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.