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

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    allegra on #185608

    there are some graded sightreading books about, though not very many – perhaps they have different steps of things that are meant to help you improve in a more structured way, rather than just lots of examples like you would get just playing loads of random music? (I don’t know if the books do this; I’m still at a low level!). Even if you don’t want to learn to do it specifically because of exams/grades, the books might still give a structure progression. What grade/board are you working on? Not that the skill would be very different, but I think I have seen somewhere something that gives a kind of syllabus on what is increasingly expected at each grade, which then might give you the ‘bits’ that you need to focus on (i.e., what patterns they expect you to recognise first, etc).

    There is a series of books for the piano by an Australian company called How to Blitz Sightreading, that focuses on showing you the patterns of various chords and teaching recognition in different inversions etc., teaching rhythm reading exercises separately, and so on. I liked the look of it (pretty sure a full preview is available online) and wondered if it would be adaptable for harp somehow, but a lot of the examples were too specific with piano fingering, I think. But you might be able to find something similar with harp, or perhaps you would be better able to adapt it than I was. It had exercises also on being able to transpose the music, which might fit well with your folk background and playing by ear, because the emphasis was on recognising the shapes and feel of the chords, but then being able to play them in other positions.

    I would like a harp version that included three and four note chords with the range often found in harp music (like over a tenth), and also more on chord patterns written as arpeggios/triads – you know like repeated ripply patterns that I can never quite read in time. I can process chord shapes better as solid chords (from piano) than I can when they are written out as semiquavers, for example – it’s just a visual thing, but I find it harder to recognise (beyond simple major chords), especially when you get the same pattern written over several octaves (on different staves, crossing the staves, etc – I always have to look far too closely to verify that it is the same pattern). A similar book to this that taught those patterns in a graduated way would be terrific.

    Janis Cortese on #185611

    Mae, if that’s the case, it seems like the very first thing you may want to do is to try a simple Alberti bass in the left hand — I, IV, V, I, rinse, lather, repeat — and just do it while staring into space. It doesn’t seem to be sight-reading that’s the real obstacle for you. The pre-obstacle is, as you said, not looking at the harp. So knock down that obstacle first. Write some simple common bass lines, and practice playing them without looking. Don’t add sheet music to the mix yet.

    Biagio on #185613

    Re-reading through this thread, I’m beginning to think that we need to break things down a bit more than just “sight reading” which seems pretty broad. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that we need to develop several skills, one of which is indeed ear training or playing by ear. Not quite the same thing but – OK.

    To keep things simple, let’s assume a pretty short folk harp piece, say 24 measures or so that we’ve never heard before and do not have a recording. We have a complete two stave score and we have a lead sheet. What are we gonna need? Here are a few suggestions.

    -We will need a few mechanical tools: pencil, possibly white out, metronome, ideally notation software such as Finale or Sibelius. So we can mark up the score, change stuff we don’t like (one of the folks in my harp group is well known for goofy lead sheet chords), and perhaps actually listen to it.

    -We need some good grounding in theory, including understanding meter and hopefully the tune’s history. For example, 3/4 is not the same as 6/8 and you can’t play Scottish music appropriately if you don’t know what a snap is.
    One excellent theory book (although not written for the harp): The Everything Music Theory Book by Marc Schonbrun; specifically for harpists and chords: 3’s a Chord by Ray Pool.

    -Ear Training – It’s awfully nice to know what an interval sounds like: 1 2 3 Play also by Ray Pool

    -A good book of common harp patterns and arranging: Music Theory and Arranging Techniques for Folk Harp by Sylvia Woods; Arranging for Folk Harp by Kim Robertson.

    -A collection of exercises and etudes: Harp Method by Maria Grossi; Exercises for Strength and Agility by Deborah Friou.

    Naturally we can’t work on everything at once, so concentrate ore on the weak areas. For myself, those are not using my eyes effectively and being really crummy at recognizing intervals. I suggest though that all the above are needed to sight read well: theory, patterns, good ear training, scales, arpeggios, and some understanding of HOW the piece is arranged.

    Whew! They’re weren’t kidding kidding when the Irish bards said it takes 20 years to be a harper – and that was without sheet music:-)


    mae-mcallister on #185615

    Janis – I think you’re right! I’ve mis-titled this thread, I guess it’s not my sight-reading per-se that I suck at as I can do that OK, it’s my ability to play without looking which stinks. I will try what you suggested!

    I’ve been looking for advice for teaching/playing as a blind harpist, although I am blessed with good sight the problem I’m having is similar to a few of the challenges that I guess that people with poor sight must face. I can’t find much, though there’s a few things to think about from this blog:

    Biagio on #185616

    Mae, these might possibly be helpful: “Harping with a Handicap” and “Harping with one Hand”, both by Laurie Riley:

    You might email her for more specific information, she loves helping with this sort of thing. She is my teacher; one of her instructional methods is exactly as Janis advised. Place and play with eyes closed.

    Another idea might be to look into wire harp technique a little. One biggie there is the concept of an “anchor finger” or fingers. Say for example finger 4 is your anchor on a G; the thumb can reach up to play over an octave of the melody all by itself. Pretty different technique and one to use with discretion, but useful sometimes on gut/nylon.

    Why do we only have Turlough O’Carolan’s original melodies and no indication of his own harmony? Some think because he did not do any harmony or only limited – being both blind and playing on wire.


    balfour-knight on #185624

    Okay, friends, I’m going to jump back into this thread, for what it is worth :). I was blessed throughout my life with excellent teachers, one being my freshman-college piano performance professor. Way back in 1973 he taught “placing” on the piano keys and playing in the dark. We learned to do that very well, and he stressed memorizing everything, with a Master Performance Class each week for his 20 students.

    Most piano teachers I know do not seem to know much about “placing.” I think that it is crucial–just watch a concert pianist play! They place, whether they realize it or not!

    So, the problem on the harp is that all the strings feel alike, different than being able to feel the raised sharp keys on the keyboard instruments and the raised sharps on the pedalboard of the organ.

    Frank Voltz has taught master classes on this very thing, and one technique is to feel the actual vibrating strings (notes you have already played) to help you know where your fingers are. Another thing he stresses is intervals, just like in some of the other replies to this thread. Also, knowing the compass of your harp and the distance involved going from octave to octave, etc. Practice playing in the dark, or at least by candle light. Hope some of this helps, Mae!

    Janis Cortese on #185647

    Mae, I have the same issue with the piano as well. I’m sure I could play without looking, but I’ve gotten so used to using that crutch. The really irritating thing is that when I play without looking, I play so much better. I mean leaps and bounds better. When my brain isn’t distracted by processing visual information, I can hear everything with infinitely greater finesse.

    But it’s almost impossible to squash that instinct to look. It’s very frustrating, especially since I’m busy composing at the moment and don’t really have the time to devote to a pure technical challenge. And it would take time — I’m quite sure that I would have to devote a few months to just playing with my eyes closed (even covered) to make myself confront this.

    balfour-knight on #185651

    Janis, I wish you could have had my piano teachers! They “made” me sight-read and not look at my hands on the keys, when I would have rather been playing by ear making up my own things. My dad was really a task-master, too, and insisted that I perform to the best of my ability.

    This consisted of having to play well when reading music, memorizing it so that if I forgot my printed music, I could still play for people. He also admired and encouraged my ability to play by ear, improvise, and compose. I also had to (really, I wanted to!) learn all styles of music so that I could play at an old Inn for the guests in the summer time. I started this at 8 years old, having played since I was 5.

    I agree with Mae, I mess around with my instruments and play just what I want to play by ear or by memory, but I toughed it out in college, earning both Bachelors and Masters degrees in music. I also “buckle down” to learn music well for my classical concerts. My dad passed away three years ago, but his “legacy” lives on. I am SO GRATEFUL!

    mae-mcallister on #185669

    Balfour – how do you touch/feel the vibrating string without it going “zing”? This could be useful. Annoyingly, the octave spacings on my harp are not constant throughout, the strings get a teeny bit closer together higher up. Grr.

    Janis – hell, if I could play better without looking all my problems would be solved! My playing is much, MUCH worse without looking. Like, fatally worse. To the point where even if I try and learn a new piece by reading, I slip easily into memorizing and playing by looking because it improves my playing a million times more to the point where I can actually play fluidly.

    I feel like I picked THE WORST instrument to try and sight-read properly on. Does no one ever look at their hands when they play the harp? They MUST do, even little glances…no? I’ve been playing blindfolded, it’s not as bad as it was at first but octave jumps in the left hand are totally hit-and-miss. Or, miss-and-miss.

    balfour-knight on #185670

    Mae, what you are saying is PERFECTLY NORMAL! All of us have to look at our hands and the strings when we play the harp, to play it WELL. That is why the strings have colors 🙂 When I play in the dark, or blindfolded, my playing really suffers, because I have to use the “anchor-strings” technique and I feel like I cannot jump around freely like I can when I can see. Watch videos of harpists playing, and they look at their hands on the strings!

    The spacing on your Dusty harp is called “concert spacing.” It is normal for the octaves to get closer together as you ascend on the harp. My Musicmaker’s harp has wider spacing at the top, and you can’t gliss quite as well–your glissing finger tends to fall in the gaps, ha, ha!

    Have a good day. We are off today because of heavy snowfall here in the western NC mountains. It is cold and very beautiful!

    My best to you,

    Allison Stevick on #185671

    I’ve gotten used to the feel of intervals on my harp over time, but I frequently glance from hands to page when playing from printed music (and very much when I’m still learning a piece). Once I actually know a tune, I find that I do play the right hand mostly by feel/ear, but even then I have to look to make sure I’m hitting the right notes after a jump, etc. Like Balfour said, I think it’s completely normal to look at your hands at least periodically when playing.

    Janis Cortese on #185672

    Mae, my piano playing also goes off the rails when I don’t look as well … except when it doesn’t. I can sense that there is something wonderful waiting for me on the other side of that barrier, which makes it more frustrating. I am also noodling around a bit on trumpet (a genuwyne bag o’fun for someone with an overbite), and one of the absolute best things about it is that I can play with my eyes closed.

    I also have no clue how one can not look at a harp. I guess it takes longer to be able to do it; the prospect of surface noise on a piano is almost nil, and while pianists’ hands anticipate the next note as much as anyone’s, there definitely is a distinct difference in how much attention must be paid to placing on a harp.

    Balfour, I think the biggest double-edged issue I had as a kid was that I could memorize a piece after playing it through about … oh, once. Short pieces of course — I’ve never truly had to test this ability with a very long work. But even something like a short sonatina (those Clementis that every piano student learns) would be pretty much in my hands after one run-through. Not perfectly of course, but there. And at that point, the score became more of a rabbit’s foot, just something on the piano that came in handy in the very unlikely event that I had a memory lapse. To me, I think there was nothing else for my eyes to do but look at my hands because the sheet music rapidly became useless. Any admonishment to keep my eyes on the score would have made as much sense to me as keeping my eyes on the wallpaper. (And of course now, my brain actively rejects any attempt to look at other people’s dots since I started writing my own.)

    balfour-knight on #185696

    That was a nice reply, Janis. I, too, would rather not have to read the music, even though I am good at it. It is much more fun to just “play” without the impediment of the written score.

    However, I feel that all of us are indebted to the many composers who took the time and trouble to write down their music, to preserve it before we had recording capabilities, and to enable other musicians to play it.

    Janis Cortese on #185701

    It is fun to not need the score, but it just allowed me to rest on another (im)pediment: looking at my hands. Not looking does cause me to crash eventually, but there are also times when I can feel something “catch” someplace in my head and suddenly I can hear with infinitely more finesse when my eyes aren’t hogging my brain’s processing power. And once you can really hear yourself, you can play so much better. Phrasing, musicality, expression … it all just explodes and feels amazing.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a musician who can do everything instinctively well, not when our best assets are the same as our best liabilities. My skill at memorizing quickly without effort was a huge gift … and a huge burden when it got in the way of another skill, playing without looking. I think we’re all like that in the end. (Sight-reading just happens to be a talent that I don’t really want to have since I don’t play chamber music or do session work. Playing without looking though … that’s something where I can sense the huge difference it can make and want to be able to do it.)

    It’s worth considering actually — we look at the things we can’t do and wonder why our inability gets in our way. I wonder how often it’s not inability that stops us, but an ability we have that simply interferes with developing another. I.e.: what is it that I can do that keeps me from wanting or needing to learn this other thing?

    Tacye on #185760

    I come from the other side – notes go from the page to my fingers and if you take my music away I am pretty much helpless. I know I could work to improve this, but don’t want it enough to make the effort.

    A few maybe useful ideas for playing without looking:
    Placing on the harp for me is all relative – as you say there are no tactile guides. What you do have is the position of the note you just played. So a different way of reading music from see an A, finger an A – perhaps closer to sightsinging. I don’t have perfect pitch so if someone transposes in giving me the pitch for sightsinging I transpose in playing. Same with the harp, if I slip a note then the patch that follows will also be out. Does it help at all to think of sightsinging the music and then playing the harp by ear?

    I divide note finding into two – the spacing within your hand or placing and the spacing between chords or unplaced groups.

    For the first close your eyes and place an octave without worrying about which one (and all the other intervals and chords/inversions). Do you have the feeling and the spacing in your hands? In sightreading this lets you read faster as you are not trying to translate every note individually to the harp, but a whole group. If your 5ths are sometimes 4ths or 6ths then you want to think about consistent fingering and exercises on chord shapes.

    Another exercise is to place a chord of whatever size, shut your eyes and play the same chord a few times at different volumes and arpeggiation. If this is a problem think about how much you are moving your arms. Expand this first by moving the chord up the harp a note at a time and then down for an octave or two. Then run up the inversions of a given chord.

    Another trick I spent a while doing was relying on my laziness – I would just practice my exercises without turning the lights on, or do all my practice with only a stand light so I couldn’t really see the string colours. Try playing pieces you know in the dark – or sightreading studies and exercises with only a little clip on light. Very useful if you get inflicted with interesting stage lighting.

    The other thing you mention as being an issue is fingering. For sightreading you don’t have time for trial and error. What you need to do is work out on the fly a plain vanilla fingering which works with only glancing ahead a bar or so for the outline structure. You can practice this away from the harp too. Obviously when studying in a piece you will refine this and change a fingering in the theme because something works better when it is restated later, but for sightreading you need something basic which works. Consistency is a big help – for instance a CGC chord will have 2 in the middle, but if a CFC comes up I will change the middle finger to 3. That is the fingering rule I was taught (3rd as default on a 5th) and my hand knows the spacing from all the 2nd inversion chords I have practiced. In a melody line the top notes are good markers for the thumb, and then working out where to turn for longer runs. When there are lots of options I try to group notes according to the beats when sightreading (so 6/8 in quavers would have groups of 3 rather than 4+2 or 2+4). This is very useful for orchestral sightreading as it helps hit the beats and when I mess up the end of a grouping it is more likely to be unaccented.

    As Cheryl says sightreading etudes is really useful for this sort of pattern spotting – Grossi, Bochsa etc. Good for your technique too as well as more interesting than playing the same exercises everyday.

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