Here is my free gift for those struggling with sight reading.
This might be a long read, but I promise it will surely help you improve your sight-reading skills.
Most of us have begun our sight-reading journey using the traditional ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’ and FACE in the space method, including me. I always felt there could be a better way to represent the notes on the staff. The FACE and EGBDF method does help and many great sight-readers have started this way. I often come across students calculating and getting bogged down at counting lines and spaces to identify the note. Reading music can be such a toll on the brain and therefore many give up at sight-reading.
Why does reading music seem so difficult ?
When we read English or any language, we may read it at a pace that we like best and it does not matter, but when it comes to reading music, it must be read “on time”. We cannot slow down or change our speed as we like but have to be consistent.Every note also has a “Time” value in relation with the pace of the tempo. I’ll talk more about this in another post.
What I like to do is tackle “Reading” and “Playing” separately.
This might be a light bulb moment for some, but do you realize that most sight readers are weak at that skill because of POOR TECHNICAL SKILLS?
Now some may ask, what does Technical training have to do with reading. Well, it’s simple. Instead of fingers doing their work of playing, they start depending on the eyes to guide them. If you can train your fingers to locate the other notes in relation with the starting point, then your eyes will have just one duty and that is to read. If not, the eyes end up doing two duties..i.e. A) Reading the music and B) Guiding the fingers.
Therefore master your technical work till you can play independent of your eyes. This might seem very tedious in the beginning but I promise that you will not only be good at your reading, but you will also be a better musician.
Sight reading can be likened to juggling. Can someone juggle with three balls if he/she does not know to catch in the first place? Therefore tackle each skill separately before you combine two or more skills and you will surely do better. Being a musician is all about multitasking so learn your every task individually and learn it well.
I often give this analogy to my students:
What if I had to blindfold you and take you to my home. I then ask you to go to the kitchen or dinning hall,… how easy would that be? Off course you are bound to bump into many things before you find your way. Now, what if I had to blindfold you and instead of taking you to my home, I take you to your “own” home. How long will it now take you to locate your kitchen? Well it’s going to be a piece of cake because you already know every nook and corner of your own house. Even if you are blindfolded, you can still see everything clearly through your “minds eye”. This is EXACTLY what your fingers should do. They should no longer be completely dependent on the eyes for every note. Few glances are okay, but eyes that jump between the sheet music and instrument are bound to be inconsistent.
First “TRAIN” your fingers…
Then “TRUST” your fingers.
I usually take my students through three stages
- At first I won’t make them play their instrument. Instead of that, I make them clap in rhythm. The first and easiest musical instrument we have is our hands, and clapping on time is an art. At this stage I introduce them to basic reading. We don’t have to look at our hands when we clap, do we?
- The next stage I teach them a few simple melodies to be played on their instrument but “No reading” yet. They need time to familiarize and understand the instrument with their eyes and fingers. At this stage, they are very much PERMITTED to look at the notes they play. No eyes on the music sheet yet.
- Once they can read a few notes fairly well at stage 1 and I’m confident that they can now play some notes without looking at the instrument as well, it is HERE that I introduce “Sight reading”. They can now combine “reading” + “playing”.
CHANGING THE WAY YOU SEE THE STAVE
But for most beginner sight-readers, the lines of the Stave simply look like a maze that they get lost into. Accomplished Sight-readers (who have practiced enough) view the stave very differently. They see patterns and identifying the notes is simply second nature to them. What can I do to help my students get a perspective of the stave quickly like the way the seasoned ones do?
Can I ask you to “LOOK” at the following sentence but DO NOT “READ” it ?
” Today is indeed a beautiful day”
Is that even possible? No matter how much you try, it is impossible for any of us to only “Look” at English words without “READING” them if you can read English (That’s why you are reading this blog). This is obvious because it is the “Brain” that does the reading. We no longer look at individual alphabets but a cluster of words and immediately our brain does the rest of the job. We can call this the “Gliding eyes phenomenon” i.e. our eyes literally glide across a group of words and our brain reads and interprets them instantly.
On the other hand If I had to present to you a sentence that uses the English alphabet but was written in a language you don’t understand, I’m sure you would struggle too.
“yarteod sior deikedni a lifituaeb yabrad”
Reading this sentence took a little more effort than the earlier one didn’t it? This is exactly the plight of beginner sight readers.
Here is the good news.
If we can achieve the “Gliding eyes phenomenon” with English, we can surely achieve the same when it comes to reading music. It is POSSIBLE to gracefully read and play as our eyes glide across the notes on the music sheet.
A FAILED EXPERIMENT # 1
I was wondering, what could make the five lines easier to read? What if I used my fingers to represent the notes on the stave? Well, tried that, but it did not help much. Moved on.
A FAILED EXPERIMENT # 2
I also tried composing a catchy song that sings out the notes on the stave.
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That did entertain my students but it could not help make reading easier. Moved on again.
SUCCESS AT LAST
…and then I got this crazy idea when riding down the Saligao road in Goa. The divided road lanes and walking lanes on either side looked like the spaces on the staff.
So I got off my bike and sat on one of the benches and then my imagination took over.
What if I viewed the spaces of the stave as the lanes of Road? That would surely be easy to relate with. Instead of starting with a “C” on the ledger line, It would be better to start with the “B” at the center of the Stave with the Treble Clef.
The ‘B’ note lies exactly at the dividers.
We cannot see a ‘B’ when it is drawn as a note head but we can see a ‘Bee’ which will represent the ‘B’ on the middle line.
I then came up with this rhyme and drawing exercise…
Double line Double line Middle line ‘B’
Here we draw small double lines like an equal to (=)sign.
- Step 1: I make my students to draw this a couple of times.
- Step 2:I make them to convert the “B” note into a Minim, and then into a Crotchet, and then into a Quaver.
- Step 3: Then I make them play a game of “Finding the Bee”. They have to go through some music sheets and find only the “B” notes which may occur occasionally in different Scores and Music sheets.
Most beginners are taught with the “C” on the ledger line as their first note. Later they learn the rest of the notes by counting the lines or spaces. The reason being that the easiest scale to play on the Keyboard is the C scale comprising of all white keys. It makes sense from that point of view but I feel it sets the beginner to view the lines one at a time beginning from bottom to top.
Guitar students on the other hand usually start with E in the fourth space. That’s again because it’s easy to play the open E string on the guitar. Violin students may start with ‘D’ for the same reason and that’s all fine.
I believe the “Bee” exercise that I mentioned above can change the way the student views the staff. Getting the “B” note into perspective will surely first will surely build a strong visual foundation to help them get the rest of the notes into perspective easily.
Now after getting the ‘B’ note in perspective (which lies on the dividers of the road), we will then tackle the notes that lie on the two driving lanes.
Initially I thought of using a “Car” and an “Auto Rickshaw” to represent the C and A note respectively, but then I realized that it was too logical. It is easy to forget logical things but things that are illogical are easier to remember. Well, I picked up this concept of using illogical imaginations from Harry Lorraine’s memory techniques. When I teach Keyboard, In my first class I use a method to identify the keys on it. I made up a story that include Cat, Dog, Elephant, Frog, Grapes, Apples & Bee to represent C D E F G A B respectively. Therefore I decided to stick to the same characters and elements.
In case you would like to check out that lesson click here
Therefore I continue by using these visual representatives
There is a cat on the top driving lane and there’s an apple on the other (bottom).
The Apple and Cat are my ambassadors for ‘A’ and ‘C’.
I repeat the three step exercises mentioned above for each note.
This time they learn an addition to the rhyme they had learnt earlier and it goes like this…
Double line Double line Middle line ‘B’
Second space ‘A’, third space ‘C’
I humor the students a little more by saying that this lane is very cool because there is AC (Air Conditioner)
(Silly statement’s like this can be real sellers sometimes. Anything to drive the concept deeper )
I have created my own Sight-reading text book that gives the student enough practice material to familiarize with these notes.
Here is a page from my book
Somehow this method worked wonders
Then we have a Dog trying to cross the driving lane from the foot lane.
That’s the D on the fourth line.
Someone left a bunch of grapes on the edge at the opposite side. That’s the G note.
Somehow this method anchors the notes visually on the stave better. A “D” always looks like a “D” and a “G” will always look like a “G”.
Surely the student may not remember the grapes, apples, dog and cat forever and that’s ok. At some stage they will simply know the notes and patterns on the stave but all these visuals are my catalyst till they can identify the notes fairly well.
I’m sure you understand where I’m going with this and I need not explain each and every note, All the visuals are free and you may download the PDF using the link given below.
Do excuse some of my artwork. I’m not the best artist, but this is the best that I could do as of now. Maybe I could think of re-designing the lesson in the future.
I do understand that some of you may prefer learning through a different approach than what I have suggested and that’s ok. Whatever helps you best IS the best.
I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel here but just trying to help you by giving you a different perspective.
So in case any of you find sight reading difficult, do give this a shot.
I’m not claiming to be an expert at sight-reading. As a matter of fact some of my students read better than me. Wish someone taught me like this earlier.
I’m giving it free because I really care about students who are struggling with sight-reading. I’ve been there and I know how that feels.
Do let me know if this helped you in any way in the comments below.
Download the PDF posted below. Have fun.