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 1, 2022

Sightreading Reality Check - there's more than meets the eye

I think about the skill of sightreading music a lot. My pontificating on the topic goes hand in hand with my fascination about the brain and about what we are capable of doing as humans, more specifically as musicians, and even more specifically as pianists. Sightreading is a complex, multi-layered task that involves more than our eyes and hands; just to name a few layers, it involves our ears, imagination, problem solving skills, a kinesthetic sense of the keyboard's topography in relation to our own body, and recall of all that we've experienced at the piano previously. The complexity can often overwhelm me when I'm discussing the topic or coaching someone privately, especially since there seems to be two prevalent views of this skill's acquisition:
  • You're either born with the skill or you're not so you shouldn't expect to get better
  • You can get better by just doing it 
In my opinion, neither of these are correct. I do think some people are perhaps born with skills that help one be more naturally better readers and I also know from personal experience that having constant exposure, especially early on in one's musical journey, can make skill acquisition happen more naturally and easily. But I also believe that it's possible for anyone to improve their sightreading no matter where they are in their journey but it's not through "just doing it" on a regular basis. Yes we need to practice it consistently but we need to do it with strategies in mind to address the many different skills that go into musically processing and reproducing the clouds of black scratches on the page that manage to represent music and all that it can entail. 

I've blogged about much of this before so feel free to check out my other posts on the topic. In today's post I want to share two recent videos that further explain my thoughts on the topic and recommendations for how others can work on sightreading themselves. The first video is on the shorter side. For a more extensive discussion, see the second one.

This first video clip is from the end of the 100th episode of my Sightreading Maverick show, which I livestream most Sundays at 1pm ET on my YouTube channel. 

This second video is an interview I did with David Holter who teaches piano in North Carolina. In the past year he started up a Facebook group specifically for pianists who are interested in improving their sightreading skills called the Piano Sight Reading Community. It's a wonderfully supportive group that now has over 1700 members - I highly recommend joining whether you're a teacher, student, or amateur. We tease out a lot of different issues over the course of 45 minutes. 

If after watching either or both of these you still have any questions or want to share your own experiences or thoughts, please do feel free to comment here. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

Playing around with PlayScore 2 - an app for every musician

As a professional piano collaborator and accompanist I am very protective of my job. It makes sense then that I would be wary of apps and videos that offer accompaniments for instrumentalists and singers to use in order to learn and practice their music. When I was approached recently by the folks at PlayScore 2 about their app, my initial reaction was to politely respond that I don't do reviews on my blog and to leave it at that. But before I responded, I took a few moments to watch one of the videos they had sent along in their email. It had caught my eye because it was titled, "PlayScore 2 for Choir Directors and Singers - Make a Playable Rehearsal Score."

I had recently had a discussion with a college voice student I accompany about the challenges that she has as the choir director's assistant. To insure that everyone in the choirs has the tools they need to learn their parts, she had been regularly taking the time to record parts and combinations of parts and sending them to the singers. Unfortunately this was a process that was taking a lot of time and energy out of her already busy days as a student. After watching the PlayScore 2 video I was excited to check out the app for myself and to see if it was easy and effective enough to use to truly benefit choir directors and their singers.

For the past month or so I've been exploring this app from many different angles. It's one that in my mind is a bit like the Swiss Army knife of music apps. It can serve many different purposes in many different situations for many different types of musicians. 

Are you a choir director, assistant, or choir member?
As mentioned earlier in the post and in their video above, you can create practice recordings using any combination of parts, including or excluding any accompaniment parts as well. Email the files to choir members and they can play them back on their own devices within the PlayScore 2 app. Only the person creating the tracks in this instance would need a paid subscription. Singers can open and playback with just the free version. 

Is reading music notation or sightreading something you're working on? 
Scan the music you want to read in and then use their playback features, which includes a scrolling red vertical bar (see image to the left) and the ability to change tempo, to help you follow along in the score. For sightreading practice, this is one way to encourage you to keep on going when you make a mistake. 

Would you like to have a way to practice and play with another part?
Playing with an app is not the same as playing with real musicians but PlayScore 2 can help in the practice room when you are by yourself. During the pandemic, as a piano collaborator at a college, I've been spending hours and hours recording accompaniment tracks for singers and often times I choose a tempo that isn't ultimately what's best for the singer. There can be a lot of wasted time spent re-recording to try to get the "perfect" tempo. With PlayScore 2 they won't necessarily be hearing a real piano while they're practicing, but they will be able to choose a tempo that works for practicing or experiment with different tempos for performance. If a particular key doesn't feel quite right, choosing to transpose the piano part can help find out what key does work. I also love that you can loop tricky measures. 

Do you want to be able to easily import music into notation software so that you can make your own arrangements?
I play in a trio that is made up of piano, flute, and clarinet. There isn't a lot of music written for this combo so we often have to make our own arrangements. Up until now this has been a painstaking process since I don't have a fancy setup - I've had to hand enter each note into Musescore. I try to take joy in the process but usually I end up pretty tired and frustrated. This past week, with PlayScore 2, I've been able to scan in 2 different pieces which I've then converted into XML files and imported into Musescore. Voilá! Notes are instantly there with dynamics, articulation marks, name it! It's made the process of arranging so much easier. The app works with other music notation software such Dorico and Sibelius.

Do you have a visual impairment?
Using the same process mentioned in the previous paragraph, PlayScore 2 allows you to create XML files which can then be imported into braille music notation apps. Or you can use the app to learn the score by ear. 

Closing thoughts
After using the app for several weeks and talking with the folks at PlayScore 2, it's clear to me that the technology that's used to make this app work the way it does is pretty remarkable and is constantly being improved upon. 

I've also learned that it is very important when scanning music in to follow their recommendations in order to get the best possible results. You don't need a fancy camera - a good phone is all you really need. They have thorough instructions in the app itself and also on their webpage. They also make it clear that the quality of the original score impacts the end result on the app side of things. At this time the technology can't read hand-written scores or one that use a font that looks handwritten. It also doesn't do well with really old editions. If you get stuck you can also contact them directly. They seem more than happy to help troubleshoot whatever issues you might encounter.

And last but not least, the price. You can pay for the app monthly for $5.99 or you can save quite a bit of money, something I'm partial to, by paying for a year at a time which is $26.99. Either option, but especially the year subscription, seems more than worth it, especially if you can use the app for multiple purposes. Right now the app is available for both Android and Apple devices. They are also working on making a PC accessible version. Stay tuned about that! 

In summary, although I don't regularly agree to write about products on my blog, I wanted to make an exception this time since I found so many great uses for PlayScore 2 and have already recommended it to several musicians. Rather than seeing something like this as a threat to my job, I see it as a tool I can use to enhance what I already do as a coach, collaborator, teacher, and performer. 

Give it a try and let me know what you think! 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Rediscovering inspiration with a musical mentor

Music is one of those pursuits that we undertake without necessarily expecting for the journey to end -  that's part of what I love about being a musician. But in spite of all of my noble desires to keep improving it can be so difficult to keep the inspiration alive in our own little bubble. To step back and to objectively hear ourselves, to dream and get into our heads what we're capable of, and to push ourselves farther than we imagined possible takes a certain amount of humility and bravery. I've been fortunate over the years to have had several pianist friends for whom I feel comfortable playing and it's a practice I highly recommend. Sometimes it can be good as creatives to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and to get good and truly nervous playing for others before performing in front of more people. It can  also be a way of proving to ourselves that we are capable of performing under pressure and that we can learn and grow, just as we did as students. 

Over the past few years I was given a chance to do just that. One day, out of the blue, I received a private message on Twitter from a pianist who I had long considered my Bach hero. He had written to ask if I'd like to start chatting about Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier since he was working through them himself in preparation for an upcoming recording. Needless to say I was a bit surprised because of who I am - a professional pianist, yes, but one without any recordings and without a huge name or career. In spite of my initial surprise about it all, I accepted his invitation, we met for an initial chat, and we haven't stopped talking since. 

I will never forget the first time he asked to hear me play something during one of our conversations. Oh my. I can't adequately describe how nervous I was! But I knew this was a really unique opportunity and that it would be foolish to chicken out. Through our short exchanges of musical ideas, I quickly learned, not to my surprise, what an incredible musician, coach, teacher, and mentor he is. Over the months, those mini-exchanges with him through our video chats evolved into me sending videos of my playing to him in return for feedback. He in turn asked thought-provoking questions, challenged me to truly own my performances and interpretation of any given piece, and helped me to hear subtleties in my playing that may or not reflect what I have going on in my head. 

My musical mentor has also been watching my weekly piano sightreading since I began streaming them at the beginning of the pandemic. At the start of it all I found myself a regular bundle of nerves because he regularly passed on comments to me about very specific things I could do better even in that context. I admit that at first I responded with a bit of a short temper. I felt that because I was sightreading I shouldn’t be expected to play in such a finessed way. I believe I even suggested that perhaps he could sit in the hot seat for one episode if he thought what he was asking for was possible. This mini tantrum on my part led to an interesting discussion and me realizing, after cooling down and a bit more processing, that perhaps it was possible after all. And guess what? It is. My show is now even more of a joy to do because I’m loving the constant challenge to up my game musically every time, whether it’s on my show or out in the real world. 

After two years of being gifted this experience, I now feel like a brand new musician: my practicing is different; my performing is different; every aspect of how I hear music is different and more fine-tuned. My confidence has also increased more than I could have ever imagined. As a teacher, I’ve added even more things to my toolbox to listen for when working with students. More importantly, perhaps, I'm inspired again to keep pushing myself to get even better and I feel like I have the ears and heart to do so. 

For various reasons I’m keeping the identity of my musical mentor mysterious. As evidenced by the current show, “The Masked Singer,” it seems folks like a little intrigue and suspense now and then. Consider this my personal (and much more entertaining) version of the show. And if you're interested or curious to learn more about who he is, let me know. I just may let you in on my little secret.