Monday, November 2, 2009

Musical Understanding through Sight Reading

I am a relatively new resident of the community in which I teach. There are a wealth of talented piano students in my town thanks to the extremely strong contingent of piano teachers, excellent public schools, and solid familial structures that encourage and support private music instruction in Mid-Michigan. I have taken on several students between the ages of 11 and 16 who have all exhibited talent and positive outlooks on practicing. Auditioning these transfer students has been an incredibly enlightening experience. I’d like to describe two of these students in order to hopefully illuminate an opportunity I have noticed for piano instruction.

Student A is extremely intelligent, hardworking, and has a calm personality. This 13 year old is a very successful and capable pianist and violinist, although his demonstrated ability does not come naturally. Student A has a very small frame and tinier than average hands, so a good amount of our time is spent on developing and refining technique and strength at the keyboard. In spite of these minor shortcomings, his musicianship is exceptional. Student A has a vast working knowledge of music theory and formal structure, is able to quickly discern vital characteristics of music we listen to, and, perhaps most importantly, is an outstanding sight-reader. This student understands the direct correlation between quality sight-reading and ease in learning, as well as the practical/real-world applications of being able to realize a piece of music in an instantly artistic manner. Furthermore, Student A also takes genuine joy in sight-reading new music, and in a likely related skill, gets new repertoire up to performance standard quicker than many of my college-age students.

Student B is a natural talent. This 15 year old has an effortless approach at the keyboard, and has hands built for creating a wide variety of tone colors through his strong bridge. Student B performs with passion and excitement, and also has an outstanding work ethic that translates into an extraordinary amount of practice hours a week.

Despite their minor differences, it is safe to say that both of these students are very talented and are highly skilled performers. The major distinction between these two students came during the final portion of their transfer audition, a basic sight-reading test. Two identical examples were given: a homophonic vocal accompaniment, and a two-voice polyphonic baroque excerpt[i]. Student A performed both examples with minimal pitch-reading and rhythm realization mistakes, and performed these examples at logical tempos. Most importantly, Student A attempted to perform these examples in a musical manner in as much of a performance style as he could muster.

Student B encountered difficulties in all aspects of this diagnostic. In the first example, Student B made frequent mistakes with the key signature of both examples, stumbled in his realization of a 6/8 pulse, and abandoned usual practices to achieve a convincing performance including pedal coloring, dynamic control, and phrasing. When asked about his priorities with this task, Student B commented that he was “only concerned with the notes.”

Both of these students have been studying with me for 9 months. Student A has consistently demonstrated the ability to learn music quickly and thoroughly. While the “end-product” of Student B’s learning continues to be compelling, pianistic performances, he almost takes twice as long as Student A to get to this point. Additional problems exist with Student B’s musicianship, including pulse-feel and consistency, key area familiarity, and rhythm recognition.

I have noticed this correlation between sight-reading ability and musicianship ability for years now, and have sought to address deficiencies in musicianship skills through sight-reading exercises. I have developed a five minute sight-reading drill for the beginning of each lesson that forces a student to quickly assess and analyze an excerpt in a practical way that will lead to a better reading. The improvement in overall musicianship skills in all of the students I have used this approach with has been much more rapid and complete than those I had previously introduced music theory to with more conventional approaches. The following is an example of how one of these drills might run:

1) Place a piece of music in front of the student, explaining that you would like them to begin playing almost immediately as if they were performing (these directions may initially be met with some trepidation, but once a student is more familiar with the progression of this activity, this may disappear).[ii]

2) Provide immediate feedback on the student’s realization of the score through self-evaluation. “How do you think that went?” “Did that sound like you thought it would?”[iii] “Were there clues on the page that helped your performance?” “Were there any clues that you missed?”[iv]

3) Provide additional feedback through suggestions that the student may have missed in their self-evaluation. Attempt to couch your practical performance suggestions in the language of music theory: “How could we make your 6/8 feel more like a subdivision of 2 big beats?” “Do these four sharps mean E major or the relative minor? What is the relative minor of E major?” “Do the different harmonies in this excerpt give us an idea of how we should use the pedal? Does the motion of the melody also help us figure this out?”[v]

4) Have the student perform the excerpt one more time, attempting to implement some of the suggestions you discussed with him or her. Provide positive feedback for those things that the student improved upon, reinforcing the concept of efficient improvement.[vi]

This exercise can be adjusted for ability level by choosing age and ability-level appropriate material. As you can see, this five-minute exercise can become a microcosm for the greater feedback and improvement loop that you may be wishing to develop in your students’ larger piano studies. This activity is not only a practical application of functional piano skills, but also a venue for discussing musicianship skills in a way that synthesizes these skills with actual music making.

[i] Pieces I often use for this test include the “Salti di Terza” from Lesson 1 in the Practical Method of Italian Singing by Nicola Vaccai and the “Bourree” from the Suite in E Minor for Lute by Johann Sebastian Bach.

[ii] “Jumping in” is an important approach to reinforce in this step. Your student should begin to understand that it’s possible to be fearless and confident when reading new music, while at the same time careful.

[iii] This question is particularly helpful in assessing a student’s audiation skills during an audition.

[iv] The reinforcement of self-evaluation helps a student development the skills of healthy self-criticism, active performance-listening, and self-teaching for their own practice.

[v] Guided questions rather than outright suggestions help a student further supplement the repertoire of questions they might ask themselves during the course of reading new music or more extensive practice of more familiar repertoire.

[vi] Reinforcing only positive aspects of the student’s performance at this point is key to establishing a system of learning something right the first time, rather than fixing those things that are “broken.”


Piano Guy said...

Interesting thoughts, thanks for taking the time to write this.

Rachel Velarde said...

Sight-reading is one place where I am failing as a voice teacher. I will use some of your suggestions to help improve my vocal teaching. Thank you!!

Rachel said...

I love your 5 minute drill suggestion. I agree that sight-reading skills are crucial, but I've struggled with figuring out how to incorporate them into lessons. I will definitely try this approach.

Elissa Milne said...

Students who can quickly master a piece by listening to it are considerably less motivated to play from the page (and vice versa), but there is a direct correlation between number of pieces learned in a year and sight reading skill.

I find that students who cannot play by ear also demonstrate reduced musicianship in their performances (as you've noted poor sightreaders are prone to do). And yet piano teachers spend precious little time focussing on developing either of these two valuable skill sets.

Wayne said...

I agree with Elissa. Especially her 2nd paragraph. There needs to be a balance.

I studied piano for several years but my main instrument was violin. Violinists have to rely entirely on the ear for pitch perception and adjustment. My own view on piano teaching is that there needs to be a strong emphasis on chord recognition (inversions, etc). Singing sustained notes that are in tune with a piano note may also be beneficial in my view. Singing a major or minor third, above a given note on the piano (then 6th, 7th, 9th, and chromatics, etc may be other examples of exercises that could assist aural discriminatory capacity.

Regarding sight-reading, I am very interested in forms of notation, including numerical, musical, linguistic, etc. I'm looking forward to new developments in this area >>perhaps specifically adapted to individual instruments (more so than they are now).

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I'm amazed on how many people learn to play an instrument by ear, couple of my friends learned like that, that is a real talent and a real gift.

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