Monday, December 10, 2012

Progress Report - Five Long Years!

Oh, man, five years gone, and I'm still not that good a sight-reader.  Much better than before, but I have a long way to go.  There are days that I want to give up on this, but I keep working at it.

I've been doing some reading every day, except that I took about a month off leading up to a solo gig that I had in early December.  That is, during that time I put all my effort into working on tunes for that gig, and did no sight-reading.  That month saw some good improvement in my solo work, and showed me that my time spent on sight-reading is time taken away from other aspects of my playing.  That is, it reminded me that there is a cost for working so hard on sight-reading.

Click here to hear a clip from that solo gig.

That gig is over, I'm back to daily sight-reading, and I'm trying something new.  I've concluded that one of my problems is that I pay too much attention to the note names and not to the intervals.   I've discussed this several times before (for example, here).  Because I've spent years not attending to the intervals, my brain has gotten stuck reading notes.  This is a case where I've been practicing the wrong thing.

My best trick for fixing this is to transpose a tune to another key (mentioned here).  When I do that, I have to pay attention to intervals, because the notes are wrong.

In the past, I've used transposing in this way: I'll play a hymn or two transposed, and then I'll go back to normal reading.  After I do that, I seem to pay attention to intervals a little more, but soon go back to my old bad habits.

So my new system is to, each day, play two hymns or chorales transposed, and then not do any more sight-reading. Perhaps if I do that for a month, I can kick my mind into the interval gear.

Note that when transposing, I think about intervals only.  I'm not allowed to see the note and figure out what note I'll play.  I only do that for the first chord of the piece.  From then on, I play based on the intervals from one chord to the next. I don't want to get good at transposing, I just want to use transposing as a tool to help me attend to intervals.


isaacnewton666 said...

do you ever wonder if maybe constantly shifting keys, styles, and difficulty levels is hindering your development? in my mind, the best sight-reading program would be very specific about what material it is presenting you with. when i was learning transcription, i realized that all of the above made a huge impact on my ability to jot stuff down in real time, and that if i was constantly shifting key (or style or difficulty or even encountering exotic rhythms), then not only was it more challenging, but it also hurt my progress considerably. why is this? because my brain didn't have enough time to actually master each pattern (or even the same pattern in a different key) this is why i had to develop my own ear training regimen, because all the software i used was always lumping these different things into the same set of exercises. of course, to be good at ear training you must learn how to hear things in chunks (beyond intervals), but this didn't happen unless i spent a long time just dictating melodies in one key, with a tiny set of rhythms and in one style. so yeah - theoretically you need to be reading in terms of intervals (or better yet chunks), but have you ever thought the issue might be that you're just not spending enough time in ONE key, with one style and difficulty level? just a thought, man. to test this, perhaps you could go through some of your older material and figure out what is actually enabling you to read it easily. i mean, you complain about your tendency to think way too much in terms of individual notes, but maybe this is just what your brain does when it is unfamiliar with the material. actually, the same thing happens to me while sight-singing - if some aspect of the passage is unfamiliar, then all of a sudden i'm reading individual notes instead of the entire passage as a whole, which slows me down and messes me up. but is the solution to somehow intellectually FORCE myself to read it in chunks again (or to look ahead)? no not necessarily, because the root cause is that i'm merely unfamiliar with some aspect of the passage, such as the chord progression that it outlines, or even its rhythm or key. so what do i do? after i'm done sight-singing it, i really take the time to internalize the unfamiliar elements of it, so that upon encountering it again in other scores it's no longer a problem to sing. actually, it seems like your entire strategy has been framed around whatever material is available to you (volume being an issue), and the principle that sight-reading is only sight-reading the first time around. so what do you do? well, you get a score, read through it once (and maybe twice), then move onto another score. but what's the problem here? i can think of many:

1. scores are probably too difficult to begin with
2. scores constantly changing keys and chords
3. scores constantly changing style
4. scores constantly changing rhythm
5. scores constantly presenting new technical challenges

so in other words, just as your brain is finally learning to reproduce some unfamiliar element in the score consistently (AND with the correct concentration and ratio between the left and right hemispheres), you're being forced to change the patterns again, and so the learning process is being impaired - it's no wonder your brain felt like jello after those two hour sessions! (or at least i imagine it did). obviously sight-reading does indeed involve the memory, and the only way to develop the memory is through strategic repetition of a few elements (in a multitude of variations, no doubt) until they are actually (and deeply) learned. this failure to understand the critical role that memory plays in sight-reading is what i think cripples the progress of most students. in fact, i'm willing to bet that there's even a way to teach sight-reading that doesn't even employ (relatively speaking) that much sight-reading.

isaacnewton666 said...

a few warnings, though:

1. i am not a pianist
2. i've never really sight-read enough to know its challenges more intimately

ideally, to train a set of patterns, this is the method i'd employ (for a particular chapter):

1. one key
2. one tonality
3. one style
4. one difficulty level
5. only tiny set of rhythms that the student has already practiced
6. only tiny set of chords

then, to make these patterns automatic, there'd be several hundred pieces (depending on what would be required) that must be read through once (for true sight-reading) and then read through again to correct for mistakes and drill home key concepts. ideally, by the end of the chapter enough training and exposure with have taken place so that what was once challenging has now become automatic. take about two thousand pieces (i'm guessing here) at a particular difficulty level and style, and then scramble them up for each key to produce twelve different volumes - can't think of a better way to teach basic sight-reading, actually. my argument here is that this is a much faster way to teach sight-reading, because then the brain will have enough exposure to a set of patterns to actually learn them. and then once this level of familiarity is attained, then thinking in terms of chunks and actually looking ahead will be a much easier thing to do (and probably automatic). you can read a book in english for hours, but do it in a language you're not familiar with and it can become exhausting even after a few minutes - even if you know all the vocabulary. but if your brain doesn't know what patterns are occurring on the macro level, then all it can do is just try to make sense of the words in a broken, isolated fashion.

Al said...
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Al said...

Thanks, Isaac, those are some good thoughts. Basically, you are suggesting that I learn one key (for example), really well before moving on to the next.

By changing keys with every tune, I'm interfering with my learning of patterns that are specific to a particular key.

Good idea.

isaacnewton666 said...

i'm learning german right now, and in order for me to speak fluently i need to know not just the words, but also how to string them together into basic sentences (easily and effortlessly). and then from there i gotta tackle individual subjects at a time (such as sports, politics, or weather) until they are individually easy for me to talk about. what's my point? unless i am extremely focused on memorizing just a few things every day, then my progress is slowed down. oh sure i could memorize more, but then my knowledge would be more superficial and i couldn't readily use it in a conversation (or even write it down). another key concern is that i have to be really careful about the difficulty level of what i'm tackling, because it makes no sense to learn the more advanced vocabulary with its more fancy sentence structures if i can't even use the easier stuff with its simpler structures yet. i also had the same issues with transcription and sight-singing, because i realized that in the time it'd take me to transcribe one difficult piece i could do ten easier ones, and then learn so much more in the process. so what's my point? make sure that you've really mastered those easier difficulty levels and styles before progressing. you call chorales hymns on steroids? well then go back and do the hymns til they're totally natural for you, and only after you can play the hymns while (for instance) talking to your wife move on to chorales. actually, think i got an idea for ya:

go to

go the MIDI section (here you'll find hundreds of hymns in MIDI and PDF format)

download the MIDI version of a hymn and open it using some good score software (finale?)

transpose the hymn into a key of your choosing, and then do this for twenty or thirty others

print them out, of course

practice as an experiment to see if your progress speeds up - if it does, then you can apply this concept to other material you need to learn as well

in theory, nothing is stopping you from taking that entire collection and going through all twelve keys with it, or at least until you feel competent. but first see if my idea even helps you. :p

because chorales modulate all the time, you're probably better off going through all twelve keys anyway

as you've pointed out, hymns are awesome because not only are there so many of them, but they are all about the same difficulty level and are written in the same style (correct me if i'm wrong here...)

you could also do the same with bach chorales if you wanted

the big challenge here would be finding a good software to convert those MIDI files into an acceptable format for sight-reading. if you're an old school guy who doesn't use computers much, then this could be a problem.

also, another thing that occurred to me is that you could edit out one of the inner voices so that you're dealing with three notes and not four (maybe a single bass line and then two in the treble), and then add in the fourth again after that becomes easy.

Evan R. Murphy said...

Al, do you still work with the same teacher on your sight reading? You mentioned back in December 2011 that doing so was a big boon to your progress ( Would be curious to know if you continue to get valuable sight reading help from her, or if you're doing self-study now.

Al said...

Hi, Evan.

Yes, I'm still working with that same teacher. Yes, I'm still getting good insights and tips from her. On average, we spend about 1/2 of my lesson time on sight-reading (the rest on technique or other things). You'd think she'd run out of suggestions, but she often gives me an idea that helps.

Still slow to improve, but I think that's me and not her. She thinks I'm progressing well.