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

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    balfour-knight on #185763

    Tacye, it is good to hear “from the other side”, what some of my musician friends refer to as being “note-tied.” I wondered about that while studying this blog–what would someone say who ONLY plays by reading the music. I know there are others out there, if they will only add their thoughts here! Now we will have to hear from Mae, too, and I hope some/all of these points are useful to her. Thanks for sharing, Tacye.

    mae-mcallister on #185768

    Tacye – that’s a bunch of useful stuff! Keep it coming. I’ve made a doc of your tips and exercise suggestions and I shall print it off and use it tonight. I think that the way I already think about it is as you describe – sight-sing the notes then play by ear. The issue is that I can’t play by ear without LOOKING. My awareness for what note I’ve just played is also shockingly bad. On harp, you can’t keep holding onto a note once you’ve played it, and once I let go my fingers have only a fuzzy ~5cm wide recollection of where that note was. My interval placing without looking is hit-and-miss too. I will try what you suggest.

    Janis – Hell yes, to everything you said! I never managed to learn fingerings on the F recorders because my transposing was too good. I never learned to read chords on the piano because they’d get recorded in my head the first time round as colours and I’d never have to look again. I can’t sight-read on the harp because I end up remembering everything too well. My partner can’t learn transposing instruments in key because he has perfect pitch. Actually, I think that’s a common one. Lots of people with perfect pitch never learn what intervals and relative keys/notes sound like because they don’t need to, except when they do.

    balfour-knight on #185795

    Mae, I’m glad all these ideas came pouring in, and that you are experiencing some good practice on your harp. By the way, how is the new double-strung sounding?

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #186086

    It’s all about your eyes and how they move. To sight-read, you need to read as you play, then you need to read one note ahead, then two, then three, then four, etc., then you need to look at one whole bar at a time, and you have to practice this regularly. Ask someone who can follow a metronome to stand there with a sheet of paper and have them cover over what you have just played, and they can force your eyes to move ahead by moving the paper sooner. You have to learn to place your fingers by interval without looking. You have to be able to trust that. You have to learn to play in the dark or with your eyes closed.

    mae-mcallister on #186338

    Saul – yes, haha:) I know how to sight-read but not *how* to sight-read:D I know exactly what I need to be able to do but not how to learn to do those things!

    Having said that, something’s now clicked.

    A couple of weeks ago, I was practicing a piece when I had this moment. It was something that an incredible Irish whistle player called Brian Finnegan once told me, about how when you play you should not be thinking about technique and music but about times where you felt some strong emotion, like love or happiness or profound sadness or pride or something and play that through the music instead. Of course he was talking about the whistle, where my technique is already …well, respectable (i.e. obvs. you have to learn how to play an instrument first) and he is the kind of person who says things like that, but I was playing this piece and it just suddenly clicked. I felt super-connected to the music, like I was using it to pour out all my sorrows (I was feeling very miserable and depressed at the time), and everything came out much slower and more heart-felt and all the little mistakes I made didn’t matter to me in the slightest, because the mood was so strong that they didn’t ruin it (when I normally make mistakes I’m thinking, ouch, I just ruined the atmosphere, crap, and that tends to make the rest of my playing worse).

    And then I played my other pieces, and they came out amazing too, and then I thought SOD IT I CAN DO ANYTHING NOW and pulled out some sight-reading and voila, I had made the transition from can’t to can. Not that it was very good, but it existed.

    And now I can do it. I mean, still badly, but it’s now actually improving. It was a combination of three things – improving reading two staves at speed to the point where I could spare time to look at my hands, improving my feel of the harp and spacings to the point where I could spare time to look at the music, and the thing that brought it together which was the belief that I could do it. I was just in that mood, like I could sight-read the shit out of anything and it wouldn’t know what hit it.

    That feeling only lasted for that practice session and I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to recapture it…but now I believe at least that I can do it. It’s like learning to drive – you have to learn to do loads of things at once and all of them are bad but it’s not like you can practice any one thing by itself so you try and do them all at once from the start and you can’t drive and then one day all things have just improved to the point when you just about can.


    balfour-knight on #186344


    I am so glad to hear all this! It reminds me of my very early experience of learning to play the pedals of the pipe organ. A pianist and lever harpist has to learn independence of the hands, and an organist and pedal-harpist has to have that down-pat so he can add feet to the mix! I suffered and wrestled with trying to do all that for weeks, and then finally something “clicked” like you said! I was suddenly able to do it.

    With the pedal harp, I objected to the horrible order of the pedals, preferring that they went “C D E F G A B” and finally just had to accept that they were “D C B E F G A” and be done with it. Harpists play very well with this “horrible” arrangement, and it just IS as it IS.

    Hope you have a great day! How is your PHD coming?

    Best thoughts,

    mae-mcallister on #187011

    Hmm. Well, I sight-read my way through that part of my grade 7 exam and it wasn’t atrocious. It wasn’t great either, but you know, I made it. We’ll have to wait and see.

    It can only get better from here…

    allegra on #187024

    Grade 7! Clearly not the worst sight-reader out there then… 🙂 well done for getting through it.

    Janis Cortese on #187027

    Balfour, it’s not really a horrible arrangement, though. At least, it makes sense to me. The pedals ARE in order, starting with the first flat that you’re likely to need as you go down through the circle of 5ths, the B.

    Start in the center of the harp base and go up the left side: BCD. Then start on the center of the harp base and go up the right: EFGA. So they are in order, actually — provided you start from the center of the base and work up the left then right sides.

    It also seems to allow you to hop up the circle of 5th by alternating feet. The most common flats are easily accessible (the B and the E), and when you work upward, your feet go right, left, right, left, etc.

    Mae, I’m glad to hear that things are improving for you! I hope I can manage the same sort of epiphany for playing without looking on the piano and the harp.

    Pipe organs amaze me. I remember an interview on TV back home in Philadelphia ages ago with Virgil Fox when he talked about the Wanamaker, when he said that there was “no place else on the face of the Earth” where one person has so much scope and power than at the console of that organ. Fourteen stories of pipes! How wonderful it would be to have that kind of scope available musically. But then you have to take so much care over when you lift your fingers as well as when you press down, which is mentally exhausting.

    Sorry for the ramble. 🙂

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