one at a time, and then recording a "first performance" of them. My goals for the project are:  
  • Learn the Preludes and Fugues in Book I quickly
  • Help folks see what I mean by learning music via pattern hunting and analysis
  • Show how fun, musical, and rewarding it can be to learn music in this way
We'll see what happens! Enjoy!!