Monday, May 5, 2014

I'm Back!

Mark Twain said: "Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times."

Well I guess that's how it is for me when it comes to giving up on sight-reading. I just can't stay away. I'm back to working on it, but my new study program is more focused and less time-consuming. I'll tell you all about it, but first ...

What I've Been Up To

In my last post, I talked about giving up on, or at least giving less priority to, sight-reading. That's what I did, and it has been a good thing for my general playing, because it has given me more time to spend working on  other skills. For example, I've added new songs to my solo jazz repertoire, gotten more licks down, done more exercises, and worked on the general sound of my jazz playing. This feels good, and I realize that I've been neglecting this stuff in favor of sight-reading.

I'm a morning person, and the thing I do right after breakfast gets the most of my energy. For years, that thing has been sight-reading. Since "quitting," other tasks have been granted that "most favored concentration" status.

Another thing I've had more time for is writing. As you can see on the right side of this page, I've written a book. The book is a bit different from this blog, with a summary chapter or two, but most of the important information is available right here in the blog you are reading. If you're a tightwad like me, you'll be fine with just the blog. If you prefer to curl up with a physical book or with your eBook reader, you'll probably enjoy the book (end of commercial).

I've talked about how valuable piano lessons are for improving one's sight-reading. I still believe this is true, but once I gave  sight-reading a lower priority, I could no longer justify the expense of lessons. I reluctantly stopped taking lessons. Note, however, that I've received so many valuable tips on sight-reading from my teacher, that I can continue to benefit from them for years.

Finally, I felt that I was letting you down, dear blog readers, by quitting. In fact there were a number of times over the years that I would have given up were it not for my public blog.

You may have noticed that there's a real up and down aspect to my quest. Some days I'm encouraged, other days, discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I'm doing great, other times: Epic Fail. So it's not surprising that I went so far as to publicly give up then publicly start again.

So here we go again, and now, perhaps, I've found a way to maximize my returns.  That is, I'm ...

Following My Own Advice!

That's right. I've been spouting plenty of advice over the years, and now I'm going to focus in on my best tips, namely:

1. Practicing Much Less per Day

You've heard me say that two hours per day was not efficient, and might even result in the practicing of bad habits. So now I generally do only about two tunes per day, sometimes less.

2. Working Only on Modern/Pop Stuff

I've mentioned that sight-reading progress can be very specific to the type of music you work with. So, for example, if you play only hymns, you'll get good at hymns but not at, for example, pop tunes.

So: No more hymns or classical pieces. Yes, it would be nice to be good at those, but, for me, it's more important to be good at modern stuff. By "modern" I mean pop tunes or typical written-out jazz pieces--the kind of music you'd see in a book of Christmas carols. I'll miss the hymns, but I've got to work where my priorities lie.

3. Practicing Leaving Things Out

You may recall that my teacher taught me the value of leaving out stuff. She had me leave out one or more of the voices when playing a hymn. This was more difficult than expected, but I could see the benefit: when I ran into trouble, I could leave out voices.

I had done this with hymns but never with modern tunes. Now I am applying it to modern music. I'll play a tune through the first time playing only the top and bottom notes. The important skill is learning what to do when I get in trouble.

At first, seems that it would be just as easy, for example, to play the doubled octave bass notes, or the chords in the top. But it is a little easier, as my teacher Robin showed me, to just grab two notes (or even just the melody) when problems arise.

I'll often run through a second time (or take the repeat), and play all the notes  (or more of them).

Does it sound better with all the notes? Yes. Does it sound reasonable with just the top and bottom notes? Often. IOW, if I sometimes get into trouble and leave things out, most listeners won't notice.

4. Looking Ahead

As you've read, I'm always working on this. Perhaps combined with leaving things out, I will finally improve here.


My new regime feels like a good compromise, and, if I'm right about practicing less, I will learn more efficiently.

Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Hi I just ran across your blog yesterday. I am an adult piano student who has been consistently practicing for 6 months. I'm on level 3 of kids' lesson books (late elementary/ early intermediate), so I've worked in 3 keys, cgf, intervals up to octave, dotted quarter and triplet but no 16ths, A and D minor. Easy, peasy right?

So, given that as background, I am a reader not a memorizer. And my advice to you is to move beyond intervallic reading, and read an entire measure, or syllable. Eventually read a phrase or word. At least with the songs I'm seeing, there are patterns that get repeated forever: 1234, 1232, 1233, 1353 - the point is that we should be able to recognize a c-chord whether it's solid or broken or repeated.

I mention my current books because I think the advantage is that I'm operating with a limited vocabulary, like the Doctor Suess of piano. I'm trying to recognize ate and eat and cat and hat, not myriad and vacuous. And maybe this is a pipe dream, but i've picked up lots of books at my level (bastien and piano adventures) to practice as much sight reading as possible. I'm basing this technique on how I learned to type: from 9th to 11th grade I became the fastest typist in my computer class. Basically I typed a lot, and I tried to chunk - instead of a letter at a time, I'd think about a syllable. And now, I think in words or maybe not at all - it feels seamless from brain to hands. I have to slow down to type something unusual, like vacuous, I basically sound out the syllables. And of course if I run across a word I don't know, I might have to go back to letters - but even scientific terms, hypokinesthesia, I can see the hypo, the kin, esthet, ic, I'm still breaking it down into bigger pieces.

Clint said...

I've been on my own sight reading journey for the past 3 years. In that time, I've gone from sight reading Alfred's Level 4 to Bach Inventions & French Suites, Chopin Mazurkas & Waltzes, Haydn & Mozart Sonatas, etc... I'm not sure about your practice routine and I couldn't find a reference to Leonhard Deutsch's book "Piano Guided Sight Reading" in your blog so I thought it would be worth mentioning. My biggest take away from this book was that accuracy and evenness trump fluency and should not be sacrificed. I practice 1 hour/day and usually work on about 2 pieces, reading them in their continuity 2 to 4 times, depending on length, and starting new pieces every five days. 5 days seems to be the optimum length to study the same piece, as less days seems too short, and with more days the improvement in each piece seems to plateau. If using a metronome, usually at the end of the 5 days I've doubled my speed with difficult pieces and perhaps quadrupled it with easier pieces. I'm not sure if you're repeating your pieces during the session or over the course of several days, if not, it may be worth experimenting with.

I usually notice a jump in skill level about every six months, usually in the fact that pieces once impossible to sight read through are now possible, albeit slowly but not torturously so. I'll also notice that my initial speed on pieces I worked on a year or two ago is much improved.
Anyway, if you haven't checked out Deutsch's book, it's worth consideration.

Mary Bourdon said...

OK. I've read your blog from time to time during the past three years. I too have been on an adventure in sight reading.

Thanks for blogging and for expressing the ups and downs of your experience. As for me, I am continuing on my mission to learn to sight read because I set down a simple ground rules at the start; I will follow this journey, not direct it (I may not hiss, whine, holler, bellow, cry fowl, clutch my breast in despair, and so on...) Also, at the outset I decided that the journey could never be finished...and that's not a bad thing. To these simple ideas I've stayed true. I've whimpered a handful of times, only to remember my own original wish--so I've been able to stay humble and not worry about the stumble.

I've been following a multitude of approaches, but primarily, I study harmony every day before sight readying. I love this journey...that's all I want to keep in focus. Over the past three plus years, I've been exposed to so much music...I keep a running list of which pieces I've enjoyed the most--maybe I'll get back to playing them, some I already revisit for the enjoyment of it.

I have no idea what it is to play by ear, but I'm guessing that you are good at it? And in reading your first entry--why sight reading...I'm guessing that you can now read the Christmas sheet music if called upon!

Again, thanks for sharing...Glad you wrote a book, I'll definitely look into ordering it the next time I shop on Amazon.

Al said...

That sounds like a good approach, Mary.

Yes, I'm pretty good at playing by ear.

I could play the Christmas music if it isn't too hard.

Edwin Dizer said...

Hi Al,

I just wanted to thank you for creating an extremely useful resource for sight-reading.

The advice might be found elsewhere, but few websites present it all in one place. Also, it's immensely useful to actually be able to witness someone's journey over 6 years in sight-reading. They say that experience is what happens after you need it, but fortunately here is a resource that gives 6 year's worth of experience in 2 hour's of reading.

I agree with a lot of your approaches and ideas, but not all of them. But it's still fascinating to see how someone else has come up with creative responses to the challenges of sight-reading.

You should have something on your website that allows for donations. I'd gladly give a dollar.



kkoyle said...

I love all this information! Site reading is such a challenge! My friend recently had me take a site reading comprehension test (it was an online thing that gave me a score and ranking, she called it a SASR). Now, I have a new resolve to increase my score (I scored lower then my friend :( Hoping that these tips will help for next time! Thanks.

Ali said...

Wow is just the simple word that may explain that how much I liked it. It was nicely stuffed with the material I was looking for. It is great to be here though by chance.
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Opeyemi Osiberu said...

This is a very good method of playing. You are a good teacher. There are many good sites out there with good stuff. But you are just great

Al said...

Thanks, Opeyemi!