Monday, May 5, 2014

I'm Back!

Mark Twain said: "Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times."

Well I guess that's how it is for me when it comes to giving up on sight-reading. I just can't stay away. I'm back to working on it, but my new study program is more focused and less time-consuming. I'll tell you all about it, but first ...

What I've Been Up To

In my last post, I talked about giving up on, or at least giving less priority to, sight-reading. That's what I did, and it has been a good thing for my general playing, because it has given me more time to spend working on  other skills. For example, I've added new songs to my solo jazz repertoire, gotten more licks down, done more exercises, and worked on the general sound of my jazz playing. This feels good, and I realize that I've been neglecting this stuff in favor of sight-reading.

I'm a morning person, and the thing I do right after breakfast gets the most of my energy. For years, that thing has been sight-reading. Since "quitting," other tasks have been granted that "most favored concentration" status.

Another thing I've had more time for is writing. As you can see on the right side of this page, I've written a book. The book is a bit different from this blog, with a summary chapter or two, but most of the important information is available right here in the blog you are reading. If you're a tightwad like me, you'll be fine with just the blog. If you prefer to curl up with a physical book or with your eBook reader, you'll probably enjoy the book (end of commercial).

I've talked about how valuable piano lessons are for improving one's sight-reading. I still believe this is true, but once I gave  sight-reading a lower priority, I could no longer justify the expense of lessons. I reluctantly stopped taking lessons. Note, however, that I've received so many valuable tips on sight-reading from my teacher, that I can continue to benefit from them for years.

Finally, I felt that I was letting you down, dear blog readers, by quitting. In fact there were a number of times over the years that I would have given up were it not for my public blog.

You may have noticed that there's a real up and down aspect to my quest. Some days I'm encouraged, other days, discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I'm doing great, other times: Epic Fail. So it's not surprising that I went so far as to publicly give up then publicly start again.

So here we go again, and now, perhaps, I've found a way to maximize my returns.  That is, I'm ...

Following My Own Advice!

That's right. I've been spouting plenty of advice over the years, and now I'm going to focus in on my best tips, namely:

1. Practicing Much Less per Day

You've heard me say that two hours per day was not efficient, and might even result in the practicing of bad habits. So now I generally do only about two tunes per day, sometimes less.

2. Working Only on Modern/Pop Stuff

I've mentioned that sight-reading progress can be very specific to the type of music you work with. So, for example, if you play only hymns, you'll get good at hymns but not at, for example, pop tunes.

So: No more hymns or classical pieces. Yes, it would be nice to be good at those, but, for me, it's more important to be good at modern stuff. By "modern" I mean pop tunes or typical written-out jazz pieces--the kind of music you'd see in a book of Christmas carols. I'll miss the hymns, but I've got to work where my priorities lie.

3. Practicing Leaving Things Out

You may recall that my teacher taught me the value of leaving out stuff. She had me leave out one or more of the voices when playing a hymn. This was more difficult than expected, but I could see the benefit: when I ran into trouble, I could leave out voices.

I had done this with hymns but never with modern tunes. Now I am applying it to modern music. I'll play a tune through the first time playing only the top and bottom notes. The important skill is learning what to do when I get in trouble.

At first, seems that it would be just as easy, for example, to play the doubled octave bass notes, or the chords in the top. But it is a little easier, as my teacher Robin showed me, to just grab two notes (or even just the melody) when problems arise.

I'll often run through a second time (or take the repeat), and play all the notes  (or more of them).

Does it sound better with all the notes? Yes. Does it sound reasonable with just the top and bottom notes? Often. IOW, if I sometimes get into trouble and leave things out, most listeners won't notice.

4. Looking Ahead

As you've read, I'm always working on this. Perhaps combined with leaving things out, I will finally improve here.


My new regime feels like a good compromise, and, if I'm right about practicing less, I will learn more efficiently.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I Give Up! -- Or Do I?

[January 6, 2014: After writing this, I've changed my mind.  I'm not going to give up, although I'll be spending less time on sight-reading.  I've been working on a book which is based on this blog, and it made me realize (1) how much I want to be a good sight-reader and (2) how much progress I made.  From now on, I will concentrate primarily on reading modern/pop type music, and not try to get better at hymns or classical pieces. So read the rest of this post with that in mind, and watch for my book on Amazon.  It will be entitled "Become a Great Sight-Reader -- or Not!"]

That's right, I give up.  I apologize to any of you who have been inspired by my quest, but I have decided that my brain is just not wired for sight-reading, and pursuing this any longer is not a good use of my time.

Note that my reading has improved, and instead seeing this as "giving up," I could have framed it as "I've improved my sight-reading enough, and now I'm going to move on to other things."  But that's not how it feels.  After almost six years of concerted effort, I still don't read very well.

I'm quite sure that I did everything right.  I practiced diligently for thousands of hours (literally) and I worked with an excellent teacher, but it just didn't happen.  It is pretty disappointing, because I had really looked forward to being a good reader, and a good all-around pianist.  OTOH, I am pretty happy with my jazz playing, and the extra time I have to devote to jazz tasks (e.g. new licks, memorizing more tunes, working on my sound, transposing, transcribing, listening, technique, etc.) is already paying off.

I still practice several hours per day, I'm just not devoting much time to practicing sight-reading.

In farewell, I hope that you have better luck that I did with this pursuit.  Thanks for all your comments over the years.

- Al 

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Month of Intervals Only

Here's a report on a trick I've used that helps me pay attention to intervals.

After years of paying attention to the notes and not the intervals, I needed a way to break myself of this habit.  In other words, when I look at something like this in the treble clef:

I must force myself to see it as a sixth with C as the lower note (or as a sixth with A as the upper note), instead of a C and an A.  You may say, "But, Al, what's the difference?  C and sixth or C and A -- you still have two things to notice."  But there are three advantages.

First Advantage: My "muscle memory" knows what a sixth feels like.  That is, my hands can form a sixth without much conscious thought.  So, instead of seeking out a C and an A, my hand just forms the right interval, and all I need to do is put it in the right place.

Second Advantage: As I go from one note or chord to the next, using the intervals can be more efficient.  For example, for the first two chords here (treble clef):

thinking in intervals is more efficient.  For the second chord, instead of thinking "find an E and a G" I can think "keep the top note the same as the last chord, and form a third."

Third Advantage: When the music has switched clef, or has a lot of ledger lines to deal with, thinking in intervals will work better. I am so used to having the lower clef be the bass clef, that when it's not, I have to actively inhibit the note names that come to my head as I play.  And when I've got a bunch of ledger lines involved, I don't have time to count them.  When using intervals, both of these problems magically disappear.

So, assuming that it's best to notice intervals, how do you learn to do it?  For me, I could tell myself "Notice the Intervals, Stupid!" but I'd still tend to think about the individual notes.  My teacher would have me say the intervals as I played, "Sixth! Third! Fifth!" but I would still predominantly attend to the notes.  This didn't really work.  That is, I'd know what a sixth or a seventh looked like, but I didn't have that instant recognition.

I needed a magic wand that would make me forget the note names, so I would have to use intervals. I sometimes wished that I were starting over, didn't know the note names, thus learning intervals.

That wand doesn't exist, but I came up with something almost as good.  It's a trick that makes the notes wrong, so that I'm forced to use only intervals.

The trick is to transpose!  If I play a piece in a different key than the one in which it's written, the notes are wrong, but the intervals are right.  Perfect!

For example, let's say that I play this:

but instead of playing it as written, I play it in the key of C.  I will be forced to use intervals only, because all the notes are wrong!

Technically, I do it like this: The first chord has the root as the bottom note and also the top note (F).  In the key of C, those notes are C instead of F.  In the left hand, I form a third with my fingers to play a C and an E.  In the right hand, I form a fourth, playing a G and a C.

Going to the second chord, I notice that in the left hand I'm just going to move that third down one step (a second), and in the right, I'm just going to repeat the lower note.

From the second chord to the third, I notice that in the left hand, the lower note goes down by a second,, and I form a fifth with my fingers.  In the right hand, the lower note goes up a step, and I form a third.  And so on through the entire hymn.

I've dabbled with this trick off and on, but because I went back to regular old reading, the use of intervals never stuck.  So I decided that for one month, I would only play transposed music.  That is, no notes, only intervals for a month.

I set three rules:

1. I played at least two hymns per day (I made it easier on myself by working with hymns -- the main purpose here is to notice intervals, and for this, hymns should work as well as other types of music).  A big advantage of hymns is that when you play a wrong note it is immediately apparent.

2. I only allowed myself to read notes for the first chord of a line, unless I get into trouble three times.  Since each chord depends on the one before it, once you make a mistake, it's hard to recover.  I didn't allow myself to recover by reading the notes.  Instead, I made myself go back to the beginning of the line and start again.  But if I screwed up three times, I allowed myself to cheat until the next line.

3. I allowed myself to play in "easy" keys, since the benefit of the exercise is independent of key.  So I usually transposed to C, and if a hymn was in C, I'd transpose to F.

Did It Work?

Yes.  Was it a miracle cure? No, but I am now better at attending to intervals rather than notes.  In other words, I can more quickly "see" a sixth than I could before.  I find myself using intervals even when note transposing.

I found that the technique works best when there is one note in a hand that moves less than a fourth.  That's usually the case (as it is in all of the chords in the above example).  When transposing, I ended up with a system in which I moved a finger to whichever note moved the least, then formed the interval to get the other note.  For example, for the left hand in the above example, going from the third chord to the fourth, I would move the lower finger down a second, then form an octave with my fingers.

Note that I got better at playing transposed.  It's still a struggle, but my improvement proves that I am faster at seeing intervals.  Also, by not going back to regular playing each day, I never erased the gains that I made.

I currently see it like this: working with intervals is another tool in my toolbox.  Sometimes it will help my sight-reading, and other times I will use other tools.  For example, when thirds move in stepwise motion, as in chords 3-7 in the treble clef of the above example, thinking of intervals is absolutely the way to go.  In other instances, it might help more to think of the harmonic structure or notice the notes themselves.

The bigger the interval, the more problematic it is.  For example, in the fourth chord of the above example, left hand, I might think "That's an octave.  Or is it, let's check, C, C, OK, it's an octave."  So I still have work to do.

I still need to remember to use this tool.  For example, when under the gun, playing something for my teacher, I'm less likely to use intervals.

I plan to use a refresher course of this, and do another month of intervals-only training again.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Progress Report - Five Long Years!

Oh, man, five years gone, and I'm still not that good a sight-reader.  Much better than before, but I have a long way to go.  There are days that I want to give up on this, but I keep working at it.

I've been doing some reading every day, except that I took about a month off leading up to a solo gig that I had in early December.  That is, during that time I put all my effort into working on tunes for that gig, and did no sight-reading.  That month saw some good improvement in my solo work, and showed me that my time spent on sight-reading is time taken away from other aspects of my playing.  That is, it reminded me that there is a cost for working so hard on sight-reading.

Click here to hear a clip from that solo gig.

That gig is over, I'm back to daily sight-reading, and I'm trying something new.  I've concluded that one of my problems is that I pay too much attention to the note names and not to the intervals.   I've discussed this several times before (for example, here).  Because I've spent years not attending to the intervals, my brain has gotten stuck reading notes.  This is a case where I've been practicing the wrong thing.

My best trick for fixing this is to transpose a tune to another key (mentioned here).  When I do that, I have to pay attention to intervals, because the notes are wrong.

In the past, I've used transposing in this way: I'll play a hymn or two transposed, and then I'll go back to normal reading.  After I do that, I seem to pay attention to intervals a little more, but soon go back to my old bad habits.

So my new system is to, each day, play two hymns or chorales transposed, and then not do any more sight-reading. Perhaps if I do that for a month, I can kick my mind into the interval gear.

Note that when transposing, I think about intervals only.  I'm not allowed to see the note and figure out what note I'll play.  I only do that for the first chord of the piece.  From then on, I play based on the intervals from one chord to the next. I don't want to get good at transposing, I just want to use transposing as a tool to help me attend to intervals.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Still Plodding Along

Just a quick post to let you know that I'm still working away, and still doing 1-2 hours of sight-reading every day.  The three latest insights from my teacher that have helped recently are (I'll post more about these when I am less busy):
  1. Leave stuff out.  At one of my lessons, my teacher said "I sit here thinking how much better he'd play if only he'd leave things out."  That made an impression on me, so now, if I'm playing a hymn or chorale, and I start to have problems, I leave out the middle voices.  That is, first priority is the top voice, second is the lowest, and after that, the middle voices.  I can now play the Bach chorales (slowly), that were way too difficult when I first encountered them.  This works for modern pieces also.  Surprisingly, it takes practice to not play each note.
  2. Play slowly.  I've known this from the start, but had found that if my metronome were slower than about 50 BPM, it was hard to follow it.  Now, I use the metronome beats for eighth notes.  For example, for a Bach chorale, I might set it to 60 BPM. 
  3. Learn and see the harmonic structure of a piece.  That is, try to understand what chord notes make, and how that chord functions.  For example, these notes make up a G7.  I never thought this would help.  What, I see the notes and figure out what chord it is, to understand the notes?  How would that help, since I already know what the notes are?  Well, it does seem to help, partly because I know what notes to expect next.  For example, in the last measure of a Bach chorale, I know there's going to be some kind of standard cadence (e.g. F chord, G7 chord, C chord).  Even if I don't get all the notes, I can fake it.  But it also seems to help me put my fingers down in the right places.
Hang in there fellow sufferers -- more later.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Progress Report (4 Years!)

Whoa -- I've been working on this for four years! Hard to believe.

I've worked pretty hard on sight-reading during this last year, mainly because I've been taking lessons. In the last six months in particular, I've felt like I'm finally gaining traction, and seeing a faster rate of improvement. Check out this post for a description of what I've been working on, and advice about what has helped my playing the most.

Here are some recordings to give you a feeling of where I stand today.

I've been using the first tunes below for all my progress recordings, so of course it's not strictly sight-reading anymore. Also, I've read through my hymnals many times, so although I don't remember the tunes, I have played them before.

This is how I played Hymn 296 after three months of sight-reading.

This is how I play it now, after four years of sight-reading.

After three months.


After three months.


Here is a hymn from a Methodist hymnal that I just got from the library. I have never played it before, but it's possible that the same song is in the other hymnals I've worked with.

This is what it sounds like when I play it.

Here is a non-hymn tune from a library book. I've never played this, nor do I recognize the tune.

This is how I sound when I play it (BTW, I'm aware of the the rhythmic errors I made).

Finally, I've mentioned that one of the benefits of my sight-reading work is that I can practice tunes and get better at them without actual memorization. I read through this song a bunch of times each year, though I've never worked on getting it close to perfection.

Click here to hear me play it.

And you can hear my regular playing in my most recent Christmas Video.

That's it for now. Thanks for all the words of encouragement. I'm hoping that I'll make faster progress this next year -- see you then!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tips From My Teacher

I really wanted to call this post "Sh*t My Teacher Says," (take-off on this popular book) but I didn't want to imply that her tips are sh*t.

First, due to a technical glitch, I hadn't realized that there were many comments awaiting moderation, so I apologize if you didn't see your comments appear; I'm sorry I didn't reply to them until today.

I had thought that my blog was drifting away, unread, into the boonies of the Intergoogle, so it's encouraging to see that people are still reading it.

In a few days I'll be posting my four-year progress report, but I wanted to get these great tips out to you first.

Here's my big tip: You will make much faster progress if you work with a teacher who is very good at teaching sight-reading. This advice is coming from someone (me) who is very independent, and usually likes to work on his own. I've been taking lessons (twice a month) with a Dr. Robin Miller for almost a year now, and I think I've progressed as much in that year than in the three prior years.

Warning 1: there are teachers out there who are not very good at sight-reading. I called one teacher and told her what I wanted, and she told me, almost whispering, "Well, I have to admit that I'm not a very good sight-reader myself."

Warning 2: Even if the teacher is good at sight-reading, he/she may not be able to teach it well. I took a year of lessons in the eighties, but my teacher at the time didn't help my sight-reading much.

I'll tell you about my new teacher, Dr. Robin Miller. She is on the faculty at Humboldt State University, and she's been teaching piano for over 35 years. She can sight-read effortlessly, but more importantly, she sees what I'm doing wrong, and has a bag of tricks and exercises to help me fix my problems. I'll show you what I mean below. I have a lesson every other week, at $50/lesson. Of course it's unlikely that you live close enough for lessons from her, but for completeness, here is her contact information:

  • Faculty Web Page: Click Here
  • Email:
  • Phone: (707) 826-5448
Here are some of the tips she has given me. In many cases, I knew these things, but wasn't applying them well.

Tip #1: Intervals are Indeed Important

Robin showed me that I need to pay more attention to intervals. Hey, Al, you say, you knew that four years ago (see this post and this one)! True, but although I talked and thought about it, I was really still paying attention primarily to the notes. It's frustrating that I was aware of this important key to good sight-reading, but wasn't really employing it well.

Robin has an exercise in which I say the interval by which the melody changes with each note as I play a tune. For example, in this piece:

I would say, out loud, while playing "Same, second, second, second, fifth, sixth, same, second" etc. Of course you can do the same thing for the bassline, some middle part, or chords. I'm not very good at talking while playing, but this helps me pay attention to the intervals.

I also created some interval flashcards. It may seem elementary, but they help me recognize the intervals very quickly. I use them on my iPod Touch, and I can just scroll quickly from one to another, and call out the interval. You can download all the flashcards here. They look like this:

So, if you scrolled through those, you'd say "Sixth! Third! Octave!" Realizing that for seconds, fourths, sixths, etc. (that is even intervals) one note is on a line, and the other on a space, helps. This exercise is only difficult when distinguishing the wider intervals (sixths, sevenths, and so on).

One other trick that I developed on my own to help see intervals is to transpose the piece to another key. For example, I might play the above piece in F instead of C. I figure out what the first notes are, and from then on, I must pay attention only to intervals, because the notes will be wrong. For example, in the above song, I'd start with G and F in the left hand, and B natural and F in the right. On beat three I'd move the bass up a half step, and the melody down a second (a minor second in this case).

This transposing is extremely slow, and often I have to go back to the beginning, and start over. But it's very useful, because you are forced to ignore the notes.

Back to non-transposing playing, here's an example of how I put all this into practice. Take this hymn:

Starting with the second measure, my fingers would be on F and C in the left hand, and F and A in the right. For the next chord, in the right hand, I see that I will still have a third between the notes, and I will shift this pair of notes down by a second. In the left hand, I see that the top note, C, is the same, but that the interval for these two notes is now an octave. So I leave my left thumb on C, and shift my hand position to that of an octave, which I know well.

I usually pick the note in each hand that moves the least, move to it, based on the interval of the change, then use the interval between the notes to find the other note.

Now, having said this, do I always pay attention to the intervals and not the notes? No. There are two reasons.

First, after years of thinking about the notes, it's hard to get away from that. Although I've benefited from my years of daily sight-reading, these years of doing it the wrong way have hurt me in this way.

Second, as Robin has pointed out, there are other ways of looking at the music, or taking in the information while sight-reading. One of those ways is the notes themselves (another is the harmonic structure, which I will discuss below).

However, I've felt that paying more attention to intervals has helped me more than any other tip. If I practice for too long, I find myself getting away from intervals. Often it helps to play a piece very slowly, and force myself to consciously think in the way I described in the above hymn example, explicitly thinking "OK, that note goes up a second, and the other note is a sixth below it." Also, if it's too much to do this for all the notes, I might just concentrate on using the intervals in the bass clef, and not thinking about how I play the top notes.

Tip #2: Don't do a Reset with Each ChordThis is an example of how having a teacher can be better than doing it yourself. One day, Robin said, "Let me show you something. This is how you play this hymn." and she played it, imitating my style. "Now, this is how I play it." and she played it her way.

There was an "Aha!" moment, because I could see immediately that when playing like me, she was essentially removing her fingers from the keys, then "starting over" and finding and playing the next notes. When she played her way, there was this beautiful seamless flow from one chord to the next. That is, it was about moving the fingers in an efficient way from one set of notes to the next. It was partly an issue of fingering, but more an issue of using the changes of the notes rather than the new notes themselves to play the next chord.

Tip #3: Keep the Beat GoingThis is the tip that Robin feels is most important. Of course I have always known this, but she has made me work on it more.

Tip #4: Know What to Leave Out

If you keep the beat going, but are having trouble, you can't slow down. So instead, you have to leave something out. Dr. Miller explained that the melody has the first priority, and the lowest note is a close second. That is, you can leave out the middle notes if you need to.

I pretty much knew that, but here's an exercise that helps me "cheat" when I get into trouble. Playing a hymn, Robin would have me play just the outer voices, or just the inner voices, or some other combination. At first this was extremely and embarrassingly difficult. I would have thought that leaving things out would be easy, but I had been seeing the music as a unit. I found that doing this exercise helped me to leave out some notes when necessary. Sometimes I'll practice by playing all four voices, then leaving out one or two for a few measures.

Robin has also noted that I tend to leave out the bass when I get into trouble, getting caught up in the top voices -- I need to work on that.

Tip #5: See the Harmonic Structure

The number of chords used in a piece are usually pretty limited, and often predictable, especially in hymns. For example, you can be pretty sure that the second-to-the last chord will be the dominant seventh for the key.

Robin's tip is to get used to instantly knowing what chord is represented by the notes. The exercise she suggests is to say the name of each chord as you play it. So, for example, for the first line of this hymn,

you'd say: F, C, Dm, C, F, C, F, C7, F, Bb, F, C7, F, C. That bolded C7 might just be some passing tones, but it seems to work like a C7. Some tunes are not as easy as that one, with, for example, the tonics of some chords left out, but the basic idea is the same.

I've been a little resistant to this tip. My reasoning is that it seems that you are using the notes to figure out what the chord is, in order to know what the notes are. But you started with the notes, so what's the point?

But apparently the point is to instantly notice the chord, helping you to know ahead of time what the notes will be. I'm going along with this, and it does seem to help. I find that with the common keys I already recognize many of the chords.

Tip #6: Take a Minute to Look Through a Piece Before Playing It

This probably should be tip #1, because it's one of the first things my teacher told me. I knew I should be doing this, but felt that it may help my playing, but wouldn't help my sight-reading. In other words, I wanted to practice being surprised by the notes, and dealing with it. But I'm a dutiful student, and I now take the time to check through, looking for clef changes, checking out the rhythmic structure, watching for difficult places, etc. I don't do it as much with hymns, since they are quite predictable, and I enjoy going from one to next, and noticing the sound of the change in key. But this is definitely good advice.

BTW, I don't want to imply that I'm playing only hymns -- I also work with modern stuff and non-hymn easy classical pieces.

I'll stop here and pass on some more tips in future posts.

In three days it will be four years since I started this crusade, and I'll post a progress report along with recordings.