For the past months, I’ve been experimenting with a new way of improving sight-reading for my students preparing for the ABRSM piano exam (Grade 1 to 5 levels in particular). Some have an innate ability to sight-read without so much difficulties (except in tricky keys and rhythms) and some have a tendency of freezing up as soon as there comes a point where they have to play the two lines simultaneously. To overcome common problems associated with sight-reading, I’ve decided to give it a completely new approach where it doesn’t involve note reading but it involves understanding of keys, metres, rhythmic patterns & melodic composition and harmony. I call it an “improvisation” approach. This approach seems to stimulate the parts of the brain, which tends to be less exercised in other approaches I’ve tried and improve the overall eye-ear-hand coordination required to become better at sight-reading.

Here’s my new improvisation approach I’ve been testing with my students using Paul Harris’ Improving Your Sight-Reading (for piano) series:

  1. Pick a rhythmic exercise to use as a base for improvisation

[Excerpt from Improve Your Sight-Reading Grade 2, Stage 4 Rhythmic Exercises]

Rhythmic Exercise from Paul Harris' book

  1. Let the student decide which key they wish to practise in; some will choose the easiest key; some will choose the one that they feel they need to practise the most. Have the student play one octave scale in the chosen key to check all the scale notes (hands separately). Now, set the right hand position for 5-finger pattern (scale note: 1 to 5).

 

  1. Now, look at the chosen rhythmic exercise, and create a random melody following the given rhythms. The right hand plays the top rhythm using 5 notes whilst the left hand plays the tonic note of the chosen key on every beat. It’s likely that those who are new to improvisation exercise tend to play lots of repeated notes and change the note here and there or play too many wide intervals, which usually result in an unmusical tune.

 

Ways to experiment in your improvisation exercise:
Make sure your eyes are always following the rhythms on the staves throughout the exercises!

Idea-1. Try playing a scale up and down following the given rhythms without repeating any note consecutively. The last note should be the tonic note (for now). If the tonic note seems to come earlier than you’d like, make a detour (going around the tonic note) so that the exercise ends on the tonic note. Likewise, if there’re one or two too many notes before reaching the tonic note, skip a note or two so that you can end the exercise on the tonic note:

e.g.

impro_ex1

Idea-2. Recognise any repeated or similar pattern in the rhythms. For those patterns, you could play the same notes in the same order:

e.g.

impro_ex2

Idea-3. Use a mixture of steps and skips but no wide intervals (for now). Many tunes that you can easily sing/hum often consist of stepwise motion (consecutive intervals of 2nd) with occasional skip(s) (interval of 3rd):

e.g.

impro_ex3

Idea-4. Experiment with the direction of the melody line to create contrasting ideas. For example, one pattern going down-up-up-down and then the second pattern going up-down-down-up.:

e.g.

impro_ex4

Idea-5. Be inventive using an economical compositional technique, sequence. For example, in the first bar, play the first four notes in an ascending form, then one step down. Then repeat this idea for the second bar but starting on one note higher. You could add the 7th note of the scale (note one below the tonic note) for creating an effective ending. You could also change the note value of the LH pattern; holding each note twice as longer ( LH pattern1 ); or combination of the two note values (e.g.  LH pattern2  ). Each change introduced will help increase your ear-eye-hand coordination:

e.g.

impro_ex5

Idea-6. When you become comfortable with improvising within the 5-finger position, it’s time to extend your horizon a little bit. Try using one octave scale notes and introduce some repeated notes. For example, for the first two bars, use the top part of the scale (scale note: 4 to 8), and then for the following 2 bars, use the bottom part of the scale (scale note 1 to 5). Always remember to use the fingerings that you’ve learned from your scale practice. (e.g. know when to bring the third finger over the thumb, so that you won’t run out of the fingers to complete the phrase):

e.g.

impro_ex6

Idea-7. Change the LH pattern to Tonic-Dominant note played alternately on every beat. This increases the attention you’d need to pay for both hands. Keep reminding yourself of the order of the notes in the LH whilst improvising with your right hand:

e.g.

impro_ex7

Other LH patterns to experiment:

  • Alberti bass following I-V7 chord sequence
  • Tonic & Dominant 7th chords in a blocked form
  • I-IV-V7-I chord sequence in a form of blocked chord or broken chord

e.g.

impro_ex9

N.B. In 3/4 time, you could try Tonic-Dominant-Dominant pattern. Another notch up to increase your eye-ear-hand coordination here!


Idea-8.
When all the experiments seems to come naturally under your fingers, it’s time to swap the task between the hands! Now, RH plays the beat notes whilst LH plays improvisation.

e.g.

impro_ex8

For whatever you do in your improvisation, always aim to create a musical phrase; a phrase you’d be able to sing naturally so that the music doesn’t sound like a collection of notes being played randomly without a sense of direction, and if you can add dynamics to shape the melody line. Also, you could try different tempi if you feel ready.

When you get used to improvise in your chosen key, it’s time to delve into as many sight-reading exercises written in the same key as possible.

 

What to look for in the score before you start sight-reading:

[Excerpt from Improve Your Sight-Reading Grade 2, p.15]

 e.g.

Sight-reading excerpt_grade2_p15-1

  1. Check the key signature and time signature and decide how fast your beat speed is going to be according to the tempo description (e.g. Andante) or character description (e.g. lively) if there is one.

 

  1. Pattern analysis: rhythms, melodic shapes, repetition (sequence, etc.), any tricky rhythms that you’re not sure about? (–> find out how these rhythm fits within the beats).

e.g.
Melodic shapes

LH: Starting on the tonic note, play a 4 note-scale down to A (the lowest note in this exercise); two half notes (minims) per bar and then going back up to the E (the highest note in this exercise) by going through a sequence of 3-note scale, and then ends with the tonic note.

RH: Starting on the tonic note, a short motif ( 3-note motif ) is played and its repeated in the next bar, with slight different filling notes (first motif is followed by A-E, second by E only). It ends with the tonic-dominant-tonic pattern.

As you analise the patterns, try singing the notes as you quietly play them along. Make sure you take into account other details such as dynamics and articulation at this stage. If there are fingerings written in, try to follow them as well.

  1. Identify which hand part seems to have less notes and less movements? Loosely memorise such patterns so that you can focus on the other hand part that has got more notes and movement.


Do you remember how you managed to focus on getting the two lines going simultaneously when you did the improvisation exercise? Keep the easier part (LH) in the back of your mind as you focus on the more trickier part (RH).

 

  1. Before playing the exercise with both hands, see if you can sing the RH melody as you quietly play the LH melody. This helps you see/hear the two lines horizontally as well as vertically. Always be aware of the point where both hands come together. If there’s a gap in the music, clearly visualise where the beginning of each beat is, so you won’t loose counting.

 

  1. When the preparation is finally done, play the exercise once without stopping, no matter what happens. If you have to improvise a few notes around the mistake, go for it! It’s better than going back to fix it and loose the flow of the music. Sight-reading is about following the music without loosing the beat, playing as many correct notes as possible and playing them as musically as possible.

 

You may think there’re an awful lot of things to do/think about before playing a short exercise just once but the most important part is preparation. Just like anything else, be it DIY, sewing, planting, plumbing; getting the preparation work done properly makes the actual job go much smoother than going straight into it without any preparation.

Happy sight-reading!

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