Questions for proficient sight readers

Posted by: tangleweeds

Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/09/10 10:19 PM

A year or so ago, when I was obsessively reading every sight reading thread I could dig out of the archives. I noticed that many proficient sight readers mentioned having a phase in their lives when they read through vast quantities of sheet music, basically because the music was easily accessible and they had the time to explore it. If this was true of you, when during your development did this happen?

Another common formative pattern I noticed was an opportunity/requirement to accompany a friend, sibling, or group of singers. If this was true of you, did you do it because you wanted to, or because you got drafted, or some combination of the two?

Mostly I'm just curious whether either of these experiences help to develop your sight reading skills, or what other experiences in your musical development influenced you to become a good sight reader.
Posted by: ChopinAddict

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/09/10 10:32 PM

I think it is like learning to read normal books.
Read a lot of music and you will be able to sight-read one day.
Posted by: pilgrim

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/09/10 11:53 PM

I was thrown into playing the pipe organ in church - BAM!

Also, I would always "read ahead" in the Piano Adventures books that my piano teacher used to teach me the piano - which I think helped in the sight reading regard.
Posted by: Kuanpiano

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/09/10 11:54 PM

Exploring through Liszt's transcendental etudes made me really good at reading scores as well as huge masses of accidentals, octaves, patterns.
Posted by: Pogorelich.

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 12:37 AM

Accompanying sure does help. Choirs are great, because they throw music at you quite often, and because it's not challenging to read (well.. not THAT challenging, in my experience), it's great to start with it.
Posted by: gsmonks

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 01:04 AM

Being volunteered for accompanying the church choir at their Wednesday rehearsals does wonders for your reading at any age, and at any stage of development.

Also, reading tons of music at a comfortable level is invaluable.

If you can dig yourself up a book of the piano parts to the Schubert songs, you'll do yourself a world of good.
Posted by: jeffreyjones

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 01:47 AM

I was a freak of nature. I learned the basics, learned all the scales and keys, and within a couple years I could sight-read like nobody's business. Now as an adult, I can play music at the level of a Brahms intermezzo flawlessly having never heard or seen it before. The Rosenberg sonata I recorded for the Unsung Heroes recital, I had only played through twice before I committed it to record...

I really have to be patient when teaching, because I have no idea how hard it actually is for most people to sight read..
Posted by: SpencerF

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 04:27 AM

Originally Posted By: jeffreyjones
I was a freak of nature. I learned the basics, learned all the scales and keys, and within a couple years I could sight-read like nobody's business. Now as an adult, I can play music at the level of a Brahms intermezzo flawlessly having never heard or seen it before. The Rosenberg sonata I recorded for the Unsung Heroes recital, I had only played through twice before I committed it to record...

I really have to be patient when teaching, because I have no idea how hard it actually is for most people to sight read..


Wow cool, I imagine that's like when the rest of us try to show someone who has never played a musical instrument something on the piano. You have to be very patient.

I'm curious though, has anything else always come super easy to you like math? I'm curious about what other types of learning are similar to the piano for you.

To stay on topic. Yes, sight reading comes mostly from playing through tons of music. I can't play the same piece of music over and over because by the time I learn it, I am so sick of it I never want to hear it again. So I am stuck with mostly sight reading and note playing.
Posted by: Rui725

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 04:41 AM

Originally Posted By: SpencerF
Originally Posted By: jeffreyjones
I was a freak of nature. I learned the basics, learned all the scales and keys, and within a couple years I could sight-read like nobody's business. Now as an adult, I can play music at the level of a Brahms intermezzo flawlessly having never heard or seen it before. The Rosenberg sonata I recorded for the Unsung Heroes recital, I had only played through twice before I committed it to record...

I really have to be patient when teaching, because I have no idea how hard it actually is for most people to sight read..


Wow cool, I imagine that's like when the rest of us try to show someone who has never played a musical instrument something on the piano. You have to be very patient.

I'm curious though, has anything else always come super easy to you like math? I'm curious about what other types of learning are similar to the piano for you.

To stay on topic. Yes, sight reading comes mostly from playing through tons of music. I can't play the same piece of music over and over because by the time I learn it, I am so sick of it I never want to hear it again. So I am stuck with mostly sight reading and note playing.


How do you get a piece to performance standard?
Posted by: Nikolas

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 05:19 AM

I'm not THAT good a sight reader, but I do think that I became rather good, only because I was never studying enough. I simply hated Czerny and I was given no reason to study it really (bad teachers...), so in all I was forced to pretty much sight read every etude I got! laugh
Posted by: ChopinAddict

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 05:41 AM

I think I have become a good sight-reader because there is so much I would like to learn...
Posted by: currawong

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 05:59 AM

Things which helped me become a proficient sight-reader included:

[1] Having a pile of music on the piano when I was a child. My father was my first teacher - he didn't tell me to read it all, but I did.
[2] Finding myself from the age of 12 playing hymns at church (on a wheezy little harmonium), and accompanying the choir. I did it because I liked it, and because I was rather chuffed to find that people thought I was good enough to do it.
[3] I wrote music. Trying to get your ideas down accurately really sharpens your reading skills.
[4] When I didn't do brilliantly in the sight-reading component of my first piano exam (it was harder than hymns, after all), my teacher (not my father by this stage) told me to just read through as much music as I could. I spent a few happy weeks playing right through the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words. From that I started reading everything I could lay my hands on, and I more or less haven't stopped since. It's that lure of I wonder what's on the next page?
Posted by: Mattardo

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 06:26 AM

Hymns, Ragtime and Sonatinas - very good training aids for sight-reading.
You'll get to a point where it's like reading aloud - as easy as pie. Some words require some practice in pronouncing them, but most are easy sailing.

I agree with Currawong - it's also very, very fun to encounter new music and find out what happens next.
It's also pretty helpful when trying to find a new sheet music purchase - you can demo it on the spot and see if you'll like it.

The scary thing is that some very competent pianists are very incompentent when it comes to sight-reading. I've never understood how this can happen.
Posted by: btb

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 07:20 AM

The big trick to sight-reading is to
GROUP THE INDIVIDUAL NOTES
into easily identifiable note patterns

Avoid, like the plague, the dull routine of reading individual notes successively ...
this worn approach indelibly hobbles the mind-set of the pianist

Here’s how to play Schumann’s Kinderscenen Opus 15
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen
(Foreign Lands and People)




The 2/4 signature is a quick clue to split the measures in two ...
now play the first 5 notes until memory accepts as autopilot
then the 5 notes to complete measure 1
play the complete measure to autopilot
(One down and seven to go)

tackle measure 2 in the same way ... memorizing the two halves
play the 2 measures to autopilot

Interestingly Schumann repeats his opening Theme to measures 3 and 4 (half way home and only four to go)

Hoping the suggestion helps ... the time-honoured tip that sight-reading gets better with time is only true when the modus operandi involves the grouping of notes ... reading in terms of individual notes should be taboo.
Posted by: Morodiene

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 08:48 AM

I agree with btb here. It's all about recognizing patterns quickly, not reading the notes. With sight reading, therefore, you also must keep your eyes looking ahead as you are playing in the present, so that your mind has time to identify and respond to the patterns it sees. It is very easy/comfortable to watch a note as you play it, but then time goes by and then your brain actually has to think faster for the next part, or you end up pausing or stuttering.

I take a blank sheet of paper and ask a student to look at the first measure before playing, then I cover it up with the paper and ask them to play it. About halfway through the measure I'll cover up the next measure, so they had better have looked at it already! I continue like this throughout the whole piece.
Posted by: jeffreyjones

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 10:06 AM

Originally Posted By: SpencerF
Wow cool, I imagine that's like when the rest of us try to show someone who has never played a musical instrument something on the piano. You have to be very patient.

I'm curious though, has anything else always come super easy to you like math? I'm curious about what other types of learning are similar to the piano for you.


I'm a quick learner in general. I picked up French very easily and still retain most of the grammatical rules and conjugation rules. I was good at math. Applied sciences were a bit trickier for me; when it came to subjects that require critical analysis, it took me a lot longer to find my stride. Literature study didn't really click with me until I was an undergrad in college.

Quote:
To stay on topic. Yes, sight reading comes mostly from playing through tons of music. I can't play the same piece of music over and over because by the time I learn it, I am so sick of it I never want to hear it again. So I am stuck with mostly sight reading and note playing.


That shouldn't be a problem. I can and do work on the same piece for months or even years at a time. It stays fresh as long as you are in the mindset that every performance is brand new and has never been done before.
Posted by: Morodiene

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 10:09 AM

I wonder: for those who sightreading came naturally, do you have trouble memorizing? I was a poor reader as a child and so I memorized very quickly.
Posted by: jeffreyjones

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 10:14 AM

No, I've always been able to memorize quickly as well. The quick memorization is always full of mistakes, though; if I want to do it right, I have to teach the piece to myself by rote, passage by passage, but it usually doesn't take too long. For some reason Liszt has always been the easiest composer for me to memorize.
Posted by: John Chan

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 10:27 AM

Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
A year or so ago, when I was obsessively reading every sight reading thread I could dig out of the archives. I noticed that many proficient sight readers mentioned having a phase in their lives when they read through vast quantities of sheet music, basically because the music was easily accessible and they had the time to explore it. If this was true of you, when during your development did this happen?

Another common formative pattern I noticed was an opportunity/requirement to accompany a friend, sibling, or group of singers. If this was true of you, did you do it because you wanted to, or because you got drafted, or some combination of the two?

Mostly I'm just curious whether either of these experiences help to develop your sight reading skills, or what other experiences in your musical development influenced you to become a good sight reader.


My sight-reading capability came from reading orchestral full score, when I was learning harmonization, orchestration and counterpoint.

If you understand musical structure, sight-reading is easy because you are reading music not note-by-note, but at a higher structural level.

It is the same as those who speed-read. They don't read the alphabets. They don't even read the individual words. They scan through key words, and understand the passage from the context.
Posted by: pilgrim

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 10:40 AM

On memorization: I can memorize a play within 3-4 readings...yet it would take me /weeks/ longer to memorize a piece of music.
Posted by: jeffreyjones

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 12:50 PM

Originally Posted By: John Chan
If you understand musical structure, sight-reading is easy because you are reading music not note-by-note, but at a higher structural level.

It is the same as those who speed-read. They don't read the alphabets. They don't even read the individual words. They scan through key words, and understand the passage from the context.


Yes, you're right. That's also why some people who speed read well don't memorize well; their attention isn't on the details, it's on the bigger picture, so when the brain tries to fill it in, sometimes it fills it incorrectly.
Posted by: breakfast shark

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 06:19 PM

Originally Posted By: Mattardo
The scary thing is that some very competent pianists are very incompentent when it comes to sight-reading. I've never understood how this can happen.


I think this is likely to happen if a person's earlier music education is irregular.

While I'm not claiming to be "very competent", I do think I'm in a similar boat. Even though I started learning the piano at a very young age, I switched instructors every 3-4 years due to circumstances, and then I took a 14 year hiatus from music. When I restarted the piano half a year ago, I found my technique improving at an alarming rate, simply as a side effect of being grown up. Today I can polish off something like Debussy's Arabesque 1 in about 1-2 weeks time.

But my sightreading skills has fallen far, far behind. I simply cannot sightread anything higher than rank 2 or 3, which is absurd. To draw the reading analogy that people are making, I understand all the grammar of the language, but I have an elementary schooler's cache of vocabulary.
Posted by: Arghhh

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 06:37 PM

Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
A year or so ago, when I was obsessively reading every sight reading thread I could dig out of the archives. I noticed that many proficient sight readers mentioned having a phase in their lives when they read through vast quantities of sheet music, basically because the music was easily accessible and they had the time to explore it. If this was true of you, when during your development did this happen?

For me it wasn’t when I first started learning. I remember being in the middle of the John Thompson grade 1 book and not knowing how to read the notes (I read by finger numbering on the printed music). I did get past this, but I wonder if this earlier “laziness” taught me how to read by interval instead of letter names, which is a key to being able to read faster. My dad would sometimes play through the rest of my method books, and he would also play through some other collections of classical music. I picked up on this and started doing that myself, probably when I was getting near the end of the grade 2 book. Since then, I’ve always been playing through my music, and checking out other scores from the library to play through. My dad and I also played through duets together.

When I started with my first piano teacher, she always wanted me to practice hands separately at first. I refused, and just played through my pieces. I also didn’t ever stop to repeat sections. I wonder if this also aided in my reading ability – I would imagine that people who spend the majority of their practice time drilling sections do not have to actually read the notes after the first few times, whereas people who just play through the pieces need to rely on reading for much longer. Now that I do have better practice habits I feel that my sight-reading ability has dropped. Or at least it hasn’t returned to what it was prior to my 10-year break from piano.

Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
Another common formative pattern I noticed was an opportunity/requirement to accompany a friend, sibling, or group of singers. If this was true of you, did you do it because you wanted to, or because you got drafted, or some combination of the two?

Mostly I'm just curious whether either of these experiences help to develop your sight reading skills, or what other experiences in your musical development influenced you to become a good sight reader.

I did play for church and started accompanying in high school. I was questioning why people say you must play with someone else in order to improve skills. I believe it has to do with the ability to focus. When playing with other people, you are obligated to continue on, and for me I have to live up to the “challenge” and look good for the others. I think one should be able to stimulate this kind of focusing even when practicing alone.
Posted by: dolce sfogato

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 06:53 PM

When 14, I just wanted to play as much as I could, all the Mozart/Beethoven/Chopin was at hand, so I started at page 1, didn't stop until the end of one composer's volume, etc. Did this for 1 year or so, and then had to accompany many other instrumentalists, one is just coaxed into relying on one's ability to be economical with one's time: a prima vista! Later, in my early twenties, I became repetiteur of the student's choir, a very good way of playing from scores you normally wouldn't touch, from Bach Passions through Verdi's Requiem, whole opera's went through the fingers, at Conservatory, same story: played all the duo repertoire for piano and violin/viola/cello/double bass/all the woodwinds/all the brass/ the time-pressure did miracles, although I must admit, for solo-concerts, and playing by heart, it did me no good, so to concentrate at playing without music is my big challenge now..
Posted by: stores

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 09:09 PM

Originally Posted By: dolce sfogato
When 14, I just wanted to play as much as I could, all the Mozart/Beethoven/Chopin was at hand, so I started at page 1, didn't stop until the end of one composer's volume, etc. Did this for 1 year or so, and then had to accompany many other instrumentalists, one is just coaxed into relying on one's ability to be economical with one's time: a prima vista! Later, in my early twenties, I became repetiteur of the student's choir, a very good way of playing from scores you normally wouldn't touch, from Bach Passions through Verdi's Requiem, whole opera's went through the fingers, at Conservatory, same story: played all the duo repertoire for piano and violin/viola/cello/double bass/all the woodwinds/all the brass/ the time-pressure did miracles, although I must admit, for solo-concerts, and playing by heart, it did me no good, so to concentrate at playing without music is my big challenge now..


We're quite similar in this regard (and others I've noticed). When quite young, once I'd had a taste of the greats (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.) I simply wanted to learn more and would spend literally hours working my way through whatever volume I'd plucked from the bench. It's always been that way...I played one Mozart concerto at 11 and wanted to learn them all and so did. Chopin ballades, scherzi, nocturnes, waltzes, Beethoven sonatas (save 106) and concerti, Bach French, English suites, Partitas, WTC, etc., etc.
At any rate I was always working (or trying to work) on repertoire that was JUST beyond me and the more I did it the easier it became until soon the rep wasn't just beyond me any longer and my reading skills have always been strong as a result (at least it's my belief that that's the primary reason they've always been strong).
Posted by: RealPlayer

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/10/10 10:39 PM

When I was a college undergrad, I was a proficient pianist and got roped into becoming the choral accompanist...not just reading the accompaniment but picking out voices and reading them off for the singers in various combinations. This was a huge help. I don't regret this kind of work for a moment...it was tremendously rewarding for me, not just for sight-reading but for opening the choral literature to me, including early music meant for small choirs. We were fortunate to have great choral directors who chose music of substance.

I was also super-interested in contemporary music back then (still am) and was pressed into service to perform student scores, sometimes on short notice. Great practice.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/11/10 09:23 PM

Tangleweeds, as others here have said, good sightreaders see groups of notes instead of just individual notes. It's like looking at a sentence in a book and seeing words instead of just a series of letters.

And that means, for the most part, seeing chords. (I don't think anyone has explicitly said that.) So the more familiar you become with chords and chord progressions, the better you'll do.

When I teach beginners, before we even look at notation, I help them to play simple pieces that are made up of broken chords. That way, right from the start, they're thinking in terms of groups.

On a personal note, though, I'll never forget the precise moment when I began to enjoy sight-reading. I was maybe 7 or 8 and had already been taking lessons for a few years. One day I opened up one of the beginner's books I hadn't touched for a long time. It was a large collection of simplified arrangements of classical pieces, only a few of which I had actually studied.

And suddenly I realized: wow, I can read most of the pieces in here and play them without even practicing them! And the arrangements were interesting enough so that, even though they were technically much easier than the music I was currently working on, I really enjoyed playing them.

And from then on, sight-reading became a great source of pleasure for me. So I kept getting better and better at it.

And that's what you need to do, Tangleweeds—find a way to make sight-reading fun!
Posted by: BWV846

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/12/10 12:12 PM

Listening to classical music has always appealed to me. My family of origin was not very musical and would more likely just turn on the pop radio in the morning just to have sounds in the house. They did not encourage nor discourage my interest. We did not have a piano in the house nor could we afford lessons.

Jump ahead to when I was 14 or 15 I and decided to learn to play the recorder based solely on hearing an LP of the New York Pro Musica. I couldn't play the recorder. I couldn't read music. So I got the Erich Katz book "Recorder Playing" and over a year learned both. That was the beginning.

As a fiery adolescent with raging hormones I would listen to Beethoven's symphonies in my basement hideout and play along on the recorder(!!) with Josef Krips and the London Symphony. Luckily no one heard enough to complain. Soon after I picked up the one book that got me started in earnest to learn how to read music beyond folk tunes. That book is George Grove's "Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies". Because it reduced many of the motifs to fairly simple notation I was able to learn to play along. Knowing the "tunes" before seeing them on the staff helped my a lot amd over time I was able to get the notes right. Soon I found a full orchestral score of all Beethoven's symphonies in a remainder store and soon was following along. It's great practice. Find simple things and tunes that you know and listen and follow along.
Posted by: tangleweeds

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/12/10 06:27 PM

OP returns to say thanks to everyone who replied. I'm an adult beginner so my sight-reading level is pretty low, but I've been working on reading music a lot over the last year, and have reached the point where it has just begun to be a recreational instead of requisite activity. My intuition is that this marks a turning point in my learning curve, where reading music can begin to develop its own momentum as something I enjoy doing for its own sake.

Originally Posted By: Bruce Siegel
Tangleweeds, as others here have said, good sightreaders see groups of notes instead of just individual notes. It's like looking at a sentence in a book and seeing words instead of just a series of letters.

And that means, for the most part, seeing chords. (I don't think anyone has explicitly said that.) So the more familiar you become with chords and chord progressions, the better you'll do.

Thank you, I had been wondering whether my correlating language:words => music:chords was appropriate. I do practice seeing music in terms of chords, both when I'm playing something new and when I'm just listening & following along with the score.

I enjoy studying theory and am now working on recognizing and building chords on different scale degrees of different keys. Is this the sort of work which likely to be helpful in developing my ability to read in "words"?

My problem right now is that playing level low enough that the material I can fluently sight-read is pretty basic, and therefore not all that inspiring to play. Often I spice things up by playing it transposed into other keys, but generally, when entertaining myself I don't so much sight read as "recreationally stumble through," playing through material that's too hard for me to read fluently, but more interesting to figure out harmonically.
Posted by: currawong

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/12/10 06:35 PM

Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
I've been working on reading music a lot over the last year, and have reached the point where it has just begun to be a recreational instead of requisite activity. My intuition is that this marks a turning point in my learning curve, where reading music can begin to develop its own momentum as something I enjoy doing for its own sake.
Yes! thumb
Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
...but generally, when entertaining myself I don't so much sight read as "recreationally stumble through,
"Recreationally stumble through" smile
I think that's what many of us were describing when we said we used to just play through piles of music in our earlier piano days.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel

Re: Questions for proficient sight readers - 09/12/10 11:36 PM

Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
have reached the point where it has just begun to be a recreational instead of requisite activity. My intuition is that this marks a turning point in my learning curve, where reading music can begin to develop its own momentum as something I enjoy doing for its own sake.


I agree!

Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
I enjoy studying theory and am now working on recognizing and building chords on different scale degrees of different keys. Is this the sort of work which likely to be helpful in developing my ability to read in "words"?


Absolutely.

Originally Posted By: tangleweeds
My problem right now is that playing level low enough that the material I can fluently sight-read is pretty basic, and therefore not all that inspiring to play.


Another possibility is to challenge yourself to make that simple material interesting by how much beauty and expressiveness you can bring to it. The key is to listen deeply to every single note and have a clear intention for what you want to do with it.