Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tips From My Teacher

I really wanted to call this post "Sh*t My Teacher Says," (take-off on this popular book) but I didn't want to imply that her tips are sh*t.

First, due to a technical glitch, I hadn't realized that there were many comments awaiting moderation, so I apologize if you didn't see your comments appear; I'm sorry I didn't reply to them until today.

I had thought that my blog was drifting away, unread, into the boonies of the Intergoogle, so it's encouraging to see that people are still reading it.

In a few days I'll be posting my four-year progress report, but I wanted to get these great tips out to you first.

Here's my big tip: You will make much faster progress if you work with a teacher who is very good at teaching sight-reading. This advice is coming from someone (me) who is very independent, and usually likes to work on his own. I've been taking lessons (twice a month) with a Dr. Robin Miller for almost a year now, and I think I've progressed as much in that year than in the three prior years.

Warning 1: there are teachers out there who are not very good at sight-reading. I called one teacher and told her what I wanted, and she told me, almost whispering, "Well, I have to admit that I'm not a very good sight-reader myself."

Warning 2: Even if the teacher is good at sight-reading, he/she may not be able to teach it well. I took a year of lessons in the eighties, but my teacher at the time didn't help my sight-reading much.

I'll tell you about my new teacher, Dr. Robin Miller. She is on the faculty at Humboldt State University, and she's been teaching piano for over 35 years. She can sight-read effortlessly, but more importantly, she sees what I'm doing wrong, and has a bag of tricks and exercises to help me fix my problems. I'll show you what I mean below. I have a lesson every other week, at $50/lesson. Of course it's unlikely that you live close enough for lessons from her, but for completeness, here is her contact information:

  • Faculty Web Page: Click Here
  • Email: rashamelamed-AT-gmail.com
  • Phone: (707) 826-5448
Here are some of the tips she has given me. In many cases, I knew these things, but wasn't applying them well.

Tip #1: Intervals are Indeed Important

Robin showed me that I need to pay more attention to intervals. Hey, Al, you say, you knew that four years ago (see this post and this one)! True, but although I talked and thought about it, I was really still paying attention primarily to the notes. It's frustrating that I was aware of this important key to good sight-reading, but wasn't really employing it well.

Robin has an exercise in which I say the interval by which the melody changes with each note as I play a tune. For example, in this piece:

I would say, out loud, while playing "Same, second, second, second, fifth, sixth, same, second" etc. Of course you can do the same thing for the bassline, some middle part, or chords. I'm not very good at talking while playing, but this helps me pay attention to the intervals.

I also created some interval flashcards. It may seem elementary, but they help me recognize the intervals very quickly. I use them on my iPod Touch, and I can just scroll quickly from one to another, and call out the interval. You can download all the flashcards here. They look like this:

So, if you scrolled through those, you'd say "Sixth! Third! Octave!" Realizing that for seconds, fourths, sixths, etc. (that is even intervals) one note is on a line, and the other on a space, helps. This exercise is only difficult when distinguishing the wider intervals (sixths, sevenths, and so on).

One other trick that I developed on my own to help see intervals is to transpose the piece to another key. For example, I might play the above piece in F instead of C. I figure out what the first notes are, and from then on, I must pay attention only to intervals, because the notes will be wrong. For example, in the above song, I'd start with G and F in the left hand, and B natural and F in the right. On beat three I'd move the bass up a half step, and the melody down a second (a minor second in this case).

This transposing is extremely slow, and often I have to go back to the beginning, and start over. But it's very useful, because you are forced to ignore the notes.

Back to non-transposing playing, here's an example of how I put all this into practice. Take this hymn:

Starting with the second measure, my fingers would be on F and C in the left hand, and F and A in the right. For the next chord, in the right hand, I see that I will still have a third between the notes, and I will shift this pair of notes down by a second. In the left hand, I see that the top note, C, is the same, but that the interval for these two notes is now an octave. So I leave my left thumb on C, and shift my hand position to that of an octave, which I know well.

I usually pick the note in each hand that moves the least, move to it, based on the interval of the change, then use the interval between the notes to find the other note.

Now, having said this, do I always pay attention to the intervals and not the notes? No. There are two reasons.

First, after years of thinking about the notes, it's hard to get away from that. Although I've benefited from my years of daily sight-reading, these years of doing it the wrong way have hurt me in this way.

Second, as Robin has pointed out, there are other ways of looking at the music, or taking in the information while sight-reading. One of those ways is the notes themselves (another is the harmonic structure, which I will discuss below).

However, I've felt that paying more attention to intervals has helped me more than any other tip. If I practice for too long, I find myself getting away from intervals. Often it helps to play a piece very slowly, and force myself to consciously think in the way I described in the above hymn example, explicitly thinking "OK, that note goes up a second, and the other note is a sixth below it." Also, if it's too much to do this for all the notes, I might just concentrate on using the intervals in the bass clef, and not thinking about how I play the top notes.

Tip #2: Don't do a Reset with Each ChordThis is an example of how having a teacher can be better than doing it yourself. One day, Robin said, "Let me show you something. This is how you play this hymn." and she played it, imitating my style. "Now, this is how I play it." and she played it her way.

There was an "Aha!" moment, because I could see immediately that when playing like me, she was essentially removing her fingers from the keys, then "starting over" and finding and playing the next notes. When she played her way, there was this beautiful seamless flow from one chord to the next. That is, it was about moving the fingers in an efficient way from one set of notes to the next. It was partly an issue of fingering, but more an issue of using the changes of the notes rather than the new notes themselves to play the next chord.

Tip #3: Keep the Beat GoingThis is the tip that Robin feels is most important. Of course I have always known this, but she has made me work on it more.

Tip #4: Know What to Leave Out

If you keep the beat going, but are having trouble, you can't slow down. So instead, you have to leave something out. Dr. Miller explained that the melody has the first priority, and the lowest note is a close second. That is, you can leave out the middle notes if you need to.

I pretty much knew that, but here's an exercise that helps me "cheat" when I get into trouble. Playing a hymn, Robin would have me play just the outer voices, or just the inner voices, or some other combination. At first this was extremely and embarrassingly difficult. I would have thought that leaving things out would be easy, but I had been seeing the music as a unit. I found that doing this exercise helped me to leave out some notes when necessary. Sometimes I'll practice by playing all four voices, then leaving out one or two for a few measures.

Robin has also noted that I tend to leave out the bass when I get into trouble, getting caught up in the top voices -- I need to work on that.

Tip #5: See the Harmonic Structure

The number of chords used in a piece are usually pretty limited, and often predictable, especially in hymns. For example, you can be pretty sure that the second-to-the last chord will be the dominant seventh for the key.

Robin's tip is to get used to instantly knowing what chord is represented by the notes. The exercise she suggests is to say the name of each chord as you play it. So, for example, for the first line of this hymn,

you'd say: F, C, Dm, C, F, C, F, C7, F, Bb, F, C7, F, C. That bolded C7 might just be some passing tones, but it seems to work like a C7. Some tunes are not as easy as that one, with, for example, the tonics of some chords left out, but the basic idea is the same.

I've been a little resistant to this tip. My reasoning is that it seems that you are using the notes to figure out what the chord is, in order to know what the notes are. But you started with the notes, so what's the point?

But apparently the point is to instantly notice the chord, helping you to know ahead of time what the notes will be. I'm going along with this, and it does seem to help. I find that with the common keys I already recognize many of the chords.

Tip #6: Take a Minute to Look Through a Piece Before Playing It

This probably should be tip #1, because it's one of the first things my teacher told me. I knew I should be doing this, but felt that it may help my playing, but wouldn't help my sight-reading. In other words, I wanted to practice being surprised by the notes, and dealing with it. But I'm a dutiful student, and I now take the time to check through, looking for clef changes, checking out the rhythmic structure, watching for difficult places, etc. I don't do it as much with hymns, since they are quite predictable, and I enjoy going from one to next, and noticing the sound of the change in key. But this is definitely good advice.

BTW, I don't want to imply that I'm playing only hymns -- I also work with modern stuff and non-hymn easy classical pieces.

I'll stop here and pass on some more tips in future posts.

In three days it will be four years since I started this crusade, and I'll post a progress report along with recordings.


Graham said...

Impressed by the work you put ino the blog. Saying the chords out loud is a good memory aid as well as exercise.

Anonymous said...

Thank you posting this, I have been looking for advice on sight reading, and this is extremely helpfull.

Anonymous said...

I never heard of these tips, so thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff. Your consistency over 4 years is admirable!

Patrick said...

Please, please re-upload the flash cards you created for chord intervals! It would be a huge help to me! Thanks :)

Al said...

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for the heads up, I reuploaded the images. Let me know if you have any trouble getting them.