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


Kronk said...

Congrats, Al! 2 hours a day is pretty amazing.

john said...

That pretty good. 2 hrs?? Which Hymn book are you using?

Al said...

I used the Christian Science Hymnal copyrighted 1898 (yes 1898) and the Presbyterian Hymnal copyrighted 1990.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Al. You have proven that the gray matter in fifty-year-old heads isn't hardened cement. Plus, you have inspired me to try for an hour per day in '09. Even if I only see half of your progress I'll be pleased.

Hope you're enjoying the holidays and continue to progress in '09!

Anonymous said...

Hi, great blog.
Regarding advice point 4. I tend to agree, however I find that when moving from note/chord to the next note/chord visualising your current position on the keyboard (Ie, the key your are on, not the note name of the key) and visualising the next note makes it easier. Of course it takes practice to move between notes in this way without looking, but actively visualising it leads to it becoming an automatic response.

John A. said...

Stumbled here searching for sightreading tips. Appreciate your thoughtfulness. You are now a bookmark in my Piano Pedagogy folder (no pressure :-)

Listened to Rudolph excerpt. You have a nice, comfortable, easy style that's pleasant to listen to. Thanks for that.

John A. said...

Stumbled here searching for sightreading tips. Appreciate your thoughtfulness. You are now a bookmark in my Piano Pedagogy folder (no pressure :-)

Listened to Rudolph excerpt. You have a nice, comfortable, easy style that's pleasant to listen to. Thanks for that.

John A. said...

One more thing.

Let me encourage you in your "slow" progress. From your playing style, you are clearly enjoying what you are doing instead of "forcing it" and developing the sloppy style of a frustrated musician who is "rushing" the process. If you haven't discovered it already, just know that your approach is really going to pay off in the end.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, thanks for the tips, ive started lessons about 6 months ago for violin and piano and despaired last night in my lesson when I felt wasnt making any progress. But youre right, it takes A LOT of patience and perseverance. I think youre best tip here is to look ahead and not to look at your hands and to put in the time, consistently.

Thanks for this, its inspired me to keep slogging away, im going to do my best and put in an hour a day!

Anonymous said...

Al, that's really useful to me, that you've put down so much detail on learning to sight-read. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing and so encouraging...I too have a goal to vastly improve my sight reading. Sometimes I feel I am making good progress and other times not so. Also, I find some keys more difficult to play in such as those with lots of sharps as opposed to lots of flats!! For example, I love playing in the key of Eb but dislike E#!! Strange but true - I think its the way my brain pictures the notes!!! I play lots of hymns and find hymn books helpful though my piano teacher has encouraged me to widen my reportoire and I understand why he says this...

Anonymous said...

I know this is a really old post but I was interested in this comment from the blog: "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."

Naming intervals is super important for sight-singing, but I wonder if for piano it's more about the kinesthetic response...steadily building up your brain's map of the keyboard relative to the grand staff so that when you see certain notes, the hands and fingers just do it. Like with touch typing, which depends on getting the finger movement to become automatic and unconscious.

Keyboard proprioception seems like it should fit in here somewhere.