It’s audition season at my university and, if this year is like previous ones, very few of the applicants will be strong sight-readers.
Without question, it’s challenging for most teachers to regularly incorporate sight-reading during lessons, what with technical studies, theory, musicianship, and repertoire—let alone harmonization, transposition, improvisation and other keyboard skills. But since one of the most important things a teacher can do is to guide her students toward, in effect, becoming their own teachers, I am convinced that sight-reading is a vital skill that can facilitate—or even liberate—other aspects of music-making at the piano.
One pre-college teaching paradigm favors having students study three or four pieces over an entire academic year, usually in preparation for a competition and/or a recital. The study of ‘the music’ is stressed, and the student’s repertoire may become considerably more refined over the course of many months. Certainly, I have heard students present fine performances after following this routine. Others, however, do not respond as well to working in this manner.
In either case, this way of teaching does not encourage sight-reading. Without this skill, the student can rely too heavily on the teacher for musical ideas. This dependence can make it difficult for the student to become self-reliant, reticent to approach new music or to experiment and venture into unfamiliar territory.
This is where sight-reading assessment relates to the upcoming auditions at my school. It’s common for my colleagues and me to hear potential in an applicant’s playing and then to observe the same applicant stumble through an unfamiliar piece of music. Sometimes we take a chance on the student who sight-reads poorly and sometimes we don’t. Although anyone can improve, our experience has shown that students without this skill struggle to learn music at an acceptable pace. This, in turn, hinders musical and technical development.
Most pre-college piano students do not have vocational designs and will pursue other, non-music fields. But all students benefit from including sight-reading into their daily practice.
An approach I’ve found to be effective features three ways of working with piano music: blocking, earnest study (that may or may not be leading toward a performance) and sight-reading.
Blocking: Using unfamiliar repertoire that is not difficult—but too hard to sight-read easily—pianists may ‘block’ a piece or a section of a larger work by reading more deliberately, analyzing the harmonic and formal structure, planning effective fingering, and choreographing efficient technical gestures, to familiarize themselves with new music. For beginning and intermediate students, the pieces may be only one to two pages long. Advanced players may expand their knowledge of repertoire by budgeting more time to blocking every day—as opposed to the common practice of playing only those pieces that are being studied with a teacher, or those that are scheduled for performance.
Earnest Study: This is a more detail-oriented activity, where many pianists spend most of their practice time. Depending on what individuals find most stimulating, serious study may involve isolating technical problems, singing parts, stimulating the imagination through extramusical means, and innumerable other practice techniques to improve one’s playing. (For those with performance goals, I differentiate a fourth category, “Refining Toward Performance.” This is an extension of “Earnest Study,” but recognizes the additional effort required to bring repertoire to the highest-possible level. Usually, this involves memorization, as well as physical, emotional, and psychological demands that exceed those required for “earnest study.”)
Sight Reading: Determine your or your student’s ‘level‘ by finding music that is a stretch to play well the first time*. After a quick review of the score (meter, key, expressive markings, articulation, accidentals, registration, etc.) start by playing just one short example or a one-page piece all the way through, without stopping. For this exercise, it’s important to keep going forward, no matter what happens. I tell students to imagine that they’re accompanying dancers who rely on them to keep the music flowing—that these dancers don’t care about mistakes but do not want their dancing interrupted by stops and stutters!
When a student (usually a conscientious one) ‘stammers,’ by continuing to try to fix mistakes, I have him begin again, but this time I hold a piece of paper up to his music while he plays, advancing the paper to cover up the music just played so that the student’s eyes must keep moving forward. Even if he stops to ‘fix’ a problem, I keep advancing the paper. This invariably causes some anxiety, but the point gets made quickly. Despite some discomfort, this exercise puts students into a heightened state where they become more willing to take chances.
This kind of sight-reading is one activity in piano-playing where mistakes are accepted as a necessary part of the process, and the payoff is considerable. By playing more repertoire, we and our students are presented with many more aural and kinesthetic possibilities. Gradually, pianists become more courageous and feel empowered to tackle increasingly difficult repertoire.
Every musician is on a sight-reading continuum, meaning each of us has a ‘level’ from which to improve. Incorporating sight-reading into our practice and pedagogy can yield impressive benefits and, ultimately, greater joy in music-making, for us and our students. Written by Fred Karpoff. For more information about music lessons or music tips, visit http://www.Music2Master.com or http://www.PearlFlutes.net or call us at 952-924-4141.