Sight Reading Tips

Sight Reading Tips and Three Activities for Improving Eye Tracking

I was teaching a lesson with a 9 year-old student this week when I asked her to do some sight reading. I noticed she was having a lot of trouble, starting and stopping frequently. The music I gave her wasn’t challenging so it seemed odd that she should have so much trouble with it. That’s when I started watching her eyes and I knew immediately what the problem was. Her eyes were focused on the note she was playing. When she came to the end of a line of music, her eyes made the jump to the next line at exactly the same time as her fingers.

sight reading

Dad and daughter duo

When playing music, our eyes must be ahead of our fingers. The notes we are playing are not the notes we are looking at. This is an important skill for musicians.

Here are three things you can do to check and improve the eye movement:

  1. Teachers and Parents: Pay attention to where one line of music ends. As the student plays the music and approaches the end of the line, carefully watch her eyes. You should see her eyes jump to the left quickly as she begins reading the second line. Her eyes should move BEFORE she finishes playing the line of music. Depending on the tempo, the eyes will reach the second line as much as a measure before the fingers. Even at a slow tempo, the eyes will be at least one beat ahead of the fingers. Tracking the eye movements at the end of a line of music is the easiest way to diagnose the problem because the eyes must make a quick sweep from right to left. It’s easy to see the eyes move and measure if the jump is ahead of the sound.
  2. Teachers, here’s a game you can play during a lesson: As the student is playing, use a small piece of blank paper (a note card works well). Move the paper from left to right, covering up a note before the student plays it. The goal of this game is to help the student’s eyes track ahead of her fingers. Try covering up more of the music, perhaps two or three notes before she plays them. How fast you move the paper and how many you are able to cover ahead of the fingers depends on the speed of the music and the complexity of rhythms.
  3. Students: Practicing your sight reading may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s the best way to improve. I have found the Sight Reading Factory to be a very helpful subscription service. After selecting instrument, level, and length of exercise, the program generates new sight reading material. Best of all for our eye tracking purposes, you can choose “disappearing measures” as a challenge. As you play, the measures disappear, forcing you to look ahead. The way this program is designed, the measure will disappear after you play it. However, by watching the count-off and beginning two beats later, the measure will disappear just at the moment you begin to play it, forcing you to keep your eyes one measure ahead of the fingers.

It’s important that the eyes are tracking properly. Students whose eyes are focused on the current note will have a lot of difficulty sight-reading without frequent stops. The brain needs to have a head start to send the proper signals to the fingers.

Bite Sized Pieces (Woodshedding technique)

BITE SIZE PIECES – technique exercise

This blog post is part of a series on woodshedding. For more ideas on how to invigorate your practicing with new and creative ideas, check out the bog posts on the Articulation Game, Rhythm Spinner Game, Scale Card Game, and Karate Chops. Today’s blog post will offer some ideas for how to turn a long run of music notes into a smooth, effortless thing of beauty.

Long, fast runs can turn into a sloppy mess if we let the fingers run freely. Easy fingering combinations move more quickly than difficult ones, giving the passage an uneven texture. We must even out the technique to make the run sound good. Clean runs sound much faster than sloppy ones at the same tempo. Consider this example:

technique

long muddy run

 

Let’s group the notes like this:

bite sized pieces

marked groups

 

You can pause after each group. Alternatively, you can articulate the first note of each group or pulse with the breath. Choose groups that make the most sense, ie. chromatic movement, scales. Try to break the groups when there is an unusual skip. In the example above, the notes are grouped together because they are chromatic. The notes that start groups are exceptions to the rule; in this case, the minor thirds are different than the half steps. We bring attention to these exceptions by making them the start of a new group.

When performing, we want to think of the groups but keep the original articulation. In practice and in the finished performance it’s simply too difficult for the brain to control all 22 notes. But small groups are manageable.
Creating groups will help the technique be cleaner and the run will sound faster. When playing fast runs, you must listen very carefully to hear every note. If you can’t hear each individual note, neither can your audience.

Woodshedding: Grouping Game

GROUPING GAME for your Woodshedding arsenal.

Woodshedding is the process of isolating a difficult section of music and practicing it until the technical issues are resolved. In other blog posts, I have offered games for changing articulations and rhythms. (See posts Rhythm Spinner Game, Articulation Game.) Today’s blog post will feature another strategy: changing how the notes are grouped. This changes where the accents are placed.

Think about your phone number for a moment. If you live in the US, your number is in the form 614-555-1212. We chunk the number into two sets of three digits and a final set of four numbers. Now, group your number differently. Let’s say 61-455-512-12. Or 6145-551-212. The order of the numbers did not change but our perception (and perhaps how easily they can be remembered) did change significantly.

 

Music is often grouped also. Here’s an example of four groups of three notes from a Handel Sonata:

woodshedding example

Giga from Handel Sonata

In this example, there are 12 notes split by slurs into four groups of threes. By changing the groupings, we alter how the brain perceives the notes. The order and rhythm remain the same, but the accents are different. Try playing the same passage in groups of two, four, or six as shown below.

 

Groups of two:

woodshedding example by 2

same notes, now in groups of two

Groups of four:

woodshedding

groups of 4

 

Groups of six:

woodshedding

groups of 6

In this exercise, we are playing the notes in the same order with the same rhythms. Two elements are changing:

  1. Different notes receive a small accent because they are the first of each grouping.
  2. The brain chunks them together in a new way.

Just as phone numbers are perceived differently when we changed the groupings of numbers, so too your brain is challenged when we change the groups of notes.

Rhythm Spinner Game

The Rhythm Spinner Game is an excellent tool for woodshedding difficult passages.

Like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner adds an element of chance to spice up your practicing.

For this game, you will need a hole punch, metal brad, and the chart below with arrow.

rhythm spinner game

rhythm spinner game

arrow for spinner game

arrow for rhythm spinner game

Punch a hole near the end of the arrow. Use a metal brad to connect the arrow to the center of the spinner.

Flick the arrow and play the difficult passage with the rhythm indicated. For instance, if the arrow lands on “Jazzy,” play the passage in a loose, uneven rhythm. (The opposite rhythm is on the other side of the circle.)

Whichever rhythm pattern is selected, play the music at a tempo fast enough to give you a challenge but slow enough that you can play all the notes correctly. When you have tried the first rhythm, spin again.

When the arrow lands on “as fast as possible” play the passage as quickly as possible, letting the fingers run without trying to control them. It may be sloppy or it may be miraculously clean. Simply notice if your finger memory is taking over or if you fingers seem to get “stuck” in one place. Don’t judge yourself and don’t try to make your fingers perfectly fast. Play the passage once or twice this way and then spin again.

When the arrow lands on the opposite side of the spinner – “robot fingers, slow and controlled” – be very deliberate about playing in a relatively slow tempo. You will want to feel each finger going up and down, like typing or hammering.

The other sections of the rhythm wheel show combinations of slow (S) and fast (F) rhythms. It will be naturally easier to begin the pattern with a slow note, but make sure you also practice with the longest note at the end of the four.

When you have tried all the rhythm patterns, go back and play the passage as written. Did it feel easier? Did you make fewer mistakes? Maybe you were able to go a bit faster this time.

Playing the Rhythm Spinner Game takes only a few minutes but it can save hours of time wasted in unproductive practicing.

Teachers, like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner Game helps randomize practice patterns. You will probably want to introduce the rhythms and model them in a lesson. This game can be modified for other time signatures and rhythms. In addition to helping woodshed a difficult passage, this game is useful in cementing common rhythm patterns. You can also make up your own rhythm patterns.

Temptation Bundling in the Practice Room

What is “temptation bundling” and how can we use it in the practice room?

Temptation bundling is when we take something that we’re not excited about doing and pair it with something that we really want. Katherine Milkman, researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, defines temptation bundling as

the coupling of instantly gratifying “want” activities (e.g., watching the next episode of a habit-forming television show, checking Facebook, receiving a pedicure, eating an indulgent meal) with engagement in a “should” behavior that provides long-term benefits but requires the exertion of willpower (e.g., exercising at the gym, completing a paper review, spending time with a difficult relative).

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured host Stephen Dubner interviewing Katherine Milkman about how temptation bundling can encourage us to make better choices (“When Willpower Isn’t Enough“). In her research at the University of Pennsylvania, Milkman found that people were far more likely to reach their exercise goals when going to the gym was paired with listening to an addicting book on tape. (Holding the Hunger Games Hostage At the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.)

As I was listening to the podcast, I was thinking about how musicians can use behavioral economic theory in the practice room.

Temptation bundling is appealing because we tie something pleasurable with the work that needs to be done. (I talked about this somewhat is the blog post about how I motivate myself “Motivation: A Student’s Perspective.”) Some examples of temptation bundling in the practice room are

  1. Giving yourself a small reward for reaching a practice goal. This could be something small like eating a piece of chocolate or playing a few minutes of your favorite electronic game.

    temptation bundling

    massage balls

  2. Keep your instrument and music next to you while watching TV. When a commercial comes on, mute the TV and practice until the commercials are over. This works equally well for adults and kids. For every hour of broadcast TV, there are about 15 minutes of commercials!
  3. While practicing, roll massage balls under your feet. I like to do this while I’m practicing long tones.

“Commitment devices” are a cousin of temptation bundles. When we use commitment devices, we are setting up things that help us practice. Unlike temptation bundling, the linked activity does not have to be pleasant. Stephen Dubner and co-author Steven Levitt define commitment devices as “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” These can be useful sometimes, but we have to be careful not to over-use the unpleasant ones. Some examples of commitment devices in the practice room:

  1. Scheduling practice time in your daily calendar. Add an alarm to help you remember.
  2. Set a timer and don’t let yourself get up from the chair until the timer goes off.
  3. Tell someone about your practice goal(s) and ask them to keep you accountable. To make the commitment even stronger, you can create a punishment if you don’t reach your goal. I read about a man who told all his friends he was going to quit smoking. If he failed, he would give a large sum of money to “a horrible little communist organization.” He hasn’t touched a cigarette since.

 

Ultimately, our practicing needs to be internally motivated. We play because we love music. It moves us. It makes us better human beings.

But sometimes I’m not feeling very spiritual about my practicing. There are bad days when practicing feels like the last thing I want to do. However, musicians know that we must practice regularly to keep our muscles strong and our skills sharp. For those days when we don’t feel like practicing, “temptation bundling” and “commitment devices” might be the only way I am able to drag myself into the practice room. Those massage balls are sounding particularly nice right now…

MusicParentsGuide.Com by Mazzocchi

The Music Parents’ Guide Blog, written by Anthony (Tony) Mazzocchi, is an excellent resource.

Check out MusicParentsGuide.com for interesting articles about how important music education is in the life and learning of children. Blogger Tony Mazzocchi writes about how parents can support the musical lives of their children. His posts are easy to read and counting helpful advice and encouragement.

The companion book, The Music Parent’s Guide: A Survival Guide for the New Music Parent, is due out in print soon.

A particularly helpful blog post to followers of my blog (with a focus on practice tip and tricks) is How To Create the Perfect Practice Session.

MarGuitar

cartoon of Marlene and her guitar

 

 

Game for scales- major, minor, and chromatic

Scales can be mindlessly boring… or scales can be tolerable.

(If I said playing scales was the most exciting thing in the world, you would know I was lying and you wouldn’t read another word.)

Practicing scales is a bit like taking medicine- it doesn’t taste good, but the results are worth it.

In this blog post, I’m going to give you a game that you can play with scales. In no time you will have mastered all your major and minor scales plus the chromatic scale. Maybe you will find that playing scales this way is more pleasant than drinking cherry cough syrup.

We’re going to trick your brain into thinking that scales are fun. There’s a random element in the game that takes the pressure off of you to make decisions.

What you will need: 50 blank note cards, a marker, a large rubber band or binder clip.

Step 1: Make 12 cards, one for each of the major scales. Write in bold letters in the center of a note card C Major. Repeat with the other 11 major scales, the names of which you will find on the outside (red letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below. Make sure you write the name of the scale and word “Major” with a capital letter at the beginning. It’s a music theory thing.

Step 2: Make the minor scale cards. This is the tricky part because each minor scale has three versions: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Your first three cards will be “a minor, natural,” “a minor, harmonic,” and “a minor, melodic.” Refer to the inside (green letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below for the other 11 names of the minor scales. Make sure you have three for each letter. Writing minor scales in all lowercase letters is also a music theory thing. When you are finished, you should have a total of 36 minor cards.

circle of fifths

Scales on the circle of fifths

Step 3: Take the remaining 2 scale cards and write CHROMATIC on them. You don’t have to write it in all caps. Be crazy and write it in all lowercase if it suits you. It’s not a music theory thing.

Now you have a stack of 50 note cards with the name of scales written on one side. You’ll want to keep them together using a large rubber band or binder clip. These pictures show the scale cards I made in 1993 with my teacher Tom Kennedy. I used these cards to learn scales for my college auditions, and I still use them today!

scales cards

50 scale cards

scale cards

scales on cards

Now that you have made your scale cards, you are ready to play the game!

You are going to create two piles of cards. One will be the “BRAVO” pile for all the scales you can play correctly the first time and the other pile will be the “deck.” Shuffle the cards and close your eyes while you pick three cards from the deck. Play the first scale. Did you play all the notes correctly with a beautiful tone and the correct fingering? If yes, place that scale card in the “BRAVO” pile. If it wasn’t perfect, place the scale card back in the deck with the others. Do the same thing with the two other scales. Your goal is to get all the cards into the “BRAVO” pile.

Tomorrow, pick three more cards from the deck, remembering that you might draw the ones you missed today. When all of the cards are in the “BRAVO” pile, re-shuffle the whole deck and work through them again. Perhaps this time you can get through the entire deck faster.

If you haven’t learned all of your major and minor scales yet, you can play this game with the ones you know. Totally confused about how to play scales? There are many good books to use for a reference. For flute, I recommend The Flute Scale Book and The Flutist’s Vade Mecum. Find a book for your instrument, or search online.

It’s best if you can play the scales from memory, but if you need to use the music for awhile, that’s OK. As you learn more scales, add them to the pile until you are using all 50.

When you’re ready for the next level of difficulty, try playing the scales with different articulation patterns (Articulation Game) and rhythms.

Scales are an important part of every musician’s technique. They are required in competitions and auditions. Learn them now; use them forever!

Happy practicing!

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Maybe you’ve heard the joke.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice.”

As a punchline, this is unexpectedly cute. But as a musician, it also strikes me as a bit smug. If I want to get to Carnegie Hall, I need more guidance. How much should I practice? What should I practice? If Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery of an instrument. (Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success, 2011.) That’s a lot of time to spend in the practice room, but there’s very little information available about what to do once we are looking at the music.

When I was a teen, every Thursday afternoon my flute teacher said, “Practice this page and have it ready for your lesson next week.” I would take the method book home and play through the exercises a few times. I always played from the beginning to the end at a fast tempo. I don’t remember ever picking up a pencil to mark a mistake and the thought never crossed my mind to isolate the hard parts and work on them. I practiced wrong notes. I made progress, despite my poor practice habits, but I wasted a lot of time also. I didn’t know what else to do.

Recently, I needed to know how to get to Carnegie Hall. So, for spring break, my husband and I decided to take the kids for a vacation in New York City. I know Carnegie Hall is located at 1633 Broadway, NYC. But that doesn’t give me any usable information. It doesn’t tell me how to get there.

Several months before the trip, I started planning. I bought a guide book for the city. We made lists of the things we wanted to see, concerts we wanted to attend, restaurants we wanted to check out, etc. We studied maps. About a month before our trip, I finalized our dates and booked a hotel. Then we packed our bags and loaded up the car. On the road, we had to find places to eat and gas stations for fuel. We stopped at a hotel in Pennsylvania the first night. There were tolls to pay and we got lost somewhere in New Jersey. When the kids got restless, we played games or listened to music. Driving in the city required nerves of steel (my husband’s) and deep breathing (mine). After parking the car, we set off on foot and gawked at all the tall buildings. Finally, we rounded a corner and arrived at Carnegie Hall. We had reached our destination. I took a quick picture of Bryan and the children. Son wouldn’t smile because his lips were chapped. Hungry stomachs urged us on to find a place for lunch.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

Our journey to Carnegie Hall took lots of planning and traversing 543 miles. Thinking back on the trip, arriving at Carnegie Hall wasn’t the highlight of our vacation. It’s pretty neat, but what I remember best is the lunch with a friend we hadn’t seen in years, the crisp spring air, and watching my children climb on the rocks in Central Park.

This blog is for parents of young musicians who need support. It is for music teachers looking for new ideas. And it is for music students of all ages seeking inspiration.

May this blog serve as a guidebook to your practice. I hope you will learn about how you can make your practice efficient. Perhaps you will find some of the hacks and games make practicing more enjoyable. Maybe you’ll be inspired by the scientific research on the cognitive and social benefits of music. But most of all I hope you are reminded that the journey is more important than the destination.

Music is the Key To Success

Music is the Key To Success, at least according to Joanne Lipman, reporter for the New York Times.

She makes an interesting connection between some of the most successful people and their musical abilities.

Adding to my collection of my articles about the benefits of music education is this one from the New York Times:

Is Music The Key To Success?

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/opinion/sunday/is-music-the-key-to-success.html

Author Joanne Lipman has compiled a list of musicians who also happen to be at the top of their field. Across all industries- from the arts to politics, from technology to finance- there are leaders who say that playing a musical instrument has helped them be where they are today. Did you know that Woody Allen plays clarinet in a jazz band or that Steven Spielberg plays clarinet and that his father was a pianist? Condoleeza Rice trained to be a concert pianist and the Albert Einstein played the violin. The list goes on and on. Just a coincidence? I don’t think so.

My favorite paragraphs from the article:

“I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.” (Chuck Todd)

Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.

success

even my cat likes to play the flute