Monday, 7 November 2011

8 Essential Piano Sight Reading Tips: for exams, or learning a new piece

 As exams loom around the corner, I thought I'd offer some sight reading tips, which can be applied to learning new pieces too. Reading music requires regular, if not daily practice. With all sight reading no matter the instrument, you need to pay attention to these 8 elements, weakness in any one area will affects your delivery of the piece.

  1. Notes - play the correct notes, within the designated key signature, and in the correct register. Playing correct notes, sounds easy but can be problematic in key signatures with  lots of flats or sharps, and additional accidentals.

     Also, are you also actually playing in the correct register too, or are you an octave too high or to low? Students with non full sized electronic keyboards may find it hard to locate middle C, when it comes to playing on an exam full sized piano keyboard.

    How to improve? Music theory workbooks can help students gain a visual memory of the notes, make sure they play through the exercises on the keyboard though. 

    Books: Grades 1-5 (Beginner to intermediate)
    Improve your sight reading (Paul Harris) (Faber Publishing)
    Joining the Dots (Alan Bullard) (ABRSM Publishing) 

    Flashcards such as those by Hal Leonard and Chester can be have notes in the bass clef and treble cleff with a visual guide to where the note is on the keyboard. With these cards,  you can mix up or place in a sequence (C-G,etc.) and have the student try and play these on the keyboard.

  2. Rhythmcan you clap or tap the rhythm correctly? Are you giving silences to the appropriate rests. You can say "shhh" for each beat of the rest.  A minim (half note) rest would be two beats of "shh shh". 

    Younger students of the age of 4 or 5 may have problems counting the beats especially with dotted rhythms and quavers (1/8 notes) as they understanding counting and adding of fractions. So a solution for this is to use rhythmic words for complex rhythms, Quavers (1/8 notes)  you can use "ta ka", and Te for crotchets (1/4 notes). Some teachers make up words, for example a teacher I knew used Apple for quavers (1/8 notes) and Pie for crotchets (1/4 notes) You can use rhythmic syllables for counting notes Kodaly has a set of Rhythm syllables; and there's also a Takadimi method.

  3. Dynamics - monotone is boring! Did you play the piece in all one level. How do you bring this home to one student. Read a poem or nursery rhyme, or song with one monotone voice, next use dynamics in your reading - whispers, normal voice, and shouting, I'm sure they'll agree it's more interesting.

  4. Flow and Pulse Music is storytelling in time and therefore has a natural flow and pulse to it. Therefore, maintaining a steady uninterrupted pulse is another vital element to music making and sight reading.

    To understand the importance of keeping musical flow, play on the piano (if you are a teacher) or if you are a parent who doesn't play the piano play a youtube video or a music mp3 track to your student/child and pause the music every 5 seconds or so, get them to feedback on why the music wasn't enjoyable. This will quickly bring home the importance of keeping the music going.

    Another exercise is to play twinkle twinkle little star but suddenly stop playing every in random places. Imagine you are accompanying a singer or another instrument, you can't afford to stop the music.

  5. Tempo - "I feel the need for speed"  are you up to speed? Or should you put on the brakes? playing as close to the tempo marking as possible while maintaining accuracy. Dolmetsch provides a good guide to tempo markings from anything Adagio to Presto, complete with bpm - beats per minute metronome suggestions. 
  6. Coordination - Proprioception is required, meaning your hands and fingers know where they are on the keyboard without having to look at them constantly, so in effect, for some passages, you can play with your eyes closed! This helps prevent interrupting the music by constantly looking from score to your hand and finger position. Your fingers have in fact memorised the spacing between the notes of the piano. 
  7. Spirit - with "Emotional Content" emotional content, energy, and musicality and some clues are indicated in some sight reading tests. 
  8. Patterns - look for patterns, which is easier said than done. In other words, look for notes that may move up in parallel motion in the same direction, scale fragments, appeggio patterns, broken chords you may have practiced before, motifs. 

Further Reading

Please share your experiences and knowledge by commenting on this blog post, I'd love to hear from you. 

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