Two submissions were received for this issue’s topic, sight reading.
DIARY OF A SIGHT READING EXPERIMENT
In Mrs. Curwen’s 1886 Teacher’s Guide, she gave specific guidelines regarding sight reading and the kinds of material needed such as “very easy music -much easier than what the pupil is playing look at the key signature where are the accidentals play without stopping , at a slow rate but strict time.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In the summer of 2003, I decided to try an experiment with some of my students in the hope that it would stimulate and (hopefully) improve their sight reading with group or ensemble activities. I “invited” eight students (piano grades 9 and 10) to participate in a 2 hour session each week for 4 weeks and be “guinea pigs” for some ideas I had about sight reading. Since all of them recognized that their abilities in this area was not of first class quality, they accepted .
Our goals were to:
develop rhythmic comprehension
develop continuity and fluency
develop a tactile sense of the keyboard without looking
improve instant recognition of every note of the staff
set tempos that would permit accuracy and on going movement
After some initial confusion as to what was going to happen, the first activity was a series of “simple” rhythm patterns to be executed using different body sounds. Watching eight students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, try to execute these patterns using claps, snaps, pats and taps while maintaining a steady pulse was worthy of a Monty Python segment. However, with a bit more initial practice on executing accurate triplets and dotted notes, chaos became more controlled.
Next came individual clapping or tapping (student choice) of rhythms in a continuous pattern a la Round Robin. Fortunately, I had chosen not to mix the metre so after 2 rounds, this began to make rhythmic sense. Final rhythmic activity was improvising some rhythm patterns already prepared on the black keys of the piano while an accompaniment maintained the pulse. As the students continued, they became interested in using different registers and dynamic levels which actually began to sound rather nice!!
On we moved to note reading. The initial selections were chosen from the Anna Magdalena Notebook (various dances) with 2 students at one piano, each one playing the treble or bass line. The biggest difficulty was the setting of a tempo for each pair since their abilities tended to have a wide range (at least initially). Then common sense entered and they all agreed that “Slow is very good.” Continuing with Bach, the group read Invention #1 (none had ever studied it) with one student at each piano playing only a single line. However, I had also divided the Invention into small segments so that the rest of the class would all have a chance to play the Invention. Fortunately, the performers of measures 1 and 2 chose a very , very “leisurely” tempo, so all eight students survived without too many disasters.
The next event was a piece by Granados that I had segmented into eight parts, to be played hands together in numerical order. This proved to be a real challenge for several but by modifying the tempo (a really free rubato!) they did complete their segment.
The final reading activity was Flash Reading of ledger lines!! A few minutes of rudimentary intervallic review and memorizing of selected ledger lines permitted them to actually be able to identify notes surrounding these ledger lines by intervallic reading.
The final activity was to encourage tactile keyboard fluency by:
finding individual notes or groups of notes by feeling, using the black keys spelling words suggested by class members (such imagination!) playing several different chords built on a single note, using root and inversions playing scales and arpeggios without looking at their hands.
At the end of the 1st session, each student was sent home with a “Grab Bag” that included some of the above activities to be done each day, plus six sight reading pieces as well as one duet (both parts) for the next week. I was exhausted!
The weeks went on and no one dropped out. To my surprise, the sight reading began to improve and the students displayed much more confidence and readiness to try any new idea.
Week 4 and Graduation. They all had created a rhythm instrument to bring to the class and the usual round of rhythm patterns became much more colourful and interesting…also almost perfect the first time round.
For our final sight reading, the repertoire included Waltzes 6 and 14 of Op. 39 (Brahms), Hungarian Dance (Bartok),and an arrangement of Beethoven’s Turkish March , all performed on two pianos. These were all segmented in fairly even units so that no one was left out.
Was this a successful experiment? I truly believe so because of the eight students, six took examinations in January and June 2004, and all received marks of 8.5 to 9.5. We continued some of the activities, such as reading duets, quick studies and finger flashes for notes and rhythms in and out of the lesson. They all agreed that our summer together pushed them along.
I continue to use the Grab Bags which I now call a Survival Kit for Sight reading. While this has taken time to prepare, it has become part of a regular activity that can make a difference. And for the students, they actually said “That was fun”!!
Other repertoire used: Zipoli: Theme and Variations from Partita in A minor, several Mozart variations, several Heller studies, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos Book 2, and selections from “The Nutcracker” arranged for duet.
Mary Tickner, Coordinator
How does one teach sight reading? As I am a piano teacher, I can only answer that question with regards to the piano. Hopefully, though, teachers of voice or other instruments may still be able to adapt some of these ideas to suit their purposes.
The basics are actually quite simple and well stated in “Sight Reading: The Basics Step by Step” from the book Teaching Piano, edited by Denes Agay, pp. 197 218. This is an excellent survey of sight reading teaching methods from beginners up to a late intermediate/early advanced level. For advanced students, I’d recommend the chapter ‘Sight Reading for Fun and Profit’ from the book The Pianist’s Problems by William S. Newman.
Sometimes, however, a lack of sight reading ability is really a sign of insufficient keyboard skills and/or musical knowledge. However, this opens up a whole large area of pedagogy that could fill many pages. The question then becomes how does one build up a student’s musical knowledge and analytical skills and then translate that knowledge into active playing skills. (at the same time as they are learning repertoire).
At the beginner level, the choice of method book is critical. I highly recommend a book that uses a gradual multi key approach. This approach leads seamlessly and easily into the teaching of functional skills such as transposing, accompanying a given melody, improvisation, sight reading, and playing by ear.
As the student moves into the intermediate and advanced levels, most teachers I know will start to use a conservatory system of examinations. This is where the lag between repertoire and true keyboard skills often occurs. Most conservatory examination systems do not have a sufficient gradual buildup of keyboard skills from grade to grade. It behooves the teacher to develop their own standards at each grade. Although these skills will not be directly tested, they will have a tremendous effect, not only on the student’s sight reading tests but also on their ability to interpret repertoire. In other words, keyboard skills will be reflected in the student’s marks!
I have taught this way for years and I can assure you that I have turned out confident piano players who not only achieve exam goals, but also learn a set of skills they can always take with them and enjoy long after their days as a student are over.
For transfer students, I have developed a remedial keyboard skills course to bring their keyboard skills in line with the difficulty of their repertoire.
I admit that, at first, this is not an easy route to go as a teacher. I had to look critically at my own skills and bring them up to a satisfactory level before I could offer this approach to my students. I encourage all teachers to try because I’m confident that you’ll find, as I did, that the musical journey I went on proved to be far more rewarding to me, personally, than I ever expected.
We thank Ronin Wong for taking the time to outline his approach to sight reading. The topic for the next newsletter is: “What to do about small hands!!”
To suggest topics for future issues of Pedagogy Forum, and to respond to the next topic, please fax or phone Mary Tickner at 604-263-1592.