Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two Years and Counting

Well, I've now been working on my sight-reading for two years! Where does the time go, huh? I'm continuing to improve, and more importantly, I'm reaping the benefits of my new skill:

(1) It's great to be able to read and play examples in instructional jazz texts (see an earlier post for an example).

(2) I'm enjoying learning pieces by reading through them multiple times. For example, click here to hear me play this nice arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (from the Reader's Digest book of Christmas Songs).

(3) I'm finding that t's much easier to memorize songs when I can read pretty well. Instead of laboriously reading through a measure or two at a time, I can more quickly play a segment of the song and commit it to memory. For example, I've recently memorized Bach's Two-Part Invention #8 (hear me play it in our 2009 Christmas card video (about halfway through. All the music in that video was me playing on my Yamaha P90), Bach's French Suite 5 Allemande, and Schubert's Scenes from Childhood (Foreign Lands & People).

Back to the actual sight-reading progress aspect, I've continued to do about an hour of reading per day. I do more repeated readings of songs -- while technically not sight-reading, this has the benefit of letting me practice reading at a higher tempo.

I'm getting more comfortable at sight-reading. That is, it's less of a strain than it was in the past. Things are becoming more automatic, and my hands go where they are supposed to go with less conscious thought.

As mentioned before, I'm good at not looking at my hands, but I could still be much better at reading ahead. Here are several examples of my sight-reading, recorded yesterday. They give a pretty good feeling for where I stand, although I play better when I'm not making a recording destined for the world wide web.

That's it for now. I'm continuing to work on this, and I'll report back in a year!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Progress (1.75 Years)

Things are still coming together, but more slowly than expected. I see the end of the tunnel, but I figure it's about two years away. That is, I expect that in another two years, I'll be a really good sight-reader.

Before continuing, let me show you where I stand. Here are two pieces being sight-read, one easy, one a bit harder (click on the images for a full-sized version).

Click here to hear me sight-read Wabash Cannonball.

Click here to hear me sight-read When my Sugar...

So, I'm getting the hang of things, but I'm still quite slow. I just can't keep up if I increase the tempo. (I realize that got some off the rhythms wrong on the latter song.)

Not Looking at my Hands

One thing that I'm really, really good at is not looking at my hands. I can read an entire song, and not even glance down once, even when there are big jumps. I highly recommend getting this ability nailed. It feels really cool, and I never have to worry about losing my place in the music.

There are two things going on here: Feeling the keys, and knowing where they are.

Concerning feeling the keys, you have to get into the habit of caressing them all the time. Imagine that you are a lovesick teenager, and the keys are your girlfriend. You just can't get enough of touching her/them.

As for knowing where they are, I should give some credit to the book Super Sight Reading Secrets by Howard Richman (more on that book later). His keyboard orientation drills made me realize that I could move my finger to a note pretty accurately with my eyes closed, even if I wasn't starting from a known note. Here's the exercise I do:

I make sure I am sitting right in front of middle D (that is, with my belly button lined up with the middle of the middle D key). Then I close my eyes, put my hands in my lap, then think of a note and move a finger to it. I found that often I got the note exactly right, and my accuracy improved with this drill. In other words, the feeling of where your arm is can be pretty good for hitting the note you want.

Combined with feeling the keys, this ability can help you eliminate your need to look at the keys. It's true that doing this is a lot easier one note at a time than in the middle of some complex song. Also, I sometimes get "desynchronized" with the keys, and play, for example, an E when I'm expecting a B. But once you get some ability and confidence here, you might find that you can make those big skips without thinking about them.

I'm hoping that the habit of not looking down at my hands will get so ingrained in me, that I won't do it even if I'm playing in public or am nervous.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead as I'm playing is still a struggle for me, and I'm still working on it. I play better when I do it, but that just may mean that the song is easier, and it gives me a chance to look ahead. Sometimes I try to look ahead just a half measure or so. I played prelude one in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier yesterday, and was able to zip through it with almost no errors. Why? Because each measure repeats the same five notes twice, so there's plenty of time to read and understand the next measure as I'm playing the current one. If I can just get that same idea working for other songs, I'll be set.

That's it for now, sight-reading fans. Please leave a comment if you're finding this blog useful!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Progress Report (1.25 yrs)

Since finishing the year of sight-reading, I've continued reading at least 30 minutes a day, sometimes significantly more. I'm reading only modern/pop/standards stuff -- no hymns or classical.

I'm quite pleased with my recent progress. It feels like things are finally coming together. As a side benefit, I'm noticing more confidence in my jazz reading (that is, reading melody lines while playing chords). I'm also finding that working with transcriptions or educational piano stuff like this

is a lot more convenient, since I can play the examples much faster.

As an example of my progress, today I sight-read this piece pretty well (but with a lot of mistakes) at about 50 BPM:

I'm realizing that much of my progress is based on a new-found quick, involuntary understanding of the notes on the page. That is, I see, I understand, I play. To show you what I mean, look at the following sentence, but don't read or understand it:

I went to the store.

I'll bet that there isn't one person among you who could look at that sentence without reading it and understanding what it meant. That's what I'm now getting with the music. I see the notes and instantly have a feeling for what they mean and how I'd move my hands to play them. I also realize that this is something that takes time to develop.

Shorter Practice Time

Here's a comment concerning 30 minutes versus two hours per day: One benefit to the shorter time is that perhaps I do less practicing of bad habits. For example, it's hard to force myself to look ahead all the time when playing for two hours. As a result, I'm doing a lot of practicing of sight-reading without looking ahead. When practicing for a shorter time, I can focus more on practicing the good habits.

Things I am continually working on that seem to help:

  • Focus on reading ahead
  • Make sure I don't look down at my hands at all
  • Feel the keys
  • Always play with the metronome
So now I'm just continuing to sight-read, attempting to gradually increase the tempo at which I play songs.