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How to Practice Sight-Reading at the Keyboard

by Daryel Nance

Many of us equate sight-reading at the keyboard with the same anticipation one has for a root canal.  Yet, there are those few around us who seem to be somehow naturally blessed with an unknown set of abilities that allow them to be natural sight-readers.  For most of us, few harbor any desire to regularly practice the skill of sight-reading, until one is faced with crisis moments at the keyboard, when he or she is handed scores to perform, with little or no preparation.

Piano and organ students, for the most part, spend their formative years learning pieces to perform.  The instructional system reinforces this.  The teacher usually has recitals and the teacher's students must show up favorably, if mommy and daddy will continue to fund lessons for the children.  This performance priority becomes the baseline of the teachers business.  However there is no wrongdoing here on the part of the teacher. In reality, few students would be self-motivated to practice sight-reading in place of perfecting pieces for performance.  Can you imagine a teacher announcing at a recital,  "Now Billy will perform for us three pieces of my choosing, which he has never seen before."  Afterward, admirers surround the young artist, "Billy, …such remarkable mental processing, dauntless focus, …and those wonderfully slow mechanical tempos!"

When one sets about practicing sight-reading, it is usually because of a desire from within one's self.  Driven by practicality, one realizes that in the real world, one is often expected to execute a piece of music that one has not had sufficient time to perfect.  So, the reality is that few keyboard students, in their formative years, will even understand the need for perfecting sight-reading skills, beyond what is developed in learning to perform new pieces.

An analogy comparing the two mindsets is seen in comparing an actor with an evening-news anchor. The thespian may spend great time perfecting the delivery of specific lines from a classic play of Edward de Vere, while the evening news anchor may also spend great time, but in perfecting his or her delivery to convincingly read news copy, live on the air, handed to him of her just minutes before the broadcast.  Both are unquestionably valid speech crafts that have similarities, but each requires the perfecting of different skill sets.

When one arrives at his or her personal crisis with sight-reading skills, some basic shortcuts will produce results in record time.

1.  Mentally execute each step in time without mentally processing note names.   What does this mean?  See symbols, press keys, …don't think.  When we read words silently, most of us actually form the words we read, moving our lips and tongue.  When one studies speed-reading, one of the first items to be addressed is to eliminate the muscular processing done by the lips and tongue as one reads words silently.  The moment the muscular speech loop is removed from mentally processing words, one's reading speed skyrockets.  Of course, one may find that for the first few moments one tries to read without muscularly "lipping" the syllables, they are almost paralyzed in their reading.  This quickly disappears and one's reading speed jumps a quantum leap.

The parallel with sight-reading at a keyboard may already be obvious.  Usually when one sight-reads at the keyboard, who has not mastered keyboard sight-reading, an unnecessary extra mental loop is added with each vertical moment in time.  As one visually reads each vertical collection of notes, one usually mentally translates the note symbols into pitch names, followed by a second mental translation into physical keys on the keyboard.  This extra loop of cognitively acknowledging pitch names eats up "processor time".  Therefore, to more quickly process each vertical moment in time, one must omit the extra "note naming" step, and directly map in one's mind the note symbols on the page to the depressed keys on the keyboard.  When one masters keyboard sight-reading over time, one's omission of this note naming loop is what happens naturally.  For one to realize how to streamline one's mental processing in his or her sight-reading at the outset, carves off weeks of work.  See symbols, press keys, …don't think.  Yes, this demands a certain level of keyboard facility before attempting, and some repetitive drill in modifying one's mental programing.

2. Practice sight-reading, don't practice the piece.  What does this mean?  We are conditioned to practice until perfect.  This is not sight-reading.  What one must do instead is to practice the "process of sight-reading" in order to increase the speed at which he or she process the symbolic language of notes.  So, how does one do this?

a.  First, obtain some suitable scores with which to practice the "process" of sight-reading.  This of course will vary with each person's skill level.  Easier collections of pieces designed for piano study, or a basic hymnal are good choices.  Remember that some of the keyboard accompaniments for contemporary hymns are not without awkward passages, so use good judgment.  The acid test is that the music should be easy enough to allow one to be able to somewhat sight-read at a slow tempo, from the outset.

In the late 1960's, equipped with something of a functional repertoire for organ, I secured my first full time church music director position.  But, this was the real world and one had to sight read.  I had spent the first twenty something years of my life "learning" how to learn pieces.  Though there were piano labs, there had been no such thing as a sight reading lab aimed at keyboard performers.  Terrified, armed with a hymnal, and my little Breitkopf 371 Bach chorales, I began daily "holy hours" plodding from alpha to omega, again and again, in both of these and other editions.

b.  Second, start with a slow enough tempo to allow one to execute a reasonable percentage of correct notes.  Yes, a really slow tempo; but, even more important, a consistent tempo.   Forget all concerns typical to performance.  My daughter, a vocal student, seated at the piano one day, mournfully announced to me, "Dad, I can't read both staves at the same time!"  I replied, "Sure you can, you're trying to 'perform' the piece you don't yet know, not read it."  Keyboard sight-reading uses muscle response based processing which is somewhat different from aurally based vocal sight-reading.  Although, one does indeed aurally monitor his or her accuracy, as one sight-reads at a keyboard.  We sat down and addressed "see notes, press keys, ..don't think".  My criteria was, "Don't worry about the tempo."  "However slow the tempo needs to be, go no faster than will allow you to see notes, press keys, and come out with something that resembles what is printed on the score." We began with an excruciatingly slow, but consistent tempo.  Viola!  …three pieces later she was ecstatic with what she was reading, which she was previously convinced that she was not capable of doing.

c.  Third, don't allow your self to stop and correct mistakes.  Mistakes are O.K., stopping or going back to re-do incorrect notes is a cardinal sin.  If you can't execute a reasonable percentage of notes correctly, slow down, or use easier music.  Conversely, if you play everything near perfect, you may need more difficult scores.

d.  Fourth, when you get to the end of the first piece, don't do it again; least not more than once.  When you finish one piece, go to the next.  Playing a piece repeatedly is learning the piece, not sight-reading.  If the pieces get too difficult then stop and go back to the first, playing through a sequence of pieces to the same point where you found it too difficult the first time.  Maybe by the second time you get to the "difficult" piece, you can go on farther through the same book before hitting your "wall".  Also, if you need to, just skip a piece because of its difficulty, and just go on to others.  You want to keep your focus on practicing the "process" of directly mapping in your mind the note symbols on the page to the depressed keys on the keyboard.  It actually becomes an enjoyable game.  But, remember this is a skill, and skills have to be regularly practiced.

e.  As your hands (and feet) execute the visual note pattern data in your head, begin to scan ahead with your eyes.  As one's skills progress, one begins to notice that note patterns visualized in one's mind can be somewhat automatically processed by "muscular memory" of the hands (and feet), while one's eyes are reading new data ahead in the score.  The goal here is to mentally "get out of the way" of what your mind will do automatically with your body, if you just let go, and don't stress.  This stage begins to happen only after substantial repetitive drill with keyboard sight-reading.

My hypothesis is that indeed, over time, one's mind assembles a finite library of several hundred automatic muscular responses mapped to a few hundred possible visual note combination.  One has at most (usually) ten fingers (and two feet). In the sight reading of many typical compositions one could conclude that much notation is often within less than the center three octaves of the keyboard (check out keyboard and pedal board wear on wooden keyboards).  Therefore, for any given moment in a composition, there are often a relatively finite number of possibilities, even though they be several hundred, of various commonly occurring note combinations.  To the extent that the texture of any given composition is limited to one's most often used library of responses, is the same extent to which one will efficiently sight read that score. (Sorry, I was once a mathematician at heart.)  The mind, left to its own resources, is amazingly capable of semi-automatically supplying a programed muscular response to a recognized visual pattern.  If one keeps analysis out of the loop, the mind's programed muscular responses can become amazingly rapid.

f.  Fifth, let not thyself be vexed, anxiety is the mind killer.  If this is too stressful, then either your scores are too hard, or you're being to hard on yourself.  Severe anxiety will radically short circuit all of the semi-automatic processing that has to occur in keyboard sight-reading.  Slow down and enjoy the experience.  If you stress out, your best at the moment will always be far less than your best. 

3.  A Note of Warning - Adults are able to defeat themselves from mastering new motor skills:  As you are no longer a child, you possibly don't still have a child's sense of "play".  I'm not talking about "playing" a musical instrument, I'm referring to a child's ability to spontaneously "play" (..with toys). This child's sense of playfulness is critical to an adult mastering new motor skills.  An adult is no longer as pliable of a learner of new motor skills as is a child.  As an adult, you have had many lessons, endured many classes, and prepared many assignments by specified due dates, so you now function in a world of assigned tasks completed by specified due dates. You have come to expect a preconceived result, due within a date stamped upon your expectations;  whereas a child continues to "play" with life less judgmentally, within an ongoing "now" time frame. 

As a critical adult, your assimilation of a new motor based skill can be immediately fraught with frustration because you don't immediately measure up to your self comparison with others, who have mastered the skill you are trying to master.  As an adult, you are not as unaware as a child of the time needed to assimilate a new motor skill.  If you have difficulty measuring up to your desired expectations, in a short time window, ...your new skill quest may soon become abandoned, to become only another "good intention".  If, you beat yourself into a frustrating daily experience with unaccessible skills, you will soon cease your negative experience, well before you see any benefit from your unpleasant labors.

Conversely, if as an adult, you can approach a new motor skill uncritically with "fun", and repeatedly experience it within an atmosphere of "play", you have a much better chance of re-visiting a positive ongoing learning experience.  If you can daily approach your quest to master a new motor skill, with a non-critical child-like playfulness, without imposing a due date on your performance level, you have a fighting chance of looking back over your progress, at an unspecified future date, in wonder of the amazing things you have accomplished.



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