Let's start at the very beginning: sight reading
August 2, 2016 6:23 PM   Subscribe

I've depended on my ear all my life to play music. I learn new pieces by listening, playing back what I've heard, and then slowly correcting my errors in listening by reading the notes in spots I think I'm unclear on. In the past it was a cool party trick, but I want to stop using this approach because it slows down the rate at which I pick up new pieces, it's sloppy, and without a teacher these days, it's difficult to pick up my numerous errors. I am also awful at sight reading.

It's not that I can't read notes per se; I've taken music theory and that was fine. Still, reading notes is a general struggle for me, for reading notes gives me a sense of a piece that feels so much foggier in my brain compared to the sense I'd get from just listening. I use the general placement of notes on the score as a way to confirm what I've heard. This is bad because sometimes my brain picks a note, for instance, that fits in harmony-wise but is simply inaccurate; my renditions of Mozart's sonatas must have him writhing in his grave, wherever it may be. This awful habit is even carried over on the occasions that I do attempt to sight-read: I look at the bits of whatever is in front of me, and then use it as a starting-off point to extrapolate / continue-the-pattern and improvise instead of reading it, because to me, reading notes feels like walking through a swamp.

Has anyone else had a similar problem and worked through this? Or, are you a music teacher and have you helped somebody work through this kind of problem? How did you kick your butt into reading notes properly, especially if you started this process at a non-beginners stage? Flashcards? Getting a teacher? Working on pieces below my technical level to focus on sight-reading?

I'm no longer a squirmy kid at the piano bench, and I think I can muster up the discipline to hammer this out. I even have sight-reading practice books, but ... how do I approach this? This would be for piano and violin, although I don't think the specific instrument makes a huge difference. Thank you for your help!
posted by gemutlichkeit to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Yousician is quite good, it's an ipad app that teaches piano and i believe it does stave notes.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:25 PM on August 2, 2016

Honestly the thing that worked for me was constant practice, on varying pieces of music (this was for piano and clarinet). Have you made an attempt to sit down every day at the piano for like an hour, and just keep doing it?

Also - don't allow yourself to write the notes on the sheet music. This makes it harder in my experience and is a crutch. Make yourself sit there and play whatever piece you choose, no matter how slowly it takes you to get through it. You will eventually get better and faster the more you work at it. It can be painstaking but can work.
posted by FireFountain at 6:44 PM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I found that learning pieces that were in twelve tone was a very effective method for this. Bach's inventions - if you force yourself to read and follow along - and Hanson's exercises are also helpful.
posted by sockermom at 6:55 PM on August 2, 2016

I turn heterogeneous classes of mostly non-reading 2nd year orchestra kids into monster readers every year and the solution is....just do it. Do it very, very slowly. Do it 10 minutes at a time every day or until you think you are about to cry and then stop. If you find yourself guessing or playing by ear AT ALL back up the difficulty of the music or, if it was just a bad instinct, force yourself to do the line again from the start.

Don't write anything in, and force yourself to read music of a difficulty such that you can be a successful reader at a slow tempo without any guessing. For my orchestra kids, who I'm sure are far less accomplished than you are, this is open string stuff in quarter and whole notes. Then it we add half notes, then notes that require one finger but only one string, then skipping around strings and so on and so forth. We do 4 measures at a start, then a line of 8 measures, then review all we have done that week. After a week or two we do two lines a day + a review. Then four.

If you are as bad as my babies to start, the prologue before reading each line (which helps the very weakest kids the most) is:

1) clap the line with 100% accuracy
2) sing the letter names and clap the line with 100% accuracy
3) sing the letter names and pizz the line with 100% accuracy
4) sing and bow
5) bow

So: get an etude book with unfamiliar pieces at the right level and do it. Then get one that is a little harder, and do it again.
posted by charmedimsure at 6:57 PM on August 2, 2016 [17 favorites]

I agree that starting with music below your current technical level is a good idea. Learn to sight-read one note at a time before you take on chords; piano-wise, learn to read what your right hand is doing up in the treble clef before you add the complication of your left hand in the bass clef. [Can't speak to violin, sorry!]

Another possible method: acquire basic recordings of the tune you're trying to learn, and read the music as you listen to the tune in question. When I did All-State, we had to learn music on our own and FAST, because we'd meet for the first time on Friday night and present a concert Sunday afternoon of the same weekend. They sent us both written copies of the sheet music and recordings of our individual parts, and tell us to read the sheet music while listening to the recordings, because we'd learn faster - I'd bet that would help the notes on the page make more sense to what your ear knows is right.

On preview: charmedimsure's methods sound a lot like what I remember of my childhood music courses - clapping to get the rhythm before adding the complexity of the notes.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 7:02 PM on August 2, 2016

Public school music teacher here. A metronome is really helpful - even if you don't think you need it to work on your time. Set the metronome to a slow-ass tempo and read through new pieces. It helps if the music is not something that you're familiar with so you can't "cheat" with your ear. We used this in college but garage sale hymnals, unfamiliar/obscure Christmas songbooks, etc. are all great too. It really doesn't matter what the material is as long as you have something new to read through each time you sit down.

Seconding charmedimsure that you should keep it short - 10 minute chunks are great. Think of this like weight training - lots of heavy stuff for a small amount of time and then you leave it alone until tomorrow.
posted by rossination at 7:33 PM on August 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

First, you'll fare best if you acknowledge that you are an auditive type. That's a thing. It is important to think of it as a skill, not a deficiency. Auditive learning is not per definition sloppy; but like any kind of talent, it can become sloppy if not groomed according to its nature.

So to overcome, say, reading wrong chord notes when attempting to get a Mozart sonata together, you can develop strategies of listening more carefully to the horizontal behavior of middle voices, of verbalizing the notes of a chord when you verify them on the page, and especially of learning a piece in chunks rather than from top to end: structural analysis will be your friend for memorizing properly instead of sloppily.

For sight-reading, here is what might help in my experience:

1) As others say, for training your sight-reading skills, you should select music that a) is unknown to you (to prevent your ear from taking over) and b) is easy enough to play with the extra difficulty of having to decipher it on the spot. As soon as you get to know a piece well enough that you start to play it from memory, switch to another unknown piece.

2) You need to know which hand is your dominant hand, and use this knowledge to your advantage. Right-handers at the piano have a rather easy time. Left-handers with a musical ear often have greater problems sight-reading at the piano because their ear wants to attach itself to the melody, which is played by the non-dominant hand; the hand that is not the leader but the follower, physically spoken. When we sight-read two staves of piano music, our eyes go zigzag, starting with the thing we intuitively think is most important. Make sure to slow down enough to force yourself starting with the line that is played by your dominant hand.

3) Reading ahead. This can be trained by degrees. Try to be one bar ahead most of the time, and try to process that information while you play the previous chunk. Play so slowly that you can do this trick without halting or slowing down. If one bar is too much at the start, do less, but keep to whatever you decide: a quarter note? A half-bar? Anything works that isn't abandoned during the course of the exercize.

4) Stop when you get impatient. Especially in the beginning, your brains will smoke and the music that comes out of your instrument won't give you much pleasure. Take breaks. Better three times five minutes every day than a longer stretch of well-begun and later deteriorating practice time.
posted by Namlit at 2:29 AM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Start off small. You are experiencing lazy brain where you are rushing through the process to get to the happy payoff (picking it up by ear to learn it quicker). Commit to learning a few passages a week just by sight. Practice this for 15 minutes at the start and then play something else as you normally would. Once you learn the short passages, reward yourself and then add another 5 minutes to your sight reading practice time. Go into it like a challenge and look at it like a puzzle that you need to solve. Slumped shoulders and large sighs do not help the learning process. Bribe yourself with chocolate if you must, to develop a positive association with sight reading. It just takes time and commitment. I would start with the piano as the violin is so very dependent on a good ear it might confuse the process.
posted by myselfasme at 6:25 AM on August 3, 2016

There are two usages of "sight reading", one of which encompasses the other -- the prerequisite is being able to play music based on a score, which is what I think you're asking about, and the other is being able to do this smoothly on the first time you see the score.

Play easy, tonal music, and get used to seeing clusters of notes versus individual ones. Trying to read one note at a time is like returning both feet to the center square when playing DDR - unsustainable when anything gets tough.

To aid you in seeing note groups (do mi so, do so do, mi re do), use your music theory. Think of notes as a distance from the tonic, function in the key, whatever. For example, so goes to do a lot (both melodically and harmonically). In the key of G, this is D to G. In the key of B, this is F# to B. But this interval has a feeling as well as a size, and it is much quicker to spot this than picking out two notes.
posted by batter_my_heart at 7:31 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

The most important thing to bear in mind for this kind of enterprise, it seems to me, is that you are just going to suck at it for quite a long time. Progress will be slow. You need to be OK with that, and remind yourself when - not if - frustration sets in that yes, this is how it's supposed to work.

When you're already good at doing something a certain way, learning to do something fairly similar in a fundamentally different way is emotionally taxing precisely because you're not used to sucking at whatever it is. So when you find that you do, the frustration is really intense.

If you accept that this is true before you even start, you'll be well placed to take note of frustration as a thing-in-itself and put it aside for long enough to finish today's practice session, rather than having it be what feels like a fully justifiable trigger for hurling the sheet music across the room and storming off in a huff.
posted by flabdablet at 8:07 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is bad because sometimes my brain picks a note, for instance, that fits in harmony-wise but is simply inaccurate;

This happens to everyone when dealing with tonal music. You'll even hear professional recordings with mistakes like that. It becomes one of those typos you never notice no matter how many times you read over the same sentence. I don't have a solution for that other than slowing down when you read and be more methodical.

If the piece you're working on is sufficiently complex (which sounds like the case) then part of what can help is analyzing the work ahead of time before you ever try to play it. I don't mean listen to it a lot, I mean applying those lessons you learned from your music theory classes. Understand what's going on harmonically, identify all the thematic material and how it reappears, figure out how the transitions are done, etc. All of this will hopefully also make the notes easier to see when playing as you've become intimately familiar with the music ahead of time. In fact this is how great performers work. They don't just learn the notes and develop a feel for the piece, they understand everything going on theoretically so that they can work out an intelligent and well-informed interpretation. Now that I'm done with my academic training I'm a little surprised that this isn't taught more often. It also helps you appreciate the piece better and creates a deeper connection with it. Anyway, it might help you.
posted by bfootdav at 9:12 AM on August 3, 2016

I tend to agree that there's not really a magic bullet or hack for getting more comfortable with reading standard notation; you just have to be disciplined and work at it until it gets easier (and it does get easier.) Other than a very basic introduction in elementary school, I avoided standard notation for all the years that I played electric guitar and clawhammer banjo; for fretted instruments there's lots of tablature, which is a notation system that describes music in terms of which string and what fret a note is on - but not what the actual note is; you wind up memorizing coordinates instead of approaching the music in terms of tones. (Not applicable to piano, I know, but the topic of tablature vs notation comes up a lot with guitarists and banjoists looking to get into some types of music, and a lot of the conversations are similar to this one.)

And tab does work pretty well, especially if you have a little bit of theory to back it up... but when I got into banjo material from the 1800s, it was all in standard notation. I spent a couple of years avoiding notation; I'd painstakingly convert notation to tab, and learn from the tab instead, or learn some tunes by ear, or a combination of both... but it got so time consuming that I finally decided that I might as well spend that time grinding through that tough early stage of 1) being able to recognize a note on a staff and 2) map it to a string and fret position on the instrument. It was slow going and I still wouldn't call myself fluent, but it does get easier and I find that once I worked past that 'fogginess' you describe, learning from notation and thinking about the music in terms of tones gives me a much more solid grasp of a tune than memorizing fingerboard positions based on either tablature or matching notes by ear through repeated listening.

I think it's analogous to hunt-and-peck typing versus touch-typing; it's easy and instinctual to look at the keyboard and find one key at a time... touch typing feels very foreign at first, but with enough time and practice it becomes pretty second nature.
posted by usonian at 9:29 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

So... you are describing me. I have this problem. And at various times while part of an ensemble I've gotten quite good at sight singing through much the same process as charmedimsure describes. So I suspect the orchestra-related advice will probably serve you well with monophonic parts.

But I think the instrument *does* matter enough that I'm not sure it'll serve you as well for polyphonic/piano. I am the worst sight reader you've met who's had 10+ years of piano lessons (and I even practiced diligently for several of those years). I wish I knew what I'm missing.

I did notice in my early 20s that a certain degree of regular (but not long!) practice sight reading combined with practice composing/transcribing helped improve me somewhat (though I'm still an abysmal sight reader when it comes to the piano). And also that many music degrees often have a core that generally combines keyboard skills, theory, sight singing, and dictation. I suspect conscientious practicing of those four together over a period of a few years makes a difference.
posted by wildblueyonder at 11:23 AM on August 3, 2016

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