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.


Mike H said...

Thank you for writing this blog. I'm an adult "memoriser" trying to read music and your blog is an inspiration.

d w said...

Keep it up dude! You're doing great.

Stephen said...

Thanks so much for this blog. On January 1 I decided to make this the year I get better at sight-reading. I took up piano (and music reading) in my late 40s (now 69), so it's been a real struggle. I am definitely a 'reader' for piano, can't improvise worth doo-doo. Hymns are the best thing for me. I have been struggling with on-line sight reading helps, and use a shareware program called "Etude" which is very helpful connecting notes on a page with keys on the piano. After three weeks I can definitely see an improvement, although I have light-years to go. Thank you for the blog; keep it up and we'll all get better!! Happy 2009!

Stephen, "Closet Organist"

Anonymous said...

Hey, nice blog. I've seen it a couple times and it's good to see someone tackle sightreading so late. One thing that helped me drastically was learning theory, scales and chords. Sightreading is not a basic task and requires a fundamental foundation of technique and knowledge. That's likely why you struggled allot in those 2 years. I learned most of my theory online at some Dolmechs website (google it for proper spelling). It helps allot. Also you're right about intervals. It's really all about the group of notes in each beat.