Help! I'm the worst sight-reader ever…

Posted In: How To Play

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    mae-mcallister on #185541

    Hey y’all,

    Cut a long story short, my sight-reading stinks and I really need help from you guys to improve it. My teacher, who is lovely, cannot help me all that much because she is a natural sight-reader and just doesn’t know how to help me. She gave me a massive pile of books to work through for practice, and it’s just not getting any better. It’s not something I can do naturally… I need specific advice about what to do to improve, rather than “practice lots” or “play it slowly” or “try to not stop” because those things aren’t helping.

    I’ve been trying to narrow down what it is I find difficult, so here are a few things that might help you help me:
    – I play a lot of folk music and can improvise and play from ear very easily
    – I am unable to look at the music even when I am familiar with the piece; I learn all of my pieces off by heart.
    – When I look at my hands, I only look at one of them at a time, usually my left hand (which is my weaker hand).
    – My sight-reading on one-line instruments is pretty slick. These instruments do not require me to move my hands i.e. one finger serves one button/hole/note. I do not look at my hands when I play these instruments. Which suggests that my main trouble is that I cannot feel for how to move my hands to serve many notes, backed up by…
    – My sight reading on the piano was similarly shocking
    – A friend of mine likened sight-reading to touch typing…I cannot touch type. I use one finger on each hand, and I have to look at the keyboard. The same friend expressed surprise at how fast I could type given this.
    – If blindfolded or forced to look at music, I can generally place my fingers to within one or two notes of the correct note…continuously, but no better than that. So my muscle memory gets me into the vicinity of the correct notes, but is never accurate enough. Therefore I am generally always one note out, all the time, at least.
    – I can read and take in music ok (like, now I must play a 2nd inv Gmaj chord in my LH…), the trouble comes when I have to actually place my hand on the strings without looking. The strings all feel the same to me. I don’t instinctively know where my hand should go without looking.
    – I haven’t even the faintest idea how you’re supposed to place effectively without extensively studying the piece beforehand. When I learn a new piece I go through it slowly and block it with fingerings, trying out different ones until I find something fluid and comfortable, and then I practice them over and over until they are automatic. Part of the problem is that even if I do hit the notes correctly, I miss the next ones because my fingers are all tangled up or in the wrong places.

    What do I do? Is there a way I should going about thinking/reading the music that would help? Drills? I am particularly interested to hear from people who like me are not natural sight-readers and have overcome it somehow…

    Sylvia on #185578

    I don’t know the answer, but I will cheer you on.
    You say, “I play a lot of folk music and can improvise and play from ear very easily.”
    If you’re a folk harpist, I personally don’t see any reason why you should have to sight read. I question why the teacher wants you to. Maybe you don’t need a teacher.
    You are not the worst sight reader. I am. For opera parts, etc., I learn the hard sections because I can manage the easy things like isolated chords or whatever. I always get parts way ahead of time (buy them). All my personal rep is memorized, with a free left hand. I can’t play by ear. As for reading through piles of stuff to try to sight read, I simply won’t spend my time doing that…it wouldn’t work anyway. I’ve tried that. It’s not me.
    Since you’re not playing anything like orchestral parts, your gift of memorization and playing by ear is just that…your gift. I’ll bet your teacher can’t do that.
    I admire people who can look at music and play it at the same time, but if I had to do that, I’d never play anywhere. We’re all different.

    balfour-knight on #185579

    Mae, Sylvia raised a good point: do YOU want to be a better sight-reader, or does your teacher want you to be?

    I do not know the answer, either, but I am thinking about it. If I come up with something, I will certainly let you know.

    Best to you,

    Biagio on #185582

    Mae, this is timely since I stink at sight reading and my teacher, while a brilliant musician, plays by ear. But she can sight read if she has to and there are other really amazing harpists in the area who sight read very well. Here is what all have told me with a few hints thrown in for good measure:

    – This skill takes hours and hours of practicing exercises (by which they mean years and years of pattern recognition).

    – There are no specific exercises, just as there are none for speed reading but the process is similar. A really good speed reader can scan an entire paragraph and sense it’s meaning – not word by word.

    – I can work specifically on sight reading by concentrating on passages rather than an entire piece, boring though it is. So devote 20 minutes in each practice session to that.

    Now the tips:

    Get a book of etudes and exercises such as Friou, or Grossi/Pozzoli. Approach the exercises in short increments: See the measure;
    Place both hands; Hear it internally (i.e. imagine it;Play it. If it did not sound as I imagined it, do it again until it does.

    Read the score wile listening to some one play it over and over and over. Visualize what their hands are doing.

    Go to as many “group plays as you can. Don’t try to keep up and get frustrated; look ahead, play what you can, then skip ahead and be ready when it comes around. Do not fake the fingering – use good technique.

    Work a lot more on accompaniment by itself. Most of us (they say) are better at melody so the accompaniment is sort of added on later. Do this the other way around with a new piece, particularly an easy one that seems a little out of the ordinary. (Lady Meng Jiang is what I’ve set aside just for that).

    Use a metronome.

    Sounds like work to me, but what the heck, I really want to get better at this!


    Biagio on #185583

    Encouraging words from Meg Robinson…


    Cheryl Rajewski on #185584

    To be a good sight reader you have to be good at recognizing patterns and also be able to look ahead at the next measure as you are actually playing the measure before it. That is what etudes can do for you, it’s all about pattern recognition. Slow your playing down to allow you to look ahead. Look for basic patterns in the left hand then only look at the note it is starting on, you don’t need to “look” at each note when you know it is a 1,3,5 chord, just look at the first note then let your eyes move on or up to what the right hand is doing. Also as far as muscle memory you have to practice only 3rd’s, then only 4ths, then only 6ths over and over to get the “feel” of the space between fingers. A good book for this is Harp Exercises for Agility and Speed by Deborah Friou. When I look at music I can easily “see” it’s a 3rd or 4th and my hand and fingers already know what that feels like, how much space to put between them. All said, sight reading well is when you have already mastered intermediate playing and can play without having to constantly look at either of your hands. I use all kinds of symbols such as ^ to mark 2nd’s then o between 3rds to quickly know where to put my fingers. You CAN do it and I admire any player to challenge themselves to try sight reading everyday. It is one tool that you can use to become a better player. I try to sight read new tunes every few days, it keeps my skills for recognizing patterns sharper.
    Now get back to your harp and make it happen!!!

    Janis Cortese on #185585

    If you’re the worst sight-reader ever, I’m next to you on that podium. Not only can I not do it, I actively detest even trying. I have no idea why. (I’m talking about the piano — I’m finding that harp is as you said worse, since one has to place before playing.)

    Listening to people try to tell me why I can’t sight-read or talk me into it has never been revealing. It’s an experience listening to people telling me that I can’t because I’m not good with words (speak three languages, pick them up like people pick up colds), can’t do math (MS in physics), can’t think in three dimensions (think only in three dimensions, knit cabled sweaters without patterns), have bad pattern recognition (not possible in someone who picks up languages quickly) …

    Honestly, I can’t do it because I can’t stand it. That’s about it.

    I do however, write music. I arrange, I reimagine pieces in various different styles … none of which most classical teachers can do. And the more I’ve done it, the less and less I care about anyone else’s dots. I have a feeling your brain simply enjoys the “leaping off a cliff and flying” feeling of improvising and being only with your instrument and nothing else so much that it just rejects any imposition of dots. Your brain is interpreting the paper as … well, as a piece of unwanted latex, and your brain is going get that out of the way!

    Now, the people I know who like sight-reading LOVE it, as much as I love sitting in front of the piano or the harp with nothing whatsoever but me and the device. It’s certainly a good skill for an accompanist or chamber musician to have. One woman I know who is amazing at it does it for fun. She’ll crack open Mozart piano concerti and sight-read them live in Ustream for the hell of it. She just gets off on it.

    I’m going to take a heretical position here: forget about sight-reading. It’s a skill that, in your position, you don’t need. And you don’t have to be able to do EVERYTHING as a musician. If Mother Nature gave you mad improv skills, then go ahead and do that. I’m going with my composition skills. It’s what I’ve wanted the piano (and now the harp) to be since I fell in love with it at age 6.

    Janis Cortese on #185586

    FWIW, I also learn sheet music by heart (when I played other people’s music, and when I woodshed my own). I am in the strange position of being unable NOT to memorize music after a few repetitions, which you may do also. If I play a piece a few times, I don’t see how to avoid it going into my head fairly quickly, upon which point my eyes just start to tune out the dots. I don’t need them anymore.

    Gretchen Cover on #185591

    Mae, I am one of those natural sight readers. I helped another harpist who had difficulty learning new music, and in doing so, realized (to me, anyhow) the key to sight reading or learning a new piece is pattern recognition. I read the above link to the blog by Meg Robinson and found her advice very appropriate.

    I would suggest to you that you take random pieces of music you play and practice finding patterns. Make a copy of the music. Use a colored marker or a symbol. When you find a repeat pattern, mark it the same way as the previous one. When you are finished, analysis what you see. You will find that you probably only need to work on a few different sections of the piece. As you learn to recognize, say a 1-3-5 chord, you will know it, and not have to struggle. Try to think in groups of notes.

    You may want to make yourself some flashcards of patterns that you see oftentimes in your music. As you work on this (just for as little as five minutes here and there), it will become more automatic. Even if you recognize just a few key patterns, learning written music will come more easily.

    I am horrible at playing by ear, and I am envious of those to whom this comes so easily.

    balfour-knight on #185592

    Well, Mae, I think all these lovely people have told you what I could not put into words! All good ideas, and thanks everyone!

    Andelin on #185593

    I see value in being able to sit down at a new piece and at least be able to get through it. It is mostly useful if you want to play with others. If you play solo only, you will be able to get away with minimal sight reading skills.

    I had an experience this week…I was handed a brand new piece of music and my two violinist friends and I played through it. I probably got half the notes right, and kept my place in the music. It wasn’t perfect but I got by. 🙂

    I take more a middle of the road approach. If sight reading makes playing no longer enjoyable and fulfilling, by all means, do just enough to get by, and no more. As someone good at improvising and playing by ear and from memory, you probably need it less than I do. I am not so good at improvising. But then, I’m not all that great at sight reading either. But I have improved. How? Just by doing it. In order to be good at playing harp, you have to practice (and do it often), and any other skill is no different. If you stop doing it you lose that skill to some degree. Like all talents, to some it comes more naturally than others.

    After all that, If you still want to improve sight reading, this is my suggestion. First, start with very simple lines, with only one note at a time, practicing with each hand separately. Then play lines that have hands together, one note in each hand. Start with a slow tempo, so slow that you almost can’t miss a note. You may have to start very slow. Gradually you will be able to increase tempo and difficulty. If you have a helper, have that person cover up the measure (or note, depending on speed and skill level) you are playing so it forces you to look ahead in the music.

    The thing I think a lot of people don’t realize about sight reading is that it is technically only sight reading the first time you play it. After that it’s not really sight reading, as you have some memory of it. (Your goal here is not to learn the music like you would a performance piece. ) The hard part is having enough material that you haven’t seen before to have something new every day. Perhaps your teacher will be able to provide some simple sight reading exercises, or maybe there are books you can buy. If you play something once and wait a week or two before playing it again, it might be as good as new. 🙂 If you do as little as one or two eight (or sixteen) measure passages a day (5-10 min, max) you may be surprised by the amount of progress you make in such a small block of time. So you learn to sight read without feeling like you spent hours and hours.

    Another help is learning music theory. Understanding what chords look like (tonic, dominant, subdominant, seventh, etc.) can help you find the right notes of a chord, seeing “chunks” of notes instead of individual ones. I would guess this is more intuitive for someone who plays by ear.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Biagio on #185594

    A few random thoughts from the harp maker:

    I’d rather design a harp than sit down and do the WORK of learning to play well. This has gotten to be such a problem that I’ll sell the band saw so I can’t make any more.

    So as a corollary make the “work” into “play”. For me that means going as slowly as is necessary to enjoy it and not get frustrated.

    By the same token I’d rather be creative and experiment than practice what the teacher assigns. We’ve come to an agreement: at least one hour per day on the assignment; only then allow myself to fool around (as much as I want then – heh heh).

    It’s very embarrassing to go to a retreat and not be able to play along with everyone else on a piece I’ve learned well one way but is scored in another.

    I want to be a well rounded musician and figure being better at sight reading and the other things the teacher assigns are a worth while skills to learn for me.

    If I wanted to just go my own way – hey no problem with that, but then I wouldn’t shell out $$ for lessons:-)


    MallyG on #185601

    I am entirely self taught on a number of folk instruments, and I play purely for pleasure. I learnt from listening to experts, firstly by copying, then developing my own voice, and taking advice as required when I reached a technical obstacle. I refer to written music as a last resort, it’s like a foreign language. I use a kind of tablature to remind me of arrangements I like.
    I have two comments about sight reading:
    1) People who can/do often say to me that they feel they lack freedom to do what they want, and they envy the way I carry my repertoire around in my head.
    2) I arrange all my own folk tunes; some aren’t available as sheet music anyway. This is immensely satisfying.
    Sight-reading snobs will usually grudgingly admit we illiterates have a point, you just have to have the confidence to defend your position – it is equally valid!

    Janis Cortese on #185604

    MallyG, we’re not really talking about notation though, but about sight-reading, which isn’t the same thing. Use of notation != sight-reading.

    I’m just pointing this out because there is a huge difference, and often conversations about sight-reading and improvisation often get derailed into playing by ear versus using notation, as if the two are in opposition to one another. It’s a mistake to conflate:

    1) sight-reading AND improvisation, two separate unpolarized skills with

    2) notation VERSUS playing by ear, two skills that are also separate and unpolarized.

    Not only are they all four <i>completely different</i> skills, but there is no benefit at all to setting them against one another.

    mae-mcallister on #185606

    Hey all!

    Thanks so much for all the help and advice, there’s some really helpful stuff in there! Itching to have a go…

    Just to clarify a few things:D

    – I have dual-citzenship in classical and folk music. In the pub I play tunes from my head and make shit up. At home I work on my scales, and technique, and grades, and learn classical pieces. And often I also play from my head, arrange stuff, and make shit up. I am a proud and loyal citizen of both:) Snobbery of either one against the other is not to be tolerated:D

    _ I have a teacher for the classical stuff. She is not coming regularly, just once every while to keep me on track. I hadn’t seen her for several months, now in the run-up to a grade I might see her once a month or couple of weeks. She doesn’t want me to do ANYTHING. She is happy to try and teach me what I want to do. I am sufficiently stubborn and or/assertive to choose what I want to learn and she is happy to oblige. I want to be able to sight-read on the harp. I have never been any good at it. That’s just tough. i don’t want to be the most amazing sight-reader ever, I just want to be capable. And that’s my choice. i let it slide with the piano, and with other things. Not this time. This time, i’m going to learn how to do it.

    – I practice a lot, and I practice sight-reading a lot. It’s not getting any better, in the way that a piece doesn’t if you play it over and over rather than actually working on the little bits you keep getting stuck on. Only I don’t know what “the bits” are in this case, you see.

    – I can read music well good:) Ditto theory. I compose. I am the sort of person who gets narked when composers write 3/2 instead of 6/4 (because if you’re going to write you should darn well know how to spell!). My problem (as is becoming more and more apparent) is not the processing of the music, reading it, it’s knowing where to put my hands. I don’t know what stuff feels like, or where to put my fingers, without looking. I can’t visualize where my hands go. So the tips about, practicing playing intervals, and etudes, and practising fingering patterns, and visualising where and what your hands are doing, all that stuff, that’s SUPER helpful. Keep it coming!

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