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#1019490 - 06/02/08 01:21 PM How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
I have a rather specific question regarding sight reading practice that I’m really hoping someone can help with since I’ve been struggling for several years now… I’ve read many posts here on sight reading, but I really need more detail on a particular nuance, I think.

Here’s some background to help put things into context. My “playing level” and “sight-reading level” are very different. I have performed Chopin’s Nocturne no.1 in Bb- and am conversant with a number of his other pieces of comparable difficulty. However, I have struggled very hard to bring my sight-reading up to a level where it is even useful to me (useful = ability to sight-read a piece that I like to near-performance quality). Currently, I can sight read pieces from John Thompson’s late 2nd grade and early 3rd grade books (which seems to be 3-4 grade for most others). Beethoven’s Sonatina in G is a good example of the kind of piece I can sight read. Also, my one-handed sight reading is not bad. Large jumps and irregular placement of accidentals or “fat” chords trip me up, but I think that’s probably normal.

The problem is that I’ve been working hard to improve my sight reading and have made strides (I believe) by accidentally practicing correctly. My general strategy has been to take pieces that are about ½ to 1 full grade behind where I currently am and sight-read them (without looking at my hands at all and with consistent fingering) until I can play them. Memory usually comes first, though, so I have to move to new pieces pretty frequently. I have tried this slowly, quickly, one hand alone, two hands together, working on one piece for a long time, working on a piece only for a short time before moving on, doing theoretical analysis to determine the chord progression, etc. etc.

Ok, so, now to the meat of my question. I want to know what specifically should I be looking to practice to improve my reading? I understand that my mind is slowly perfecting habits by playing and accumulating skill as a result. The problem is that I’m not sure what kind of habits I should be heading toward with sight reading. I hope that makes sense. I know I need to quickly recognize chords, patterns, scalar runs, alberti bass lines, etc. But once I find a piece or section that I can’t read, I can literally practice it for months (or even years) without apparent improvement. I’m obviously practicing wrong, but I don’t know what I should be doing

Maybe this is a good way of phrasing it: should I ensure 100% accuracy to the point where I slow down if I make any mistakes? How long should I fumble for a particular note or chord before it no longer helps and I need to choose an easier piece? When I sight-read, what kind of performance should I optimally have so that I’m learning as much as I can (not too easy, not too hard.. so how do you tell the difference?)

I’m fairly familiar with theory since I also enjoy composing. I play other instruments, so music is a big part of my life. And… I’m also familiar with psychology and brain functioning (since it is part of my area of specialization). I’m not saying this to pump myself up, by any means.. in fact, it makes it all the more embarrassing that I can’t figure out how to effectively practice sight reading! \:\( The reason I mention this is to say please feel free to hit me with detail in music theory or psychology – anything that will help! \:\)


Perhaps one simple way of phrasing this is to ask the teachers out there: What kind of sight-reading advice do you prescribe for your intermediate students? How can you tell when you're practicing sight-reading correctly?

Sorry for the long post. I assure you that any help you can provide will be very much appreciated! \:\)

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#1019491 - 06/02/08 01:57 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Akira Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/27/07
Posts: 1645
Loc: Los Angeles, CA
All of this is my own personal theory, based upon what I think makes logical sense. I have no proof. What works for me, may if fact, not work for you (and vice versa).

Of course, most people will tell you what you already know -- to get better at sight reading you must practice sight reading. This is really hard work and there is virtually no pleasure you gain from this. A piece can be sight read only once, in my view. If you're playing something over and over again, I think you're fooling yourself if you believe you are sight reading. I'll concede, however, that you are reading to a certain extent, but the degree to which you are reading declines with each subsequent attempt. I like to think of this stage as a gray area that falls somewhere between true sight reading and memorization.

Almost everybody who comments on sight reading insist accuracy is all important and to go as slow as it takes to ensure accuracy. I would agree that accuracy is important, but will add that I think there is an element of speed that is missing from the "conventional wisdom." You are 'forced' to go slow, because you have not trained your brain to process information quickly enough. Try to go back 'five' levels, instead of 1 or 1/2 levels. This material should be pretty easy for you to sight read. Why? Because there is less information for your brain to process. The slow practicing is only way of compensate for too much information.

If you are training for a running marathon, I think it would be rare to find people walking in preparation for it. They are running, aren't they? So how will one ever be able to play (sight read) at tempo, if one continues to only practice slowly?

I tend to look at my sight reading training in a two-pronged process; speed and accuracy. Of course, you can't do them simultaneously, for obvious reasons. I split half my practice focused on going as slow as needed to achieve accuracy. The other half of my sight reading practice is at tempo, without regard to accuracy. If you try this approach, you'll probably find this to be an uncomfortable and disastrous exercise. It will disconcerting when you find you've missed 50% of the notes, messed up the rhythm, ignored dynamics, etc. It "will" sound horrible - there's just no two ways about it. I think that eventually, over a period of time, the percentage of errors will drop, as you train yourself to playing faster.

Has this approach worked for me? Not yet, but I've been studying for only less than a year now. I think I'm sloooowly getting better, but its like watching grass grow. Its going to take a long time, I think. I hoping the two methods will, at some point in the future, converge (or come close to converging).

Anyway, that's my two cents.

Welcome to Pianoworld, Zazen, and good luck with your sight reading studies.

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#1019492 - 06/02/08 02:10 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Triryche Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/11/06
Posts: 1451
Loc: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
I have no advice to offer as I am a poor sight reader, but
Welcome to the forums!!

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#1019493 - 06/02/08 02:13 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
keystring Online   content
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/11/07
Posts: 11181
Loc: Canada
Kreisler's advice (today's date) has value, here:
link

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#1019494 - 06/02/08 02:24 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
I believe there is a fundamental logical flaw
in your approach to sight-reading. Your
current level, the pieces you can play
with a lot of work but not sight-read,
defines the upper limit of your sight-reading,
that is, you'll be able, by definition,
to sight-read somewhere below your current
level, but you cannot, by definition,
sight-read at your current level or higher--
if you could do that, then you would have
a logical contradiction, because your
current level is what you cannot sight-read.
Thus, trying to improve your sight-reading
so that you can sight-read at your
current level is logically flawed--this,
by definition, is not possible.

However, the sight-reading ability you
have is normal, that is, you can sight-read
somewhere below your level, which is all
anyone can do. You cannot, as discussed
above, expect to improve your sight-reading
so that you can read at your current level,
because that would be a logical contradiction.

What fuels this kind of flawed thinking
is apparently the approach that is
suggested in sight-reading improvement
books. These books recommend practicing
your sight-reading with material below
your level, and the implication is that
you will gradually improve your sight-reading
in time, even until you're reading at
your current level, but, as pointed out
above, this is a logically flawed argument.
Moreover, there is the additional implied
argument in such books that practicing
sight-reading below your level will somehow
be beneficial and that it will eventually
raise your current level, but again, this
is logically flawed, because you can't
raise your level by doing things below
your level, any more than a swimmer
or runner can increase his times by
coasting through every workout at less
than full effort.

In order to really increase your
sight-reading level, you would, by
definition, have to raise your current
level, because then what is below your
level will be higher. However, raising
your current level is very difficult.
Typically, after about 10 yrs. of lessons
a player will have reached the level
that he will be at for the rest of his
life, which for most players is about
advanced-intermediate. Once you've
reached "your level" further significant
improvement is next to impossible, for
example, you could not simply take
ten more yrs. of lessons and reach
conservatory level if you're a terminal
adv.-int. player. This seems like it
would be possible, but it's not. If
there is doubt about this, then consider
that if this were possible, then any
piano performance grad could simply
take more and more lessons and become
a top concert pianist, but this is not
possible.

However, I believe that there is a way
for a terminal adv.-int. player to raise
his level somewhat, and that is by
working on material that is greatly
above his level, for example, the most
difficult concertos in the repertoire.
An a-i player would have tackle such
pieces very slowly initially in order not
to burn himself out, and then work them
up note by note over a long time, using
repetition as a substitute for talent.
This is possible, because if you can
play something slowly, then you can
play it slightly faster with practice,
and then slightly faster than that
with more practice, and so forth.

Just by virtue of working with such
difficult material you will gain in
strength and experience and technique,
and you'll learn to figure out
on your own how to solve seemingly impossible
technical problems at the keyboard--
it will have to be on your own, because
no teacher would teach a hopeless terminal
a-i player a big time concerto. As
a result of working with such difficult
material your level will increase somewhat,
and then, by definition, your sight-reading
level will increase.

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#1019495 - 06/02/08 02:40 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
alglasser Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/21/07
Posts: 69
Loc: Rhode Island
Wow, this topic is right up my alley! I have posted similar concerns under other sightreading headings and have received much excellent advice and encouragement.

I am also a level 3 sightreader and working hard to improve. If you can find my post of about 1/2 hour ago, I summed up some of the rules that have been suggested to me. I'm working hard!

Zazen, Akira and Gyro, I enjoyed reading your posts here. I have a question fior Gyro, however.

If one really is to read ABOVE comfortable level when sightreading and the pace (as it would be for me) is a crawl...is this actually sightreading practice?. Since I would be "working" at the difficult piece to sightread it, doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of using difficult material as sightreading practice?

Be well, everyone. Alan in RI

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#1019496 - 06/02/08 03:19 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
Unfortunately, I disagree with most of what Gyro said, if I'm understanding correctly. I'm not trying to sight-read at or above my technical level. My problem is that my sight-reading is far below my technical level. Practicing sight-reading chopin's waltzes for me, even though I can play some of them, is almost completely useless as far as I can tell since I'm moving at speeds slower than any metronome can even go.

I know I need to practice pieces at or slightly above my current level of sight-reading skill, but I'm not sure how to tell what that is and how I should play them.

I feel There is an optimal difficulty for sight-reading practice since I feel confident that a similar bar exists for technical practice. Trying to play material that is too far above one's head is counterproductive. If you get too many things wrong at once, then learning is greatly diminished. This is true in building any skill. The problem I'm having is that I don't know how to find that optimal difficulty to practice at and what constitutes "correct practice."

As an analogy, I played Raquetball for a number of years. When I had the chance to play against players that were a little better than I was, I gained the most skill as a result. If someone beat me into the ground or I barely had to think to defeat them, I didn't learn much. Learning appears to happen most easily when there is a moderate challenge - as if the mind makes stepwise, little corrections.

alglasser: I enjoyed reading some of the suggestions you have gotten. It seems we're having similar issues. I'm sure the hymnal would be great if I had any speed at all while trying to read it! \:\) Reading chords is definitely an issue, but it is so much so that my sight-reading of four part harmony is abysmally slow. Reading from the bottom up is something I've taken a note on and will try tonight. As for the "associated board of the royal school of music"'s list... I'd LOVE to see this. Right now, I have method books to go by, but otherwise very little knowledge of how "real" pieces are graded. If anyone has this, please post a link or a list \:\)

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#1019497 - 06/02/08 03:39 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
In reading some of the other posts, I just had to add something that I found really useful.

About a year ago, I got some sage advice on sight-reading that helped: get used to feeling the different groupings of black keys. If you use all of your fingers to feel for the groups of 2 and 3 black keys when deciding where to land for a jump, as long as you have the right octave, you'll be able to find the right key without looking down. I also began practicing by strictly looking at the score and never using more than my peripheral vision to look down. This also really helped.

Keyboard geography is the hardest thing for me... knowing what notes I'm seeing is much easier by comparison

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#1019498 - 06/02/08 04:33 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Betty Patnude Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/11/07
Posts: 4896
Loc: Puyallup, Washington
Hope this helps:

Please think about it and perhaps write what you see here on a blank piece of paper. I have 4 rpreliminary tools to orient to sight reading:

1) Lines and Spaces numbered from bottom to top
__________________ Line 5
Space 4
__________________ Line 4
Space 3
__________________ Line 3
Space 2
__________________ Line 2
Space 1
__________________ Line 1


2) Middle Line Centers in Treble/Bass and Grand Staff
____________________
____________________
_________________________Middle Line-Treble Staff
____________________
____________________
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _Middle Line-Grand Staff
____________________
____________________
__________________________Middle Line-Bass Staff
____________________
____________________

If you put both your thumbs on Middle C and each finger on an adjacent key you have F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G (9 letter names - 9 notes)(Middle C Position)

In EVERY situation written here (examples) you will find that your LH 5 3 1/1 3 5 RH will be lines. Likewise your LH 4 2 and 2 4 RH will be spaces.

If you put your thumbs on the Middle Line of the treble staff you have a Middle Line (B). E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F which are all 5 lines and 4 spaces of the Treble Clef.

If you put your thumbs on Middle Line (D) of the bass staff you have all 5 lines and 4 spaces which are G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A.

This helps you find any note on the keyboard within the bottom line and top line of the grand staff.

If looking for ledger lines above and below the staff, put thumbs on the C's and 1-3-5's will be lines and 2-4'4 will be spaces.

3) Learn all 8 C's on the piano keyboard and write them on blank manuscript paper of Grand Music Staff

(C1) C2 C3 C4 C5 C6 (C7) (C8)

Ledger Bass - C1 is 8va

Ledger Treble - C7 is 8va and C8 is 15va

Do you see how symetrical the Music Staff is when each of the C's is entered as a whole note? Look at it sideways from the end of the line to the clef signs. The LH plays the Bass Clef/the RH plays the Treble Clef.

At Middle C there are only 3 notes B/C/D Extra ledger lines may be added there, but they borrow from the lines already in place on the staff and are named so.

4) I've assumed that we number fingers the same way. Thumbs 1 - Pointers 2 - Long Fingers 3 - Ring Fingers 4 - Pinky 5.

If you need a better copy from me of these preparations, PM me with your home e-mail address.

I hope you will take the time to try getting through each of these on your own and using them by giving them a good try. Once I teach my students these ideas, they get to sightreading accurately in naming and finding all keyboard and music staff locations.

There are further complexities, such as finding 5 Finger Positions (12 - 7 of which are white key starts, and 5 of which are black key starts) Intervals 1-2-3-4-5, chords, root, 1st inversions, 2nd inversions, Intervals 6-7-8 (octaves, 6th, 7th). Half step movement in Mirrored D chromatic scale contrary motion (Ab is more complex so use only D), Major Scales learned by tetrachords, knowing half steps and whole step distances, plaing one octaves and two octaves, short arpeggios and long arpeggios.

Adding accidentals is easy if you think of putting your hands on white keys first and then # goes up a half step, and b goes down a half step. And natural signs which cancel accidentals.

Key Signatures areound the Circle of 5th is important to know.

One should know intervals in melodic and harmonic parts. Melodic is from one note to another following in a horizontal plane, harmonic is stacked together in vertical plane, played simultaneously.

Get this all into your brain and your there! Sightreading played easy.

Opps! Don't you know I forgot the note values of counting. I think that is among the easier things to be able to do when you count in note values. Oh, and coordination of hands L? R? T?

Can you see why piano takes years of study with a competent piano teacher? It can be the most fun you've ever had, or it can be whatever you dread it to be.

It's also a puzzle with lots of clues, Sherlock! ;\)

Betty

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#1019499 - 06/02/08 06:42 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
currawong Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 5834
Loc: Down Under
Akira said:
This is really hard work and there is virtually no pleasure you gain from this.[/b]

If what you're trying to sightread is "really hard work" then dig out something a little easier. Don't think you can necessarily speed up the process by getting out of your depth. (There are those who advocate this, but I'm not one of them \:\) )
And you can get lots of pleasure out of reading new pieces of music. As they say, enjoy the journey \:\) .
_________________________
Du holde Kunst...

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#1019500 - 06/03/08 07:22 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
Now that was informative... Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply, Betty!

Even though I've been reading music on one instrument or another for 20 years, I don't think I ever stopped to look at the symmetry of the staves (specifically, two C's above and below middle C). Funny how those things can escape you. I really like thinking about the fingers in terms of the leger lines as well... if my thumb is on B, naturally, my middle and pinky will fall on D and F. I had always tried to think about it just in terms of intervals. When you say major scales are learned by tetrachords, are you speaking of sevenths? I think I have a pretty good grasp of most of what you mentioned. I've had a few years of formal instruction, but I'm looking forward to getting back into it again once I can afford it. I've been working on piano, guitar, drums and recording in something of a vacuum for several years now (though I have a good friend that enjoys theory and composition as much as I do.. and plays mostly the same instruments)... so it'll be nice to get some 1-on-1 time again. Until then, though, the advice that I get here is really most welcome \:\)

I think I finally figured something out last night that I was doing wrong: I wasn't reading ahead enough. Because I was forcing myself to go faster than I probably should have, I wasn't reading ahead and developing that vital skill. It needs some time to see if it really bears fruit, but it felt really different last night already \:\) What caused me to do that was reading one of the posts on here by Kreisler that said this:

"Build fluency by practicing things that you can accomplish with a high degree of accuracy. Research in language learning has shown that fluency is built by reading and re-reading passages that you can handle with a 95% accuracy rate. Reading something that you stumble with more than 1 note out of 10, and the exercise is more frustrating than helpful."

That made me realize that I'm going way too fast and making too many mistakes. When I slowed down to try and achieve this 95%, I found myself reading ahead, which greatly increased my consistency and accuracy.

It makes sense, really. The brain doesn't need 100% of its skill for every beat in every measure. Some need more than others. So you read the easy ones quickly and spend time on the hard ones before you have to actually have to play them. Simple. \:\) What I wonder is how far ahead in the piece should I be reading?

By the way, I have a few words of encouragement for all the teachers out there: creating a breakthrough for your students doesn't always mean giving them the exact instructions that will point them directly to a solution. Sometimes just having a slightly different perspective causes people to stop and think where they would otherwise just keep exercising the same bad habit... and sometimes that's all that's needed \:\)

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#1019501 - 06/03/08 01:06 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Betty Patnude Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/11/07
Posts: 4896
Loc: Puyallup, Washington
Zazen,

Nice to hear from you! I enjoyed reading your post to me very much.

About reading ahead: I would not recommend it. My thought on this is that the mind can be one place at one time - and it should be in the present moment when playing the piano would you agree - the now is eminent. Reading ahead by even a measure is later. How does the brain sort that out? I don't think it does.

Pacing reading of music: I think reading music you are sightreading or music you are familiar with is simply the rate of speed at which your EYES move and TAKE INFORMATION. Please excuse the need for emphasis here. If you want to play faster, move the eyes horizontally forward on the music staff like a laser beam to each new beat.

Do this eye exercise by looking directly at the note due in the present moment.

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Does this not affect the pace at which you are moving?

Which speed of eye movement works best for you? Pace it realistically. I would call this exercize: "Eye Movement Awareness Training"

I appreciate that you took my previous posting and learned something from it.

Regards!

Betty

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#1019502 - 06/03/08 02:47 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
Zazen, if you're playing Chopin nocturnes
as your current level--which would be approximately
advanced-intermediate, like about 90+%
of all players who've reached
their terminal level--and you're sight-reading
John Thompson book 2 and early book 3, then
that's right about where you should be
with sight-reading, that is, by definition,
you'll be able to s-r (considerably)
below your current level. Thus, there's
nothing wrong with your s-r level; this
is about where you're going to s-r as long
as your current level doesn't change,
and trying to raise it considerably
is a waste of time and effort.

You say you want to s-r Chopin waltzes
at speed, but the waltzes are not easy
pieces to play, despite the fact that
they--and things like Bach two-part
inventions and various sonatinas--are
typically given to students as their
first real classical pieces. These take
a lot of hard work to play well, and one
might say that they are not much below
the techincal level of the nocturnes.
So, in effect, you are trying to s-r at
your level, which, as pointed out above,
is a logical contradiction and not possible
to do.

So you're right about where you should
be with your s-r, and there's no need
to try and improve it--indeed it would be
futile to try to do that.

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#1019503 - 06/03/08 03:06 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
Zazen, if you're playing Chopin nocturnes
as your current level--which would be approximately
advanced-intermediate, like about 90+%
of all players who've reached
their terminal level--and you're sight-reading
John Thompson book 2 and early book 3, then
that's right about where you should be
with sight-reading, that is, by definition,
you'll be able to s-r (considerably)
below your current level. Thus, there's
nothing wrong with your s-r level; this
is about where you're going to s-r as long
as your current level doesn't change,
and trying to raise it considerably
is a waste of time and effort.

You say you want to s-r Chopin waltzes
at speed, but the waltzes are not easy
pieces to play, despite the fact that
they--and things like Bach two-part
inventions and various sonatinas--are
typically given to students as their
first real classical pieces. These take
a lot of hard work to play well, and one
might say that they are not much below
the techincal level of the nocturnes.
So, in effect, you are trying to s-r at
your level, which, as pointed out above,
is a logical contradiction and not possible
to do.

So you're right about where you should
be with your s-r, and there's no need
to try and improve it--indeed it would be
futile to try to do that.

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#1019504 - 06/03/08 03:12 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
Alglasser, I am a terminal a-i player,
but I was not content to play 4 page
salon pieces. I wanted to play the big
concertos that concert pianists play.
But the handwriting was on the wall: 9
yrs. of lessons as a child had gotten
me only to a-i level, and I could see that
9 more as an adult would be useless.
Moreover, I had tried everything possible
on my own to raise my level so that I could take
on the big pieces: scales, technical
studies, theory study, s-r practice,
etc., and it was all futile; I was still
a terminal a-i.

But I still wanted to play the big stuff,
and so I decided to just dig in and
play it, using repetition as a substitute
for talent. I've worked up, to around
3/4 speed with errors, a big-time concerto
movement by sheer dogged repetitive
effort over a long time. This might
not seem like much, but for a t-a-i player,
who initially had to go at it note by
note one measure a day, that's a
phenomenal achievement--indeed the book
says that a hopeless a-i player like me
cannot play such a piece in any manner.

Working on such a difficult piece has
raised my overall level of playing
somewhat--which is nearly unbelievable
when you consider that once an t-a-i
player has reached his level he's
essentially done and no further improvement
is possible. And as a result, my s-r
level has correspondingly been raised
somewhat--whereas, yrs. of practicing
s-r with material below my level did
absolutely nothing to improve my s-r or
my overall playing.

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#1019505 - 06/03/08 03:29 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Oxfords Gal Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/21/06
Posts: 1553
Loc: Jacksonville, Florida
What is an A-I player? I know beginner, early Intermediate, Intermediate, Late Intermediate and Advanced but not sure what A-I is. Can it be Advanced Intermediate which would equate to Late Intermediate?
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#1019506 - 06/03/08 04:06 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
An a-i is where about 90+% of all players
end up, for life. The exact pieces that
a-i's play vary. For example, the less-
accomplished a-i's might manage Chopin
waltzes (these are by no means easy to
play well) as their top repertoire works,
while others might manage a Chopin etude
or a Beethoven sonata. Generally speaking,
an a-i would not be able to enter the
more rigorous piano performance programs,
the ones that require an audition of
a Bach piece, a classical sonata, a
substantial Romantic Era work, a 20th
century work, and a virtuosic etude--
all memorized and played note perfect.
That's advanced-level playing. An a-i,
with a huge amount of effort, might
be able to work up a portion of such
an audition, but playing even that
solidly from memory and note perfect would
be very difficult.

I am an a-i. I can play one Chopin etude,
the first of the Trois Nouvelles,
reasonably well at speed from memory,
but I've been working on it for years.
I can play the Chopin A min. mazurka op.
post., the one with the triplets,
fairly well with the score--this
after yrs. of dogged repetitive work on it.
I can't play any of the Chopin waltzes
fluently. My sight-reading is not good.
I can play a big-time concerto movement
at about 3/4 speed with errors, with the
score, but it took me yrs. of
repetitive effort to work it up to
that speed. Anything challenging--or
even moderately challenging--takes
me years of exhausting repetitive practice to
get up to speed--that's typical with
a-i's.

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#1019507 - 06/04/08 07:26 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
I have to admit I'm now a bit confused. Betty, I understand what you're saying about staying 'in the present moment' so to speak (hehe) and not reading ahead, but I can't help thinking that a little reading ahead is probably good (if not unavoidable).

For example, if I know I have an alberti bass line that alternates between the I and inversions of IV or V (common with easier pieces, as you know), it seems to really help to quickly look at the whole measure and see what the arpeggiation is so that I can concentrate on reading the melody in the RH. Same thing for the RH when the melody is simply a scalar run... would you agree that it's good to see these things a little ahead of time, perhaps reading one measure at a time? Or maybe, if I can read one measure at a time, is the piece too easy and I need to find something more challenging?

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#1019508 - 06/04/08 07:55 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
SAnnM AB-2001 Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/20/04
Posts: 2022
Loc: Canada
 Quote:
Anything challenging--or
even moderately challenging--takes
me years of exhausting repetitive practice to
get up to speed--that's typical with
a-i's
This is why I think that maybe tackling pieces above your level is counter productive. Repetitive practice on things you may be doing wrong is only going to reinforce bad habits. Try enjoying pieces that are technically AT your level and once these are solid, then move on... There's so much beautiful music at all levels why not enjoy it in stages rather than rush ahead.
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#1019509 - 06/04/08 07:57 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
currawong Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 5834
Loc: Down Under
I think every good sight-reader does what you describe, Zazen. I am an advocate of "reading ahead", but it's not a rigid thing ("play bar one while reading bar 2"). It's something that will happen as you progress. Just as you occasionally need to flick your eyes to the keyboard if there's a large leap, you flick your eyes over what's to come. If you didn't do this, you couldn't effectively phrase a melodic line for example, because you wouldn't know where it was going. I find this doesn't stop me from being "in the moment" as Betty puts it.
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#1019510 - 06/04/08 11:10 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
 Quote:
Originally posted by I'm playing better at home now..:
This is why I think that maybe tackling pieces above your level is counter productive. Repetitive practice on things you may be doing wrong is only going to reinforce bad habits.

Try enjoying pieces that are technically AT your level and once these are solid, then move on... There's so much beautiful music at all levels why not enjoy it in stages rather than rush ahead. [/b]
Good point. I definitely agree here. This is what I'm trying to avoid. That's why I came here to see if I could get some insight on how I might be furthering bad habits with sight-reading.

Maybe I will think differently when I get a little further with my sight-reading, but a lot of the motivation for me to learn to sight read better is because I don't like any of the classical pieces at the reading level I'm at now \:\) There are scant few non-diluted pieces available to the (Thompson's) 2-3rd grade reader. Most easier classical pieces seem to come from the early intermediate ranks and beyond. I mean, Spinning Song is fun, but I'd like to do better than that for my reading repertoire.

To answer one of Gyro's points... I'm not happy with my current level of sight-reading because it is a major impediment to my learning new material. I also have a very limited repertoire of pieces that I can play well because I have to completely memorize them. I don't necessarily want to read Chopin's Waltzes... I know I'll probably have to memorize pieces of that level for a long time to come if I want to play them. But it would be nice to be able to play a piece like Traumerai, some of Beethoven's easier minuets, or even Clementi sonatas without having to memorize everything.

Just out of curiosity, Gyro, are you convinced that many players are absolutely confined to a certain level of technical proficiency because of ability or simply that most people don't have the consistent motivation to work hard enough to do it. My experience in guitar has been mirrored in piano - if you know how to practice technique, no one's really all that limited in what you can perform (C. C. Chang's Fundamentals of Piano Practice is instructive in this regard). Then again, my aspirations with guitar stopped at about triplets at 240bpm... (few people can tell much of a difference in speeds beyond that) for those that wanted to go to 500+, sure there are probably limitations... but who cares? I'll be happy with my piano technique when I can play Chopin's Black Key at speed. It's a reasonable goal, I think, for a non-professional player.

By the way, I read an article (I think it was Scientific American ) that described the acquisition of "virtuoso" quality expertise of almost any skill (chess was the example, but piano was talked of as well) with about 10 solid adult years of practice. Now, this isn't 30 mins a day, obviously... we're talking about dedicating every second of free time you have to it... but it was an interesting study.

I have a conjecture from my hours of sight-reading practice last night... I think I'm going "too fast" when I consistently make the same mistake repeatedly for a given passage. My guess is that the correct practice speed is one that gives you the opportunity to avoid mistakes, say, 90% of the time. Am I on the right track?

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#1019511 - 06/04/08 11:14 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
Thanks, Currawong, that sounds a lot like what I've been doing. I think I'm just anxious to get it right and move on to more interesting pieces \:\)

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#1019512 - 06/04/08 01:28 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
ChristinaW Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/05/04
Posts: 152
Loc: Washington DC
I didn't read all these posts, but I sight read very well, and a lot of it is just innate, I think. I don't know how you improve, but I'm sure some teachers would know that.

However, what struck me was the original idea that you think what sight reading is all about is that you can sight read at "near performance level." I've never heard of anyone doing that, that doesn't even make sense to me. Unless your idea of near performance is pretty limited, and the pieces you are talking about are a lot lower than you could play with practice. The point of sightreading to me is mainly to be able to play something through well enough to decide if it's a piece you want to work on and get up to a better level. Performance level isn't something that means a lot to me, as I'm an amateur and don't approach playing the piano that way -- as thinking the purpose of everything is to perform. But I am assuming you really mean to play something at the best level, which is polished, that you are capable. Even professionals practice, you know, to get pieces at a performance level for a concert. They don't just sit down and sight read things and never practice.

If you could sight read everything at performance level, you wouldn't ever need to practice, that doesn't make sense to me. Aside from just trying out pieces, I do sight read some things in order to play with others (chamber ensembles, accompanying singers, etc.), so that is another purpose, but the things I sight read that way are definitely not at the level of things I could play with a lot of practice. I can sight read simpler things to amuse some folks who aren't demanding (show tunes, simpler pieces, etc. -- like for relatives or at a party), but that isn't the same thing as working on a piece to play it really well that is a more difficult work.

Now I can sightread things well enough that they are enjoyable enough to hear (or play, for me) that are things like you mention -- simpler Chopin waltzes, simpler Schumann, stuff like that. But I can play things at a higher level than that which I work on and practice for a while, so I think that's the whole issue. You never will be able to sightread things and have them immediately be at the same performance level and things you are capable of with some work. Just won't happen. I think even piano virtuosos who are some of the best players in the world can play things with practice at a higher level than they sightread, even though I'm sure they can sightread things that sound pretty darn good. It's just the same thing as why I can sightread things that are of higher difficulty than a total beginner who can't play very well.

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#1019513 - 06/04/08 01:58 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
Zazen, this adv.-interm. "wall" that I've
referred to is a rather strange phenomenon.
The piano is a deceptively easy instrument
to play: no special physical skill is
needed to get it to sound, like on a trumpet
or guitar or violin; you just press keys
and the instrument automatically produces
the right tone. Moreover, the amount of
physical force necessary to press a key
is minimal; thus, it would seem that one
could continue to improve on the piano
with, say, more and more lessons or more
and more practice. And indeed there
are a number of a-i forum members who are
taking lessons from high-priced teachers
in the hope of making big-time improvement.
But they are on a futile quest: they
might polish up their playing to some
extent, but they will not be able to
advance to conservatory level with even
10 yrs. of such lessons; they've reached
their terminal level and significant
improvement is not possible.

The reason this universal "wall" that all
pianists hit--not just a-i players--is
due to a variety of physical and psychological
factors. But one thing's for sure: once
a player has reached "his level," whatever
that may be, further significant improvement
is next to impossible.

You keep saying that you are not trying
to sight-read at your level--a logical
impossibility--and yet you keep listing
pieces that you want to s-r that are at
your level, like Clementi sonatas. You
cannot at your current level s-r a
Clementi sonata. And you are continuing
in what I believe is a flawed approach to
s-r, that is, practicing s-r with material
below your level and expecting to gradually
improve. As pointed out above this
is a fundamentally flawed approach
because you are doing what you can already
do, and one does not raise his level
by doing what he can already do.

However, if you want to improve your
general reading--this is not the same
as sight-reading, which is playing pieces
significantly below your level at near
tempo, like John Thompson bk. 2--then
the way to do it is to stop memorizing
and stay with the score until you have
it fluent. That is, you continuously
attempt to do the hard work of deciphering
a score and playing at the same time,
and not take the easy way out and memorize
so you don't have to read the score and
play at the same time. And you'll need
to do this with pieces at your level or
higher, because if you do it with
pieces below your level you gain nothing
that way.

As for the Black Key etude, the way for
a player like you to play it is to
simply start on it and beat it into
the ground by repetitive effort over
a long time. This is a concert pianist-
level piece, and if you expect to gradually
improve to the point where you can sit
down and work it up in a couple of months,
then you'll never be able to play it.
Think about this: if you could sit down
and work it up in a couple of months, you'd
be at concert pianist-level, but with only
a-i talent you cannot steadily progress to
that level even if you took a hundred years
of lessons.

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#1019514 - 06/04/08 02:21 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
Christina, I think I probably could have been clearer with what I meant by "sight-reading". I'm not referring to what has been called elsewhere on these forums "prima vista" sight-reading. I don't have the illusion that I will be able to pick up a piece that I've never seen and play at near performance quality the first time. What I would like is to be able to do is read and play a piece (even if I have to play it a thousand times) at a near-performance level. Right now, if I want to play something even fairly well, I have to memorize it. I don't think I'll ever be able to read and play advanced material at the same time.. but that's ok. I just want to have a large repertoire of intermediate-level pieces that I can read and play alongside my more technical memorized works.

In other words, right now, I can either play one of Chopin's nocturnes that I have memorized... or I can play a broken version of happy birthday... I just want some middle ground \:\)

(ok, that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea \:\) )

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#1019515 - 06/04/08 02:35 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
Gyro... Perhaps we're thinking of different pieces, but I don't think the easier Clementi sonatas are on par with, well, almost anything that Chopin wrote (aside from a few Preludes, maybe). Also, by sight-reading easier material than I can technically play, I have seen a clear improvment over the past several years... so I think "futile" may be the wrong word. This happens because I'm not simply rehearsing something I can already do. Technical skill and sight-reading skill are two different things. I'm actually sight-reading pieces that are slightly above my current level of that skill... and that seems to work well. It's still difficult for me to read those pieces, so learning does occur.

I think maybe we've had different exposure to musicians and students, but I don't recall seeing anyone that I thought was at a "terminal" level of skill. I agree that not just anyone can be a concert pianist, but I think it's more a problem of motivation and opportunity than "talent." Don't get me wrong, with respect to mathematics, for example, everyone has a kind of "ceiling" as dictated by natural ability. I've worked with students that will almost certainly never understand modern algebra, for instance... but it's not because they've hit a ceiling.. it's because they progress slower than those that are smarter/"talented" at mathematics. My experience with virtuoso musicians has been that the practice that they did "clicked" early and often and resulted in greater skill.. which resulted in more opportunities... which redoubles itself. I'm not sure people are very limited technically... now musically... that's another story entirely. \:\)

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#1019516 - 06/04/08 05:44 PM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
SantaFe_Player Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/31/08
Posts: 607
As stated in the above posts, sightreading should be practiced slowly and, generally, on pieces that may not be up to your playing level, until your sightreading skills catch up. But it should be done slowly. Accuracy is important, but there is a little bit of wiggle room there, depending on your goal. For many, the most important application of sightreading is the ability to accompany other musicians (including singers....). To do this, you certainly must be rythmically VERY accurate and you shouldn't play something riddled with wrong notes, but you are allowed to leave out a note here or there in the interest of keeping going at the correct tempo in the right rythm, so long as you are within the chord structure and not clashing with the soloist. This amount of slop notwithstanding, the goal when practicing your sightreading skills ought to be to play every note accurately with correct rythms. For the time being, this will mean sightreading below - possibly FAR below - your technical skill level. But, as has been stated before, if you ever look at a piece more than once, it is no longer sightreading and you get less benefit by doing this than you would by looking at each piece only once at the keyboard. By all means, read it through away from the piano, think it through, dissect it with your mind, a hundred times before you actually sit down, set the metronome and start playing. But only play it once if you truly want to be sightreading.
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#1019517 - 06/05/08 01:22 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Danny Niklas Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/15/08
Posts: 905
Loc: Switzerland
 Quote:
Originally posted by Gyro:
The reason this universal "wall" that all
pianists hit--not just a-i players--is
due to a variety of physical and psychological
factors. But one thing's for sure: once
a player has reached "his level," whatever
that may be, further significant improvement
is next to impossible.
[/b]
Walls are not clues that we've run out of potential. Most of the time walls are artificial barrier that sooner or later collapses. I have seen many pianists taking sabbathic years because they hit a walls. After such time they indeed overcame the obstacle and improvement began again.
Sometime the wall is the wrong teacher, the wrong method, the wrong school, the wrong moment in your life or the wrong motivation. Often all we need to overcome an obstable is stop, rest and wait for the bulb to switch on. I think we have often heard or experienced how not studying or not practicing actually improves your knowledge and technique. Like you have not been able to practice for a week and come back to the teacher expecting to suck like never before and actually she tells you've improved and sounds better than before. Everything is so relative that we can't really claim that whatever wall we meet is the boundary of our talent and potential and it will never go down.

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#1019518 - 06/05/08 01:58 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Coolkid70 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/27/08
Posts: 378
Loc: Irvine, CA
Gyro wrote:

 Quote:
I believe there is a fundamental logical flaw
in your approach to sight-reading. Your
current level, the pieces you can play
with a lot of work but not sight-read,
defines the upper limit of your sight-reading,
that is, you'll be able, by definition,
to sight-read somewhere below your current
level, but you cannot, by definition,
sight-read at your current level or higher--
if you could do that, then you would have
a logical contradiction, because your
current level is what you cannot sight-read.
Thus, trying to improve your sight-reading
so that you can sight-read at your
current level is logically flawed--this,
by definition, is not possible.
The argument presented in this particular post is completely fallacious. You've simply assumed what you were trying to prove and disguised it as a fundamental definition.

The only thing I can agree with the idea that one's technical ability is the upper bound for one's sightreading ability. This follows from other definitions; I will supply the proof.

Technical level can be defined in terms of the most difficult keyboard actions one can perform in general by one's own accord(perhaps with sufficient practise, etc...). Sightreading level is defined in terms of the most difficult keyboard actions one can perform without having seen a given piece of music before. Let these values be represented by some magnitude, U and V (of arbitrary unit that can be ordered), respectively.

Proof (by contradiction): Let X be a person who has a a technical level of U and sightreading level of V. Suppose that V is strictly greater than U. This is immediately a contradiction, because U should have been the most difficult possible for X (and it clearly isn't, since V is something even more difficult, by hypothesis). Therefore, V is less than or equal to U.


Other claims, for example, that you have to raise your technical ability to raise your sightreading ability, are unproven (and I personally do not see how it follows).


For the topic at hand:

I think you should just try to read as much stuff as you can in as short a period of time as you can. The more you do it, the better you will get, as with almost everything, as long as you do it honestly and judiciously.

Good luck!
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#1019519 - 06/05/08 08:55 AM Re: How to practice sight reading (help)
Zazen Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/02/08
Posts: 13
SantaFe: I enjoy getting different perspectives on this... you're right about there being two different approaches, I think. If I'm accompanying someone, I could see how maintaining rhythm and basic structure would be a good skill to have. I play along with music sometimes and whatnot, so this idea is somewhat familiar to me.

Coolkid: I agree with what you said.. just wanted to throw in a quick comment about technical ability and sight-reading. I think increasing technical ability can indirectly help sightreading since having a technique down cold leaves one less thing for the brain to process when sight-reading. If I have to think about my sight-reading and worry about executing the technique correctly at the same time, it makes reading more difficult (Fantasie Impromptu comes to mind since the 4 on 3 thing needs practice on its own). Actually, I think a simpler example works as well: scales. If I'm familiar with the fingering of a particular run, it makes it a lot easier to sight-read it and play it than if the fingering itself feels unfamiliar to my fingers. Anyway, just a thought...

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