Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I Did It!

Today I fulfilled my vow to practice sight-reading for two hours a day for an entire year! Of course there were some days that I missed, and some days when I practiced less than two hours, but I'm sure I put in at least 650 hours of sight-reading. I read through two hymnals seven times each!

How did it turn out? Well, I didn't progress nearly as far as I had expected to. For example, I thought that after that much practicing I would be able to play any hymn at any reasonable speed. Instead I can play easier hymns at about 85-100 BPM, and most hymns at 60 BPM. I thought I'd be able to rocket through any "Easy Piano" piece, and play most pop or jazz music without too much trouble, but that is not the case.

If someone were to say "Hey, Al plays piano, let's have him accompany us with this Christmas carol music!" could I do it? Maybe. If the music weren't too difficult, if the singers weren't too discriminating, or if I had a chance to run through them a few times, then the answer is yes. Otherwise the results would be sketchy. Here's what you might expect: these are two Christmas songs that I've played multiple times, but have not memorized:

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

So, while I'm disappointed that I didn't reach those goals, I am pleased to have made solid progress. I am no longer a sight-reading dimwit. Sometimes I can read through a new piece well, and get a feeling for what it would be like to be a great sight-reader.

Below I'll give advice to others who are just starting out and talk about where I go from here, but first let's look objectively at how far I've come.

Progress Recordings

As I've gone along, I've periodically recorded a small number of songs to track my progress. Of course, each time I play one of these benchmarks, I learn it a bit. However, playing them a few times over the course of a year doesn't make that much difference. I've played one of these (hymn 296) about seven times (once each time I went through the hymnal), but I don't think that has made a big difference.

I regret that I didn't record my playing when I started out. The first progress recordings were made after I'd been working on sight-reading for 3.5 months. Anyway, here they are.

Hymn 296 After 2.5 Months
Hymn 296 After 4.5 Months
Hymn 296 After 1 Year

Here's another hymn that I hadn't recorded previously. Although on a better day I might have done better, these two hymn recordings give a good indication of where I stand after one year of sight-reading.

Goosey Goosey After 2.5 Months
Goosey Goosey After 4.5 Months
Goosey Goosey After 1 Year

Rondino After 2.5 Months
Rondino After 4.5 Months
Rondino After 1 Year

Humpty Dumpty After 2.5 Months
Humpty Dumpty After 4.5 Months
Humpty Dumpty After 1 Year

Slow Boat to China after 3 months
Slow Boat after 4.5 months
Slow Boat after 1 Year

Although I never recorded it before, I had noted in an early post that after 1.5 months I could play this song:

at 55 BPM without too many mistakes. Click here to hear it sight-read today (1 year) at 80 BPM.

Surprisingly, some of these didn't improve much between 4.5 months and one year. Perhaps I just wasn't playing well today. Another possibility is that I played too many hymns and not enough other types of music, resulting in less progress with those types. Note that after playing Slow Boat two more times, it sounded a lot better (Slow Boat after two run throughs). This represents a benefit of my improved sight-reading -- it makes it faster to practice something. I can read through it multiple times in much less time.

Note also that I was more nervous than usual -- I knew that I had only one chance to play it right, and that whatever I recorded would be published here on the Internet.

Advice to Others Seeking To Improve Their Sight-reading Quickly

  1. If you're like me, it's going to be a lot more difficult than you expect. I thought that after a month or two, I'd start to gain traction, and progress rapidly from that point. Instead it's been a slow, steady slog all year long. Maybe you will learn faster. I generally learn things pretty quickly, especially if I put in a lot of effort, but on the other hand, I am over 50 years old, and may have missed the critical period for learning to sight-read. If you're like me, you will need a lot of willpower.
  2. Record yourself extensively on day one. I waited 2.5 months before recording myself, mainly because I didn't want any record of how atrocious my sight-reading was. Now I wish I could compare today's playing with that of a year ago.
  3. If you can afford the wait, I expect that you'll do better with four years of 30 minutes per day than with one year of 2 hours per day. I don't have any evidence for this, but I suspect that that's why my 650+ hours of sight-reading didn't pay off as well as expected.
  4. Remember in my earlier posts I talked about seeing intervals versus notes, things like that? Well forget it, that's all BS. You just sight-read a lot and you'll improve. I'm not seeing intervals, I just see the music on the page and am increasingly able to quickly convert that into movements of my hands and fingers.
  5. Sight-read the type of music you want to play. I worked on hymns over 50% of the time even though that's not my goal. Hymns are the most comfortable thing to play and quite enjoyable. Each one is short, you know what to expect, the harmonies sound great, and most notes fall within a set range. But unless you want to be a church organist, be sure to include a lot of other types of music as well. The samples above show how I improved more for hymns than for other types of music.
  6. Finally, I still feel that looking ahead is an important aspect of good sight-reading. The better you get, the easier that is, but I still have to remind myself to consciously look ahead. When I do that, it seems to help.

Where Do I Go From Here?

I'm hooked on sight-reading, and still want to be good at it. My plan now is to practice sight-reading at least 30 minutes per day (instead of two hours). I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so I'm not going to quit now. I'll reluctantly put aside the hymns for a while and concentrate on other types of music. I may update this blog from time to time. I plan to meet my original goals by this time next year.

So thanks for visting my blog -- I hope this has been of use to you fellow sight-readers. Good luck to you!

- Al

Thursday, September 4, 2008

23. Practice Session Recorded

Here's a sample of what it sounds like when I practice sight-reading. This recording is the first ten minutes of my hymnal sight-reading practice today. I start with Hymn #288 in the Presbyterian hymnal, and continue through the book from there.

Click here to hear it.

I've mentioned how some days seem better and some worse. This one was closer to the "worse" side. It will be a bit painful to listen to at times, but I'd say it gives a fair indication of where I stand right now.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

22. Still Working Away

Just wanted to let you know that I haven't given up -- I'm still working at it. I've had to take a few days off here and there when I had important gigs coming up, and needed to work on some pieces. Also, I have to admit that there are some days when I only work for an hour instead of two. I've found that it's easiest on my back if I don't work two hours in a row, and sometimes I don't get back to the piano for that second hour.

I've cut down on my jazz gigs until December so I'll have more time for sight-reading.

I generally do an hour of hymns (I'm coming up on five times through both hymnals) plus an hour of popular or traditional music.

I'm still happy about what I've learned but disappointed that I haven't learned more. This one of the hardest things I've done.

I've also noticed an improvement of my single line + chord jazz sight-reading, which is nice.

I have less to report and talk about, so if you don't see any posts for a while, it doesn't mean that I've given up!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

21. Halfway There

It's now been six months since I started my piano sight-reading; I'm halfway towards my goal of two hours per day for one year.

I know it doesn't make sense, but I'm both amazed at how far I've progressed, and disappointed that I haven't gotten further. Some apparently simple songs give me a lot of difficulty, however, it's exciting to be able to read pieces which I know would have been impossible for me to play six months ago.

I've settled into the following routine: I start sight-reading early in the morning (7 or 8 AM -- I'm a morning person) and read one hour of hymns followed by an hour of other music. I've read through both hymnals twice. If I'm not having a good day, I'll allow myself to skip anything with four or more sharps. I prefer the flat keys -- perhaps because of my trombone background. I especially like Eb.

I'll set the metronome somewhere between 50 BPM for a hard hymn, and 80 for an easy one. If I like a hymn, I'll repeat it a few times at faster and faster tempos. Sometimes I'm surprised to find that it's not that much more difficult at a faster pace.

For popular music, such as this:

I usually play without the metronome, but will soon be using the metronome at 50 BPM.

Here's an interesting phenomenon that I've noticed: sometimes I can be reading a song (a hymn for example), start thinking about something else, and find that I'm still playing. I'm neither better nor worse when this happens, but my mind is elsewhere, and I'm sight-reading on autopilot. Don't' know if this is good or bad, but it is interesting.

Ask some expert sight-readers what they're doing when sight-reading, and sometimes they'll say "I don't know -- it just happens." I'm hoping that this blog is valuable because I'm reporting what I find as I learn. Perhaps I can report what's happening for me before I cross over to the other side. Here are some insights:

It's Not the Intervals, Stupid!

In earlier posts I spent a lot of time talking about recognizing intervals instead of individual notes. Well, I now think that may be a waste of time. As you get better, you are recognizing patterns of notes, and it doesn't matter whether you try to recognize intervals or not. It's just going to happen, if you practice enough, that you recognize patterns.

I'm getting into the "I don't know -- it just happens" zone, but let me try to explain with an example. Here's the start of a hymn from an earlier post that is quite easy for me to play:

When I see this, the notes in the first measure are seen as "F chord, C chord, Dm chord, C chord." Or maybe I'd say that my mind is saying "Oh yeah, there's that common F chord pattern with 1 and 3 in the bass, and 5 and 1 in the right hand, etc." I'm not always thinking in terms of chords, but there's often some thought about how the notes make sense.

Those patterns of notes come up so frequently, that it's just a "recognize it and play it" situation. I don't know if this is good or bad, but it is what is happening for me. As soon as a hymn gets out of the typical range of notes, it's harder to play, because the patterns aren't as familiar. Same thing for less-common key signatures.

Thinking about intervals does help whenever I see a pattern such as this:

At which point I don't think about individual notes, just think about "moving the interval around" in the current scale.

Again, it may be bad advice to say that you don't need to pay attention to intervals -- I'm just relating what has been happening with me.

Looking Ahead

I still feel that I'm not looking ahead enough. I am still forcing myself to do it, at least when I think of it, and hope that at some point it will become automatic. This doesn't seem to be something that will just happen as I keep playing.

Once in a while I do pretty well at looking ahead, and it feels good. There's a kind of rapid "look here, look there, up there, down there" feeling that seems to be effective. Like a little bird flitting around. I rarely am looking forward more than a half measure or so, unless the current measure is very easy. What often happens is this: I decide that I'm really going to concentrate on looking ahead for this piece. I do pretty well until a difficult measure comes up. Then I get stuck figuring out the notes I'm playing, and after that have a difficult time getting ahead again.

I still do less well when skipping to a new line -- not sure what that means.

Good Days and Bad Days

I continue to see this: one day I feel like I'm doing great, and really getting the hang of this sight-reading thing, and then the next day I'm amazed at how bad I am. You might think "Oh, you just happen to play more difficult pieces on a bad day." However, recently I made a list of hymns that were quite easy for me to play. On a bad day, I tried those, and didn't do so well.

Playing without the metronome usually makes me feel that I'm doing better -- guess I must be slowing down at the more difficult places.

I'll be Twice as Good

If I'm twice as good at sight-reading on Dec 10, 2008 as I am today, I'll be satisfied.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

20. Your Turn!

Welcome to the audience participation part of this blog. In this post I invite you to sight-read one or more pieces (below), and tell us how it went. I want you to contribute!

You can even email me recordings of your performance if you wish. Participate anonymously, or choose to reveal your identity.

I thought it would be fun to let you contribute to this blog by playing one or more of the pieces below, and tell us how it went, and, if you wish, send me a recording of you playing the pieces (I will post the recordings here). If you include a brief description of your experience level, it will give others a feeling for the correlation between experience and playing. For example, an ideal response might sound like this:
Thanks for the survey -- what a great blog you have! I think I love you! I played Hymn 155, and you'll hear from the recording that I had no problems with it, except for one mistake in the fifth measure. I've been playing piano for 63 years. -- PianoNut27 from the PianoWorld forum.
Hi. I downloaded, printed, and played all of the pieces. I was able to play the two simpler songs at 80 BPM without much trouble, but found the hymn and Do You Care very difficult. The chorale I made a complete mess of. I've been playing for four years, and concentrating on sight-reading for two.
I'm hoping that since you can contribute anonymously, we will get honest appraisals of how it went. The more people that contribute, the more fun and informative it will be for others.

I will stop posting recordings when I've received enough (or when I get tired of it), so don't delay!


Step 1. Click on and download one, several, or all of the following sheet music pages and print them out (Alternatively, click here to download a single PDF file with all of the music).
  1. Morgonsolen
  2. Child's Prayer
  3. Hymn 155
  4. Do You Care?
  5. Chorale 58
Step 2. If you are going to record yourself, prepare the recording system.

Step 3 (for each piece you play). Give yourself only a few seconds to look over the piece, checking key signature, etc.

Step 4. Choose a tempo that will work for you, and play the piece.

Step 5. Report on how it went. Either post a comment to this post (click Post a Comment below), or, if you made a recording, email the recording and comments to me at SightReadingSurvey@gmail.com (you may even send a link to a video!). Be sure to include information about how long you've been playing piano, and any comments on your experience or sight-reading level. You may choose to send the comment anonymously or to include your real name or a user name from a forum. You do not need to join or register in order to leave a comment.

That's all there is to it. I will post the recordings here, and the comments should appear immediately. If you have any questions, you may send them to SightReadingSurvey@gmail.com.

Survey Results (More Will be Added Later)

I could sightread all of them pretty well (I did 1,2,and 4) at about full speed. The last one was technically very easy but had too much going at once (for me at least) to sightread
it very well. - Sam
My experience: Adult beginner (9 months).

The first one, Morgonsolen redan stralar, was obviously the most easy of the five and the one I attempted. Most of the beats only have a single notes. The relatively small intervals (thirds, fourths and (one) fifth) did not present much of a problem. There was no tempo markings, but my first attempt was at what I thought was tempo. I missed 40% of the notes. By the third attempt, I was at maybe a 10% error rate (still at tempo).

I tend to approach my sight reading development in a two-fold process; developing accuracy and developing speed. Sometimes, I'll slow my tempo as much as it needs to be slowed, attempting to achieve near accuracy with the notes, without breaking the rhythm. Other times, like just now, I'll try to force (train) my eyes to read as fast as they can (at tempo), and disregard the missed notes. Its sounds horrible, but can think of no other way to work toward being able to one day play a piece at tempo on a cold read.

"Herzlich" was too complex for me to even try.

"Child's Prayer" seemed reachable, and I played a few measures, but gave up. The switch in the bass clef to treble always throws me completely off and I have to really think about the shift. The eight and sixteenth note beats are a concept I've learned, but not had much opportunity to practice, so I deemed this one too difficult to attempt.

The remaining two were too complex; either too many notes at the same time, too many accidentals, intervals too far apart for me to easily recognize, triplets spread over two measures.

Sigh.... Its a struggle, isn't it. - Akira
I found that the piece that was the easiest was the choral, "Herzlich lieb..." I think it's because it's a familiar pattern. I've been doing the Bach chorals in the Riemenschneider for about 3 months. However, I did not approach the chorals in "pure" sight reading style.

Now, when I do the Bach chorals it is an automatic eye to finger action that I have to let go to. I become deaf to the sound and don't consider it. I've noticed some people in different piano forums actually saying that about their playing - they don't hear it ahead of time. Bach is kind of mathematical and proportional.

I didn't like it when I tried to play the other pieces. I wasn't sure if it was a reaction to ineptitude: I'd love for it just to flow the first time around and don't want to admit that I can't make it happen. Maybe. Probably in part. I was trying to play them like Bach sight reading.

But there was also the feeling that this was music with swing and melody to it. I felt like I wanted to audiate it, hear it in my head, know the phrases and direction before actually playing it, and have that "music" inside me even while sight reading.

I have been playing piano for about three years and am a piano performance major at CCM. Pieces I have just recently "finished" (never really done, but you know what I mean) and am currently working on: Brahms Op.10 Ballades, Mozart's 21st concerto, Beethoven Pathetique Sonata, various Bach preludes and fugues, etc.

First piece - not a problem at full speed. Read it very easily.

Second Piece, Herz lieb hab' ich dich, o Herr - I had a good bit of trouble on. If you want me to play it with no mistakes, I have to go so slowly that nobody would ever sing along.

A Child's Prayer was much easier - not perfect though, but doable given the andante marking.

Hymn number 155 was about the same difficulty as a childs prayer, maybe a bit harder. A good deal of dropped notes but I could keep the rythm and the melody going.

I had some trouble with the last one, but it was easier than the chorale for me. I can play this piece fine but at a fairly slow pace.

My technique is far beyond your average 3 year student of piano, but I'm afraid my sight reading is just at that typical level, or even a bit below. It'd sad, really. - ComputerPro3
The first, third, and fourth pieces I played with almost no trouble at all. I have short fingers and had to rearrange the notes in the second piece so that I can play them. This slowed me down quite a bit. The last piece I found to be challenging. Being that I am a perfectionist, I prefer to focus on accuracy rather than speed. I had to play it quite slowly in order to get all the correct notes. - PlayerPiano
I sight read them easily, but I've been playing for 50 years, and sight reading well for perhaps 45. I work as an accompanist and sight read every day, like whippen boy (probably not as well as whippen boy though!). Are there things I find difficult to sight read? You betcha! Ever looked at the piano part of Boulez's flute sonatina? And as for Godowsky and his Chopin etude versions, I can't play the damn things, so why would I try and SR them? - CurraWong
I tried "Child's Prayer" and "Morgonsolen...", and read through without stopping but slowly though. had to slow down at a few spots in child's prayer, but overall they're ok to sight read for me.

that "Herzlich..." looks more difficult for me, because of counter points. i'd try it later... - Signa

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

19. Progress -- New Recordings

Not much new to report. I have been faithfully doing at least two hours of sight-reading each morning. I have good days and bad. I recorded the same songs that I posted on this site on March 24, and I'm encouraged that I've improved a bit more than I had realized. You can visit that post to see the sheet music for these recordings.

Of course, it's not technically sight-reading to play these pieces again, but it's been a while since I played them, so you can still make a comparison. For the Rondino, I had a technical problem when recording, so I had to record it again, so that one had a little more practice this time around.

Hymn 296 Then
Hymn 296 Now

Rondino Then
Rondino Now

Humpty Dumpty Then
Humpty Dumpty Now

Goosey Goosey Gander Then
Goosey Goosey Gander Now

Tom Tom Then
Tom Tom Now

Saturday, April 5, 2008

18. Hit the Accelerator

Well, things are starting to happen. Today I got a book out from the library that I had borrowed back in December, and pieces that I could barely get through at 50 BPM I can now read at 80-102 BPM. What's better is that I have a feeling that the music just flows out.

The music is very easy, but hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

Hitting the Accelerator

Prompted by a post by Akira in a piano forum, I realized that instead of choosing a tempo at which I make only a few mistakes, perhaps I should speed things up a bit. That is, play at a speed at which I make lots of mistakes. This seems to be a good thing.

For the last few days I've been choosing tempos that are fast enough that I can just barely keep track of all the notes. Above this tempo, I start to ignore parts of the music (usually the left hand); at this tempo, I feel like I'm just holding on by my fingertips.

This works well because it forces me to interpret the notes quickly, and move my hands quickly.

A lot of people suggest that your sight-reading will improve rapidly if you play a lot of duets with others. If practical (it's not practical for me), this is a good idea since it forces you not to stop and go back and correct your mistakes. But I'll bet that another reason this is good is that you probably play things faster than you would if you were practicing alone.

I'll let you know whether this new paradigm works for me.

Hymnal on Steroids

Yesterday I received a copy of Bach's 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies, which was recommended on a forum. But found that it's like hymns on steroids, and is too difficult for me now. The print is very small, too.

Monday, March 24, 2008

17. Progress Report with Recordings

I continue to make slow but steady progress. While I see a real difference in how well I sight-read, I'm still surprised that I haven't progressed further.

I wish I had some revolutionary insights to pass along to others suffering along this path. I will say that to some extent, all that matters is doing it. That is, I've talked a lot about things like recognizing intervals, but if you do enough sight-reading, that's going to happen whether you try to force it or not.

One article I saw said that an important component of learning sight-reading involved learning hundreds of common patterns. That's happening for me. That is, I'll see some common pattern and be able to play it instantly. I can take in larger blocks of notes at once. There's an indescribable change in how I see the music.

Unfortunately, I find that even when playing the simplest of music, I can still have a problem reading some part of it. And I am still not good at playing anything fast.

I'm hoping that I'm going to progress more quickly now -- as if what I've learned so far will let me gain traction, and move faster. My #1 short-term goal is to get better at looking ahead in the music.

Samples of My Playing
Well, I've put this off long enough -- it's time to let you hear some of my sight-reading (oh, man, do I have to?). Embarrassing, but this is the best way to show what 3.5 months of heavy-duty sight-reading has bought me.

The first sample is of the song "On a Slow Boat to China." Here's the music -- not terribly challenging, but not super easy either.

Click here to listen to me sight-reading this for the first time. Pitiful, huh? You can hear how slowly I have to play it. But at least I was good about not going back and correcting mistakes, right? I also noticed, in listening to it and reading along, that I'm playing some parts the way that I remember the tune, rather than playing exactly what's written.

Click here to hear how I sound after I've read it through 5-10 times. In this recording, after I read through this first page, I start playing as if it were a lead sheet. That is, I ignore what's written, play the chord in the left hand, and play the melody in the right.

Next is a hymn from my 1937 Christian Science Hymnal, which I picked up for free from www.PaperBackSwap.com:

Based on my handling of measure 2, I'm probably not going to heaven, but click here to listen to me play this with a church organ sound.

Now, here's an early classical piece:

Click here to hear it sight-read. Beautiful, huh? Sign me up for Carnegie hall. I have the most trouble with music that has separate musical lines going on at once. And for those of you who noticed that I didn't follow the dynamics, phrase markings, or staccato notations, two words: bite me!

And I'll finish off with three sophisticated melodies, "Humpty Dumpty," "Goosey Goosey Gander," and "Tom Tom the Piper's Son." These are from It's Easy to Play Nursery Rhymes, which actually has good arrangements with some surprisingly nice chord voicings.

Click here to listen to me knock Humpty Dumpty off his wall.

Click here to bring Goosey Goosey to life.

Click here for my tasteful rendition of Tom Tom.

So ends my recital. Hopefully, when I'm done with my year of sight-reading, I will be able to sight-read pieces like these at a normal tempo. We'll see.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

16: Progress Report (3 Months)

Here's the short summary of this month: I'm still making progress, but I lost one week to the pain in the back, and one week to a surfing vacation in Hawaii.

Pain in the Back -- Solved?

The practicing-related pain in the back continued to get worse. Some of my jazz gigs were torture. Assuming that the basic cause is bad posture, I worked on several ways of solving it.

First was to make a wedge, to put on the piano bench, that would tilt my torso forward, and force me to sit up straight.

That didn't really do it, since I could still sit in such a way that allowed me to slouch.

I then tried putting together my piano bench such that it was tilted, and putting it end-on to the piano.

This was just too uncomfortable.

Finally, I found the solution: Use a chair.

I was surprised to find that my computer chair, at full height, was the same height as my piano bench. If I sit with my back supported by the back of the chair, the pain is much less. I had one three hour piano gig with no pain at all.

I expect this will solve my problem. Another thing that should help is a week away from the piano. I implemented this cure by flying to Hawaii with my wife for a week of surfing, hiking, and drinking.

Hawaii Vacation

We got back yesterday, so it's now back to work with two hours per day of sight-reading!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

15. Progress Report (2 Months)

I'm now one sixth of the way through the year, and where do I stand? Well, progress continues, but it is still less than I had hoped for.

Some days I'll have a breakthrough, but it's always hard to tell whether I've gotten better or just hit a patch of easier songs.

For example, a few days ago I'd already put in my hours of practice, and was surfing the web for some new sight-reading tips. After looking through KeyPiano.com, and some other sites, I realized that though I've been working at recognizing intervals rather than pairs of notes, I should extend this concept further. That is, I should try to see all the music in terms of intervals. For example, instead of seeing this (treble clef):

as a a sixth with B in the bottom, followed by a third with E in the bottom, followed by a D, I should see it like this: A sixth with B in the bottom, then move up a fourth, and play a third, then move down one step.

The idea is to eliminate all note names as much as possible, and just look at the movements within the notes in the key.

I tried this out, and immediately saw an improvement! However, the next day my new skill wasn't as evident.

So I continue to slog along. I've read through an entire Presbyterian hymnal -- some of it reading only one hand at a time.

My middle back pain has gotten worse, so now it hurts on jazz gigs as well as during sight-reading practice. I'll be on a surfing trip in a month or so, so perhaps it will heal given a break in practicing. Until then, ibuprofen is my friend.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

14. One Hand at a Time

In an online discussion of sight-reading tips, one piano teacher recommended reading through an entire hymnal playing only the left hand part, then going through a second time playing the right hand, and finally playing both parts.

So for the last two days I've been playing just the left hand part of the hymns, and this exercise has some advantages:

  • First, I'm playing at speed (for example 85 BPM). This gives me practice at recognizing and playing intervals quickly. If I want to learn to play pieces at the normal tempo, perhaps it's smart to do some practicing at a normal tempo.
  • Second, I have a little more time for working on looking ahead, and recognizing intervals. Yes, I'm playing faster, but it feels that my mind is freed up a little to work on these aspects of sight-reading.
  • Third, one gets more playing in. I can plow through almost twice as many songs when I'm playing this fast.
  • Fourth, it's less discouraging. Although I always try to play fast enough that I make some mistakes, I sometimes sound like someone who actually knows how to play the piano. Even if it's just the bass part, it sounds more musical than playing the whole song at a glacial pace.
However, this exercise has one big disadvantage: I'm not practicing the one thing that gives me the most difficulty, namely reading and playing four or more notes in two hands at the same time.

So, I plan to use this learning technique in addition to my hands-together practicing. In just the two days I've been doing this, I already feel that my left hand playing is more automatic, with less conscious thought required. Some passages just seem to play themselves.

On a side note, one problem with hymns is that they'll often include intervals in the left hand that are not playable with one hand. Like this:

This is a bother, since you have to interrupt your sight-reading practice to deal with it. Some piano forum members recommend either playing the upper note with the right hand, moving the lower note up and octave, or playing the lower note and a copy of it up an octave.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

13. It's the Intervals, Stupid

As mentioned before, quick recognition of intervals seems like one of the keys to sight-reading well. That is, I expect my sight-reading to be faster and easier if I can learn to see this

as a sixth with E as the lower note (bass clef) rather than as an E and a C. Why do I think that? Well, first, as soon as I know I'm dealing with, for example, a sixth, my fingers automatically take on the proper positioning for playing a sixth. Second, when I try to force myself to use intervals, sight-reading seems a little easier.

One problem is that, for the larger intervals, and to my untrained eye, it's hard to quickly see what interval I'm dealing with. For example, the difference between a sixth and a seventh is hard to see in an instant.

I figured I need to learn to "attend to the distinctive features" of the different intervals, as one of my psych professors would say. So here's something I've tried -- no idea whether it's useful or not.

I sit down with a piece of music and scan along one clef as quickly as possible and call out the different intervals.

For example, for this music:

I'd say "5, 3, 1, 6, 8, 6, 5, 5, 6, 8, 8, 9," etc.

Will this help? Who knows?

12. What a Pain

Looks like something is different when I'm sight-reading than when playing my normal jazz, since I'm starting to get a real pain in the back. That is, years of several hours/day with no pain, and now, pain.

To find out what's different, I did some sight-reading, then played some jazz. I noticed immediately that I'm a lot more relaxed when playing jazz. Posture is about the same, but when sight-reading, I'm holding my torso in position rather than just relaxing.

Today I was able to go about an hour with no pain, due either to consciously relaxing, or the three ibuprofens that I took. I'll have to space out my sight-reading practice in order to get at least two hours in every day.

I've dealt with repetitive strain injuries before, and I expect I can lick this.

Friday, January 25, 2008

11. Looking/Memorizing Ahead

The concept of looking ahead as you play is an important one, and I'm working hard on developing this skill. The idea is this: most sight-readers are scanning and memorizing upcoming notes while their hands are on autopilot, playing the current measure with no conscious thought necessary.

In today's post I talk about some things I've learned on this topic.

There are a few people who claim that they do not look ahead at all, but most good sight-readers feel that it's an important component of their skill.

I used to think that sight-readers looked several measures ahead, but it seems that most only scan ahead about one measure at most.

Here's an exercise that my piano teacher did with me years ago: She let me study a measure as long as I wanted, but when I gave a nod to indicate that I'd memorized it, she'd cover it up. I wasn't allowed to play it until it was covered. This would continue with each measure of the song. The idea was that I'd play one measure while memorizing the next -- just as I should be doing when sight-reading.

I hated that exercise! Yesterday I tried doing it myself, forcing myself not to look at a measure while playing it, and I still hate it. I think I know why I don't like it. Take a look at this line from a song I used for this exercise:

This is a very simple piece, but there's a lot going on in some of those measures! Take the first measure, for example, how are you going to memorize that quickly? It's much easier just to play it. Can you do this in two seconds (the time allotted to one measure at 120 BPM)?

"OK, let's see. First beat, there's a B in the bass with a minor third starting on D in the right hand, then both hands play a G, followed by a D in the bass, with a B and an F in the right hand, BTW all quarter notes so far, and now the last beat has another G in the bass and treble, but the right hand G is a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth."

Or perhaps, in a more sophisticated way:

"OK, the bass arpeggiates a half-diminished B minor with 1-5-3-5 quarter notes, while the right hand first does the 3-5 of the chord, up an octave, plus the sixth, then a 1-5, followed by a pair of G eighth notes that are swung."

Even those long descriptions don't adequately describe the measure.

Presumably I would be memorizing that measure in a more non-verbal way, perhaps even memorizing the way my hands would feel as it's played. Maybe I'll be able to do that in the future, but for now, this is just too much stuff for me to memorize; it's more information than humans can normally put in their short term memory.

So yesterday I had this revelation:

I don't have to look/memorize ahead a whole measure at a time.

The distance ahead that I scan can depend on the difficulty or simplicity of the measures. When there's a lot of information in the notes, I might read only the next beat as I play the current one. When I come to a measure that's simple, I can take the time to look further ahead.

Now that I'm no longer rigidly trying to bite off full measures at a time, I've had more success looking ahead. Yes there are still times when the current notes are difficult enough for me that all looking ahead gets canceled until further notice, but for very simple music I can experience the concept of looking/memorizing ahead first hand, and it feels good.

10. Progress Report

As an example of my progress, today I sight-read this piece at 55 BPM without making too many mistakes.

Yesterday, however, I played some simpler pieces, and had difficulty -- some days forward, some days back. It's always difficult to gauge your progress, since every song is different. You'll start celebrating your success, only to realize that you hadn't improved, the songs were just simpler than the ones you played the day before.

This also happens: I'll be playing some common song, and think "Hey, this is really working, I must be improving!" only to realize that I've been playing the melody by ear, and only reading the bass part -- hadn't even glanced at the melody.

Speaking of that, I've found that I can play one hand of a song, even if there are a lot of chords, pretty fast. Not surprising, I guess, since it's only half the music, but it's a good feeling, and I look forward to playing both hands at that speed.

Many people recommend not working with pieces that you can't play reasonably well at 50 BPM. I suspect that you can still learn a lot playing a piece that's more difficult, but it's a lot more frustrating. So, if you're worried that you'll give up, go for the easier material.

You really have to be motivated to make this work. If I hadn't decided that I was going to spend a year on this no matter what, I probably would have given up by now. I know this is true, since I've given up on sight-reading twice in the past.

I'm still "into it," and often practicing three hours of sight-reading in a day, but there are some days when I have to force myself through the mandatory two hours.

I'm still finding enough material from the library and from books lent to me by friends, but I've realized that I don't have to have a strict "one song, one time" policy. That is, after I've read through a few hundred songs, I can probably go back and read them again without getting much benefit from my first reading.

One other note: If you're starting out, I'd recommend recording your sight-reading of a few pieces, so that later you'll have a feeling for how much you've improved. Alternatively, you can just make some notes about what songs you played at what tempos.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

9. One More Time

Throughout this process I generally limit myself to playing a piece one time only. The idea here is that the second time through it's no longer sight-reading, it's practicing. The thing I want to learn is sight-reading.

On the other hand, I find that I do get some benefits from playing a song a second or even a third time:

  1. Although I have trouble making myself look ahead while playing, it's much easier the second time through. Hopefully this will give me some much-needed practice in this important skill.

  2. On the second time around, I get a chance to see the things that caused problems during sight-reading -- things that I ignored the first time. For example, on first reading I might have a problem with a few measures and think "I wonder what went wrong there?" Second time through, I can see "Oh, that was a problem because there's contrary motion in the two hands." or "That was a problem because the notes aren't what you'd expect."
By the way, it's amazing how much easier the pieces are the second time through. I'm not sure what's going on, since I certainly don't memorize the song in one run through. I guess just having a general knowledge of what's going to happen next is enough to improve my playing. Perhaps I should spend a little more time pre-reading the music before I start playing.

Monday, January 21, 2008

8. Read Intervals, Ignore Notes

Today I've noticed that if I consciously try to ignore the individual notes in a two-note chord, and instead look at it as an interval with a given top or bottom note, it makes the reading easier.

For example, instead of seeing this:
as a C and an A (in treble clef), I see it as a sixth, with a C as the lower note.

I knew from the start that that would help, but today found that an "I am NOT going to look at the individual notes!" attitude is helpful.

I'm finding that one key to making sight-reading work, is to have the music trigger movement of my hands rather than result in some kind of intellectual process. As soon as the interval is recognized as a sixth, my hand automatically adjusts itself to the shape needed to play a sixth.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

7. FInally, Some Progress!

Well, it's been about 40 days of two-hour-per-day sight-reading, and I'm starting to see some signs of improvement! Not as much as I'd expect, considering I've now sight-read through over 700 pieces, but enough to notice.

I'm noticing, for example, that some of the more common note groupings are quickly recognized and converted into movement of my fingers with less conscious thought on my part. Also, notes which were less familiar before (such as C6 for example), are now less likely to slow me down.

I'm still playing things at a much slower than normal tempo. For example, I might play a difficult (for me) piece at 60 BPM per eighth note! For most pieces, I set the metronome to 50 BPM (for quarter notes).

To give you a feeling for where I stand, I find that I can sight-read this piece, first time through, quite well at 50 BPM:

Whereas I'll have some trouble sight-reading this piece at the same tempo:

The hymnals have been the most useful, since they have so many chords and intervals to practice.

In addition to these books,

I have read through America's Song Book, Young America's Music, Easy Piano Classics, and about 200 hymns.

I suspect two reasons that my progress is slower than I expected:

  1. At age 54, perhaps I've missed the critical period for learning reading-related skills. Conventional wisdom holds that adults have a much harder time learning to read text than do children. Not sure if that's true, but it may be related to my slow progress.

  2. Yes, I've read through 700 pieces already but I've only been working at it for one month. If one can become a good sight-reader in ten years by reading 15 minutes per day, it doesn't mean that one can accomplish the same thing in three months by reading 10 hours per day. In other words, there's a passage of time component that's also important in learning a skill like this.
Sight-singing First

I've done some limited experiments with sight-singing part of a piece first, to see if it will improve my sight-reading. Result: doesn't seem to help. That is, if I sight-sing a line of the melody before playing it, I don't play it any better than I would have without the sight-singing.

Not Looking at my Hands

As mentioned, this is something I'm pretty good at, but I notice that every once in a while I do glance down, and this often causes me to make mistakes.

In addition to playing memorized pieces and jazz with my eyes closed, here's one other exercise I find useful: Close your eyes, place a hand on the keyboard, and try to recognize where it landed by feel. You're not allowed to move the hand; recognize the position based only on the keys you can feel immediately.

Looking Ahead

I realize the importance of this, but I don't do it very well. I have to consciously force myself to do it. It usually goes like this:

  1. "Hey, you've got to look ahead more!"

  2. I look ahead a measure, and memorize part of it, say the left hand.

  3. When I play that measure, I'm so absorbed in playing what I've memorized, that I don't look ahead to the next.
I'm giving this a high priority right now.