Sight Reading; What Are We Really Teaching? 

Cartoon of spectacles with piano keys as lenses against green background

I teach sight reading.  I teach it because it’s a vital skill for a musician to have.  But I don’t teach sight-reading by using sight-reading method books, and here’s why:

Most of us equate sight reading as something which is assessed, either in grade exams or auditions, or some other type of assessment.  My sight reading has been assessed many, many times over the years, and every time, it has been via a solo piano performance.  But here’s the interesting thing; when I ask myself when I have actually solo sight read as a professional pianist, the answer is never. I’ll repeat that.  I think it’s important.  Not rarely, not infrequently.  Never.

I have sight read as an accompanist, as a duo, in a chamber group, in an orchestra, and I have busked my way through folk and jazz lead sheets.  But apart from the slightly odd environment of 1:1 teaching where I have to sight read bits of student-standard music, I have never needed to sight read on my own.  And as far as I can work out, nor do any other musicians.  We sight read as orchestral players, as chamber music members, as duos, and in bands, but it is quite extraordinarily rare that we have to stand up in front of an audience and sight read a solo work.  So why is so much importance placed on solo sight reading ability? Why do exams boards not accompany their sight readers to provide the same sort of support that an accompanist (or soloist) would? Why is the universally accepted form of sight reading not accompanied? Why are we as teachers mostly obsessed with this artificial construct of sight reading solo works?

These are questions I can’t answer. Or I can, but the answer I have is that I suspect the current status quo is dysfunctional and based on an outdated concept.

As for me, I’ll just keep going with the duets.

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com

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Freedom to Teach

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I’m getting a bit of a reputation for not being terribly keen on my students sitting too many grade exams. And my regular readers (and my students) will already be familiar with the reasons why.  But that’s not what this post is about.

This is about two of my students, neither of whom sit grades, and how (and what) they learn instead.

The first is a young beginner who transferred from another teacher.  Slightly traumatised from starting grade 1 pieces before she was capable, she was adamant that she did not want to sit grades, and that has not changed in the two years since.  What has changed, though, are her skills and her development as a musician. We went back to the beginning together; gently and carefully, looking at notation skills, listening, and learning how to create sound colours at the piano without being ‘literal’ with the dynamics. A quick and clever child, she picked things up rapidly, and has now worked her way through an improvisation based repertoire book, half a duet book, half a Christmas carol book, nearly all of the first Dozen a Day, and has learned four pieces from ‘UpGrade 0-1’. Looking ahead, I have scales and arpeggios planned, Elissa Milne’s ‘Easy Little Peppers’, John Lenehan’s Keynotes series, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Christopher Norton’s ‘Microjazz’, the ABRSM Keyboard Anthology series, and various duets and downloads. This student may never sit a grade exam; her family have had multiple bad experiences and they are communally happy for her to learn for the sake of learning. And if she continues to play for years to come, she will be no different a pianist at grade 8 standard than a pianist who has sat grade 8 itself.

My second student is a more unusual situation; she lives abroad and I teach her via an online client. She is (so far) my only online student, a situation which we began as she was originally a UK resident who moved abroad several years ago and was unable to find a suitable local teacher. This student is very young, and musically gifted. She is 7 years old and has so far worked her way through a list of repertoire that would make a child twice her age take a sharp breath: Piano Time 1-3, Piano Time Pieces 1-2, 2  Microjazz volumes, the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Burgmuller Studies op.100, ABRSM Keyboard Anthology 1 and 2, Clementi Sonatinas, Khatchaturian Children’s Pieces, Beatrice Quoniam Etudes (pianissimo, poco forte, and mezzo forte), three Dozen a Day books, and scales in multiple keys. She is currently working her way through the remainder of the Clementi before beginning work on Bach’s 2 part inventions, and is starting the ABRSM Mozart Early Pieces compilation book.  Through this broad repertoire, we are working intensively on sound colour, musical narrative, characterisation, physical technique, freedom and strictures of rubato, faithfulness to the score, and interpretive freedom.   For her future, I have more repertoire planned; Bach Preludes and Fugues, Mozart Variations, Chopin Waltzes, Grovlez, contemporary music including Jenni Pinnock’s ‘Rain’, and pieces from the ABRSM Spectrum series, Schumann, Scarlatti, the list is endless and my only restriction is the small size of her hands.  Grades have not been discussed, and I am not even sure if they are an option in her country (although her state education system is certainly an exam driven one, far more than the UK).

Despite this, these two students are amongst some of the most fulfilled and happy that I have the pleasure of teaching. They have learnt to understand their progress in terms of pieces learnt or skills developed, and they enjoy the process of learning and playing, without necessarily having a certificate at the end of it. And both students enjoy performing; both took part in my annual concert last year, and my foreign student regularly takes part in local concerts on her violin.

I have plans for both students; plans which involve gradually more challenging repertoire. And I keep my eye out for which pieces motivate and excited then so that I can hear their rep choices more towards their personal preference.

 

And if either of them change their mind and want to sit an exam, they can do that too.  I’m sure they’ll get an excellent mark if they do, due of their background in general musicianship skills and the broad range of repertoire they have behind them.

 

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com

 

 

 

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I Didn’t Know I Did That…

This is the second instalment of John Ireland’s Month’s Mind (recorded swiftly after the first one)

Again, my concentration isn’t fully there for serious ‘performance style practising’ and I got side tracked by a little improv halfway through (just enjoying the harmonies, really), but I came out of this practice with some incredibly useful musical information logged.

And I had fun.

As an aside, I had no idea until I recorded these sessions how much I switch or split the score between hands when practising to hear things easier and learn melodic lines and harmonic progressions.

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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There’s more than one way to skin a proverbial…. 

This very short practice session, of John Ireland’s beautifully scrunchy Month’s Mind, was one from today when I had a spare few minutes during a day otherwise full of relaxing, cleaning, tidying, and generally not being terribly musical.  It’s hard to resist a quick practice with an empty house at my fingertips though, and because I knew I didn’t have full focus today, I decided to look at the piece from a different angle.

Those of you who have followed The Practice Project so far, or who are students familiar with my practice teachings, will already be aware of my firm belief that improvisation, creativity, and generally ‘mucking about’ with music is an excellent tool to understanding structure, melodic lines, harmonic progression, and musical narrative.  This video shows very little of the original notation being played as written, and there is a large section near the end where I learned the left hand notes and flow by splitting it between both hands then jazzing it up somewhat.  Whether this was out of sheer Sunday laziness or out of genuine musical creativity, I’m still not sure, but it worked, and I learned this section far quicker than if I had sat down and rigidly fixated on the score.  And in the flippant mood I was in, I doubt I would have had the boredom threshold for that anyway…  (and talking of flippant, anybody else hear a Clannad theme running through one of the sections? Herne the Hunter? Harry’s Theme? Anyone? It drove me to distraction whilst practising and I still can’t place it.  And that distraction was a minor one (ahem, bad pun, I blame late Sunday evening writing) compared to the the time I spent figuring out some really interesting harmonic displacement between treble and bass, where the bass chord is heard in the following beat in the treble, a sort of phasing of harmonies.

But it is these moments, these unintended distractions, which are the ones which can end up giving me the most joy when practising, as it is often here that the real depths of the composition can be really discovered during periods of free experimentation)

All of which neatly demonstrates that there’s more than one way to practice.  And practising the written notes exactly as they are written all the time (or slower) is probably the most tedious and useless method of practising ever devised.  The entire point of practising is to learn, and the point of learning is to discover and engage.  From this statement alone, we as teachers should be encouraging our students to be more creative in their practice, and less concerned about ‘doing the right thing’ or playing things correctly a certain number of times.

Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be bored out of my tiny little tree if I only ever did that.

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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Please don’t ban the smartphone…

How often do we read that smartphones have no place in lessons? That students need to have them turned off and deposited well away from their instrument?

But what exactly is so bad about the ubiquitous smartphone?

This video was recorded during a lesson, with the intention of emailing to my student later in the day. And not only was it recorded live during lesson time, but it was quietly left to upload to YouTube during the lesson itself, ready for sending the link to the student’s parent later.  Which I may do, oh, from my smartphone.

Smartphones are part of our lives, and love them or loathe them, they are here to stay.  So rather than maligning them, why not teach our students to use them? Encourage them to record themselves (video, not just sound, so they can watch posture, fingering, placement etc.), use YouTube and SoundCloud for listening, even bring their own tablets to lessons so we can record practice ideas and tips directly onto them.

And yes, I freely admit I counted a bar wrong, but as we all know, mistakes happen, and they aren’t the end of the world.

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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The Practice Project: Bach Fugue XVI in G minor

It’s been a while since I posted on the Practice Project.  Too long, really.   And the initial idea of posting and captioning all practise sessions of the Partita turned out to take so long to set up, it was an impossible task.

I haven’t given up though, just changed tack slightly.  I’ll be posting practice sessions as regularly as I can, so that students (not just mine) can see how practice works for professionals; how we make mistakes, how we don’t care when we do, how we work in small sections, how we sight-read through entire pages or pieces, how we laugh, sing, have fun, sweat, get annoyed and frustrated.

This is not the first practice session for this fugue, but it is very near the beginning of the learning curve.  This recording was taken after a brief preliminary session at the weekend where I worked out a few voices and got the gist of the melody (the subject, in fugue-speak)

My method of working fugues is to isolate the individual voices, then play them in pairs in whichever hands come easiest, then in trios, then in the full quartet.   At the same time, I am working out how to make the voices sound the same when I play them with the required hands as when I play them with ‘simple’ hands (i.e. when working with two voices, how can I make the right hand play two voices concurrently with the same balance as when I play the alto in the left and the soprano in the right?)

The catch is that I have a very low boredom threshold for working out niggly fingering, partly because I think my suspected dyspraxia makes this type of work excruciatingly difficult, so I need to skip about a lot between different practice techniques to hold my interest.

Unfortunately, the quality of audio is not brilliant; this was recorded on my iPhone, as anything else requires a fairly large shift of furniture to set up my laptop and mic.  The piano is truly beautiful, but the phone video function is its nemesis.  

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com

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The Oxford Reading Tree and 1984

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Like many professional instrumental teachers, I have a large proportion of students (a significant majority, to be slightly more specific)  who transfer from other local teachers at various stages in their musical education.  Many of these (again, a sizeable majority) have one glaring omission in their background; a lack of repertoire.

But why is repertoire so important? And what is being taught instead? And crucially, what does a student miss out on when repertoire is neglected?

But perhaps the first question should be, what is repertoire?

The easiest answer is ‘pieces learned’.  Repertoire is the musical equivalent of a bookcase of read novels, a half-completed kindle, a stack of non-fiction magazines and newspaper articles. Repertoire is the Oxford Reading Tree and it is 1984, it is a dictionary and a thesaurus, a children’s encyclopaedia, the collected works of Roald Dahl, and A Brief History of Time.  If we learn to read by reading, then so we learn to play music through playing more music.  Each time our students learn a new piece, they learn something new, whether that’s a technical skill, an interpretation, an understanding of genre, or a practice or collaborative technique.  Without large volumes of new pieces, the number of new skills generated slowly erodes until student progression starts to stagnate.

And so to the second question: what is being taught instead?

The answer to this is usually ‘grade exams’.  Don’t get me wrong, grade exams can be fantastic tools if handled well and used sparingly, but in our exam-oriented culture, they are often used as a teaching syllabus rather than as occasional goals to aim towards.  And dare I say it, but in the hands of unprofessional teachers, they have been known to be used as a sole teaching method, right through from grade 1 to grade 8.  Imagine the equivalent in literary circles… a child working through the Oxford Reading Tree, then only being allowed to read 24 books in total before A-levels. That’s not 24 novels in English classes, but 24 books in total.  That’s less books than are currently sitting on a single shelf of my bookcase.

And yet it happens.  I continually work with students who have simply not played enough music to be able to cope with the level they are currently trying to play at, and it shows; they are missing general musicianship skills, technical fluency, and understanding of musical context.

But all is not lost…

Time and patience are required, but this missing information can be learned.  And the solution is surprisingly simple; to play more repertoire.  A student in this position (or, to be honest, any student) should not concern him or herself with whether a piece is difficult enough, or whether it is the ‘correct’ grade, only whether it is new, interesting, enjoyable, approachable, and achievable.  I have grade 8 students who play grade 5 pieces, and grade 4 students who play grade 1 pieces.  After all, when you are choosing a book, do you put it back if the language is not difficult enough?

So next time you’re thinking of learning three pieces for a grade exam, or hedging about buying a new score because it seems like an unnecessary expense, perhaps you might reconsider, and make a start on building a well-read, if somewhat metaphorical, bookcase.

 

For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com 

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