Many students take music lessons for several years. Very good piano teachers have taught many students from preschool until they get involved in other activities in their early teen years. At the end of that time many students can play individual pieces very convincingly. The musicianship is strong. The technique is solid. The understanding of their piece is stylistically accurate. You know from the performance that the student was “well taught”. The student is “accomplished”.
But, put a new piece of music in front of this same hard working student and it’s like having a young grade school student read a page of Chauser’s Cantebury Tales in original 14th century Middle English. The student can make out an occasional word or two, maybe a short phrase here and there, but without any fluency that can make thought out of the text. The delivery is very halting. Words are pronounced very slowly and deliberately, often incorrectly.
This sounds like an entirely different student than the one just played so convincingly. Unfortunately, this is far too often the norm and not the exception. Why is this? Why is sight reading music so difficult.
I definitely do not place the fault on the piano student. If they can play well it is because they can respond to music as music. Music is a language they can speak. I do not fault the teacher because they have demonstrated obvious skill to get the student to the point of accurate performance.
I think the fault is one of priority. We want piano students to first and foremost demonstrate musicianship. We want to hear beautifully shaped phrases. We want to inform students as to the meaning of all those notes on the page. We get caught up so much on the “meaning of those notes” that we lose focus of the notes themselves. They almost become an unimportant means to the end. The priority we need to give to the notes gets shunted to the side because of our focus on the “meaning”. We want to see a forest without appreciating the trees that create that forest. Translating this to music, we want to hear the song without giving due attention to the arrangement of the notes. If we want students to become good sight readers, we must make sight reading a priority. A very high priority.
Sight reading needs its own “method” books. Our best method books are not well designed for teaching sight reading. They have been designed for performance purposes; for teaching musicianship. I think most methods today do a good job in this department. Most teachers, myself included, want to teach musicianship from the very beginning, even the first lesson. We are trained to think this way. Our method books are centered on the Lesson Book. All other books are ancillary to that Lesson Book. The Performance Book. The Theory Book. The Technique Book. The Reading Book.
Because we are trained to think this way we give such a priority to musicianship that we neglect giving students the skills read music fluently. We see staccato in a little composition and we give a great deal of attention to producing a good staccato sound. We give attention to how to do this technically. We notice unevenness in the fingers, as fingers 4 and 5 cannot play staccato with the same precision as fingers 2 and 3 …… and then there’s the thumb. The focus becomes so easily totally wrapped up in musicianship issues that before we know it the lesson is over.
This all involves very professionally training. It involves real teaching skill. It is all very satisfying work. But, this pattern of giving so much attention to these musical matters is having the unintended consequences of having students that play well but can’t sight read worth beans. Students rightly deserve their superior ratings in auditions and festivals but they were neglected the training to become the independent musicians we all desire. I know many teachers, like myself, set before themselves the lofty goal of “making themselves obsolete”. Certainly, one of the best ways to make oneself obsolete is to teach our student to become good sight readers.
This idea really deserves a full length book but I’m going to give some basic ideas to get us to thinking about this topic.
THE CONCEPT OF VERTICAL SPACE
To read text, the eye must take in only a small amount of “vertical space”; a space no higher than the size of the font. I remember in grade school, there were machines that would focus our eyes on this vertical space and the text would fly by at various speeds to help us become quicker readers. This machine worked very well because in the sixth grade I was reading and comprehending at almost a 10th grade level.
Reading music is much more involved than reading text. The amount of vertical space required is much larger. No longer must the eye take in a single line of text, but the eye must take in the grand staff; a treble clef and a bass clef, and some sometimes multiple lines of music.
To read music one must develop the ability to not only move their eyes from left to right but also up and down. If the right hand is a simple one note, treble clef melody and the left hand is a series of bass clef chords, the eye must move in a complex pattern of left to right to take in the melody, and, simultaneously with a down up motion to focus in on the changing chordal patterns. This is “simple” monophonic music. A piece with polyphonic elements is much more challenging.
Certainly a considerably amount of time needs to be dedicated to the development of the student’s ability to take in this high increase of vertical space. So, to accomplish this task, a dedicated time commitment by both the teacher and the student is required. Remember we don’t want to lose track of that lofty goal of “becoming obsolete”.
STEP ONE – The Music Reader
Remember the reading machines I mentioned that helped me read text more quickly? A very low tech equivalent is to make a “music reader” from dark colored construction paper.
Cut out a “see through” area (white). This “see through” area should be large enough to take in a single grand staff system. The length should be long enough to help the student to be a few notes ahead of what they are actually playing. This little invention will help focus the student’s eye directly to the music needing read. Move the “music reader”, always keeping it ahead of the student’s performance. This will also keep the student from moving their eyes back what they already played; a habit to be avoided when learning sight reading techniques.
For very undisciplined eyes the black area of the reader could be larger vertically.
Using this device should be part of every lesson. We are slowly training the focus of the eye to take in greater vertical space in a methodical and systematic way.
STEP TWO – Choosing Materials for Sight Reading
Another idea that is helpful is to have students learn music that centers on the notes close to Middle C. Remember this is a Reading Method, not a Performing Method. The reason is that music that centers on notes close to Middle C is that it shrinks the amount of vertical space the student needs to take in. Method Books, in their desire to get the student to understand the complete Grand Staff System, will include repertoire that take in a lot of vertical space. Compositions in G position is a good example. These teach the notes of the staff but they are poor sight reading material. I find the old piano primers that grew symmetrically from Middle C to provide very good sight reading material; especially from the perspective of vertical space.
STEP THREE – PreScore Analysis
The following composition is an excerpt from Middle C Repertoire – Book 1 My Little Flat published by Piano Teacher Press. (Click on the icon below for details)
Before actually playing the score I help the student analyze the composition. I will ask the student of the sections in blue, “What do you notice about the sections highlighted in blue”? I’ll ask questions until I get the recognition that each section highlighted in blue contain the same two notes. Then I’ll ask, “What are the two notes?” Then I’ll ask the student to play F and D.
I will then ask the student to find any pattern in the notes highlighted in orange. I’ll ask questions to try to lead the student to recognize the orange notes follow a chromatic pattern. We will play the chromatic pattern from B flat down to G.
We will finally analyze the two yellow passages and discuss that these notes are passages in steps (with some repeated notes).
If the student understands the B flat scale we may play that before playing the piece, but I probably wouldn’t teach the B flat scale before learning a sight reading piece; a repertoire piece, yes, a sight reading piece, no.
The next step is to have the student mentally play the piece in his mind and to the best of his ability hear the notes in his mind. The last step in to actually play the piece with the “music reader”. If the student is ready, certainly count to see if this can be done at a steady tempo.
This, I feel, is a good process to follow to teach a student to sight read music. It needs to be a regular devoted routine so the student can accumulate a little bit of information each week, each lesson.
It needs to be systematic and the materials need to be structured where the steps accomplished are almost not discerned to the student. No one is perfect, and sometimes it may be in the best interest of the student to give the student something more challenging, but overall the goal is read more and more difficult music fluently. It’s also a goal to give the student confidence that they can sight read music successfully.
A good sight reading program needs to be constructed in a manner that trains the eye to be able to focus on more and more vertical space, so don’t neglect using the “music reader”. This focus on sight reading will be a big step in helping us all reach that lofty goal of making ourselves “obsolete”; a little Everest for us and for our students.