Mr. B♮
May 15, 2014 9:22 AM   Subscribe

In recent years, I've grown uncomfortable with sight-reading lots of flats and naturals, especially in chords, and with reading notes above and below the staves. This is limiting my ability to sit down and play anything on the piano. What are some good pieces and exercises that help a person regain general mastery in this area?
posted by michaelh to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure this is not an eyesight problem, like astigmatism, that's making it hard for you read them correctly, rather than a hand-eye coordination/translation thing?
posted by beagle at 10:36 AM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't want to be pedantic, but reading lots of sharps isn't a problem, just flats and naturals?

And this is something that used to be easy, but now isn't?
posted by thelonius at 11:25 AM on May 15, 2014

Correct, though I think I have always been more comfortable with sharps and mid-range notes, but only lately have had the difference affect play. Also, I do have eye problems and am treating them, but I still want to buff up my sight-reading in this particular area.
posted by michaelh at 11:34 AM on May 15, 2014

Find a piece with lots of flats and lots of leger lines (lines above or below the staff). Go through one by one, label them (Bb or Eb, etc.) and then find them on the keyboard.

This really isn't a matter of musical prowess or talent, this is a matter of memorization and recall.

I've been playing piano for 25+ years and I am still more comfortable in some keys than others, both reading and playing. I have come to realize that the uncomfortable keys are simply the ones I have spent less time in.

So, do the labeling and key-finding and make yourself get through some flatty pieces. It will be slow going at first, just as it was when you started in the key of C or G, but you'll get faster.

As far as the leger lines, well, apply the same tactic. If you count enough leger lines with your pointer finger (A, B, C..D!) for more than an hour you could hardly even help yourself from memorizing those too.
posted by TheRedArmy at 12:11 PM on May 15, 2014

In an answer to a sort of related question I was pointed to which has a sight reading game that you might find useful.

It just generates notes on a staff randomly. There are settings for how high or low the range is and you can set it to choose notes that are only above or only below the staff and whether or not you want to include sharps and flats (though no option to include only. You could play with the zoom on your browser so that it's about the same size as a sheet of music when you're sitting at a piano.

The problem is that it's more for beginners and you're training yourself to translate the image on the screen into clicking the right button rather than the nearly unconscious pressing of the key on a piano. A more advanced version of this would get hooked up to the keyboard but it's a start.
posted by VTX at 12:12 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is kind of a strange problem for me to relate to because I can't parse individual notes fast enough to sight-read effectively (regardless of the key).

I need to be able instantaneously recognize large blocks of notes as patterns of chords and scales. So the only option I've found is to study music theory and make flash cards. I'm sure this would work for you but may be more effort than you're willing to expend.

You might try transcribing a short piece that you know well into a bunch of different keys and perhaps tweaking the register to maximize the use of ledger lines. That might be enough to jolt your pattern recognition back to life.
posted by sockpup at 1:18 PM on May 15, 2014

Not a piano player here - trumpet. What always improved my sight reading in any key is to take a piece in an easy key and sight transpose it to other keys. This can be more of an issue for brass players because you're show up at a church gig and the organist hands you a hymnal without knowing that your horn is not in C, so it's a professional skill. However, when I'm up on my sight-transposition, my general sight-reading gets way better.
posted by plinth at 4:00 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Adding on to plinth's suggestion, another approach might be to take a piece you know well and try reading its enharmonic equivalent. For example instead of playing the piece in D major you could convert it to E double flat for flats practice.
posted by Bistle at 8:39 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sockpup's on to something. Most good sight-readers don't actually process notation note-by-note: they look at shapes. It's possible that you're actually getting too focused on the accidentals, and losing the bigger picture that helps you sightread effectively.

What about trying some things from jazz lead sheets (chord symbols above, rather than notated accompaniment) to get you thinking about harmony, tonality, voice leading and all the other things that contribute to which accidentals you're actually going to use?

Also, before you sight-read a piece, do some simple analysis - work out the keys; the accidentals may be chromatic colour, but they may also indicate a change of key (if you've got a piece in C major, and it suddenly throws in a load of B flats, you may well be in F). Learn/revise the scale patterns for the keys, primary chords etc. and you'll find your hands fit much more naturally into the right pattern (again, most good players don't think about the sharps or flats in the key signature when playing - even reading - because once they know the key, those are the notes their fingers go to...). And listen to plinth. Transposition will really help you do this kind of analysis on the fly.
posted by monkey closet at 1:47 AM on May 16, 2014

Just a thought: are your eye problems making you lean in towards the music? There's a little research that suggests that this (which is a common nervous reaction in less confident readers) makes the whole process harder. The explanation I've seen is that it makes it harder for us to see those big shapes we need to read music; there's a bit of experimental data that shows that sightreaders tend to read phrases.
posted by monkey closet at 1:54 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

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