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How do you help a college piano major with poor reading skills?

At first glance, the scope of this issue's topic may seem limited. The majority of readers are independent teachers working with students before they leave for college. The percentage of their students who major in piano is small. However, the following articles by Dr. Timothy Shafer and Dr. Sylvia Coats contain valuable information and insights for teachers of students of all ages. 

One might be tempted to assume that the college teacher does not have to deal with the nitty-gritty work of teaching students how to read. After all, they are working with students who have chosen to pursue music and have had to pass an audition in order to do so. However, the fact is that many piano majors begin their college years as deficient readers. Learning how the college teacher handles these students provides helpful information for those of us who work with these students before they leave for college. The activities described highlight the importance of comprehensive musicianship skills such as harmonization, technique, and improvisation. They show how the development of the whole musician is essential in building and maintaining fluency in reading. 

Those teachers who work with college students will undoubtedly get new ideas from these articles. The pre-college teacher will realize how necessary and practical it is to continue working on functional keyboard skills beyond the elementary method text. 

Texture and fundamentals

by Timothy Shafer

The root of the problem 

In part, the problem can be attributed to the nature of our repertoire: most music later than Bach and Mozart generally requires the pianist to execute large, rapid leaps. This requires looking at the hands, and looking at the hands requires memorizing. Memorizing, and the subsequent polishing stages of learning, requires a significant period of time away from the score. If this time away from the score is not balanced properly with other activities that require daily music reading (such as learning new repertoire, chamber music, collaborative work, etc.), sight-playing skills can wither and eventually dry up. 

Unfortunately, in the final two years of high school, as college auditions approach, the pressures to achieve the highest possible performance for admission and scholarship offers exacerbate the problem. Many schools require sight-playing as part of an admission audition, and this no doubt keeps the issue in front of the students to some degree. Still, the problem persists. Rare is the school that will turn down an applicant bringing a highly polished audition who nevertheless exhibits poor to nonexistent sight-playing skills. Therefore, some fine pianists with poor sight-playing skills do appear in music programs. Poor sight-playing skills limit quantity and speed of learning. Additionally, since the students are generally unable to use the score to start in locations where they are not used to starting, it causes frustration in the lessons when instructors ask for changes to be made. 

A two-pronged strategy 

My own approach to correcting this problem, when it appears, has been based on a two-pronged strategy of texture (both four-part chorales and two-part counterpoint) and fundamentals (scales and arpeggios). The chorale textures address much piano literature, the basis of which is four-part harmony. The rhythmic independence found in counterpoint is a separate kind of problem that requires a separate track of study. Fundamentals support both of the above. 

Using chorale textures

A steady diet of four-part chorales (two voices in each hand) acquaints the hand with common chord progressions and the intricate interval patterns that comprise them. Choosing chorales in which all the voices share the same rhythms eliminates the complexity of counterpoint from the equation. The simplest and most direct route to increasing the student's reading ability in this texture requires only a few steps: 

  1. Change the rhythm value of the chords in the chorale to a value that ensures accuracy in pitch reading. For instance, all note values may be changed to double whole notes (eight counts per chord—for the student with serious reading problems!) at quarter = 60. Use the metronome. 
  2. Depress the pedal on the second beat; lift it simultaneously with playing the chord. This frees the hands to prepare for and move to the next chord. 
  3. Insist on absolute fluency. Students must play only on count one of each chosen rhythm value. If the student plays a wrong note, she must "live" with that wrong note for the duration of the sustaining chord. This is very effective in encouraging accuracy for the next chord! Additionally, prohibiting correction encourages the eyes to move forward, rather than backward. Correcting a wrong note in a chord trains the eyes in the wrong direction if fluent sight-playing is the goal. If a student is too often inaccurate, the note values of the exercise should be lengthened. 
  4. Once absolute accuracy in sight-reading is achieved at the given note value, the students become more secure (even bored) when changing chords. At this point, the note values of the exercise can be decreased—eventually achieving accurate quarter-note chord changes. 

This process works very well for teaching chorale textures.With a little encouragement, students can begin to notice patterns: for triads, when a third or sixth appears in one hand, a fourth, fifth, or octave can be expected in the other hand; when a second appears in either hand, a seventh chord with its resolution can be expected; specific altered scale degrees point to an expected chord resolution (a raised-fourth scale degree will be followed by members of a V chord, for example). 

Polyphonic textures 

Textures that demonstrate more rhythmic independence require specific attention. My observation is that no one knew this better than Bartók. The first three volumes of the Mikrokosmos are wonderful resources for a sequential approach to polyphonic reading. Bartók was very sensitive to the feel of counterpoint in the hands (parallel motion, contrary motion, and oblique motion), and wisely systematic in introducing various types of hand motion (expansions, shifts, pivots, tucks, etc.). Because the repertoire in the Mikrokosmos includes a healthy dose of sounds that are other than major and minor, the ear can't always be depended upon to finish a phrase. The student must rely on or develop eye-hand connection for accuracy. This is important—since many of the students with poor sight-playing skills have developed significant aural dependencies to help them learn their repertoire. 

My own approach with the Mikrokosmos has been to assign several of these short pieces per week for the student to learn, with the idea being that new repertoire must be constantly in front of them. At the lesson, select pieces from the repertoire are spot-checked and a new batch assigned. This takes only moments from the college student's hour lesson, and yet impresses upon him the importance of being accountable for the learning of new music each week. 

Developing awareness of hand motion 

Volume I of the Mikrokosmos is composed exclusively in five-finger positions. This gives the mind a chance to accurately associate printed intervals with common finger combinations—a fundamental link in successful sight-playing. Lack of fluency in hand motion is one of the great impediments to fluent and accurate sightplaying. In Volume I motions of the hands are limited to simple shifting. Finger numbers, for the most part, indicate these shifts. Students should be encouraged to preview the pieces for location of these hand motions by visually "scouting" for the finger numbers in the score and silently practicing the indicated hand shifts before playing. Bartók is demonstrably concerned with the placement and frequency of these hand shifts, carefully arranging them in a progressive fashion throughout the volume. 

As hand motion types increase in the series, so does the potential for error and confusion. Expanding the thumb away from the hand, for instance, brings a host of new finger combinations to the intervals presented on the page. Frances Clark's four-volume set, Musical Fingers (Alfred), provides an excellent summary of the various types of hand motion and includes exercises acquainting students with the intervallic implications of each type. Beginning with the student's journey through Volume II of the Mikrokosmos, I introduce these hand motions systematically, using Clark's summaries and exercises.

Essential fundamentals of piano technique

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, I find that a student's sight-playing success increases dramatically as their familiarity with pianistic fundamentals deepens. Scales, arpeggios, and blocked and broken triad inversions, played while watching the hands, have a surprisingly beneficial effect on sight-playing. At Penn State, we have a rigorous system of technical exams required of our undergraduates at end-of-semester juries. Once students begin their preparation for these exams, I have heard self-reports from those also working on sight-playing that they feel the benefit of the exercise routines on their sight-playing. This is no doubt related to the increased physical intimacy with the piano that allows them to execute at the keyboard with their hands what they see on the score with their eyes. 

Poor reading ability is one of the biggest contributors to attrition in piano study. It is our responsibility as piano teachers to see that this vital skill is addressed with each of our students. The vast world of great literature opens its doors wide to those who are able to read well and learn quickly. p

Diverse backgrounds = diverse needs

by Sylvia Coats

The piano major class at Wichita State 

Piano majors enter the university at a variety of sight-reading levels. Several have accompanied choirs and instrumental and vocal soloists. Others have played with a worship band and are familiar with popular chord symbols. A few have never played accompaniments. In order to help the less experienced reader obtain better reading skills and to enhance the musical understanding of the good readers, I teach a class for piano majors during their freshman year that focuses on sight-reading and other functional skills. 

A Clavinova Piano Laboratory is the pianists' classroom for two hours on Friday mornings. The first hour is devoted to theory at the keyboard: scales, cadences, harmonizing, transposing, improvising, and playing by ear. The second hour is devoted to sight-reading. The students complete four levels in the course curriculum and prepare for the piano proficiency exam to be taken at the end of the second semester. 

Let me introduce you to last year's piano major class: four students in their second semester of piano class and two students who joined the class in the spring semester: 

  • Kelsey—reads well, plays by ear, and accompanies the college choir, but has no previous theory background. 
  • Patrick—a conscientious student who learns quickly and plays confidently, but needs to listen for musicality.
  • Angie—a very curious student with no theory background, fairly good reading skills, who is eager, along with Kelsey, to understand music theory. 
  • Christina—has an exceptional theory understanding from her precollege and community college background, but is not a confident reader. 
  • John—a transfer student with two years of college theory, has poor reading skills, but is very determined to rise to the class expectations. 
  • Tony—has returned to college after a ten-year break of playing for music theater. He relies more on his ear than his reading skills.
Sylvia Coats instructs the piano major class.
Christina Kesler rehearses sight-reading for the final exam before a student jury committee.

Conceptual reading through fundamentals

Piano majors who do not read well can be trained to read with a conceptual understanding. What is conceptual reading? It is not reading one note at a time. It is not stopping the music to correct mistakes. It is recognition of pitch and rhythmic similarities. It is the ability to feel a constant pulse. It is awareness of the key center and the feel of the topography of the key in the hand. It is hearing harmonic changes and cadence resolutions. It is expressing the music. Thus, the piano major skills class is a lesson each week to help Sylvia Coats instructs the piano major class. Christina Kesler rehearses sight-reading for the final exam before a student jury committee. students develop an understanding of key signatures, harmonic progressions, logical fingering, intervals, rhythm related to pulse, and compositional style. Functional skills of scales, chords, transposing, harmonizing, improvising, and playing by ear directly contribute to their success in sightreading. Here is a glimpse into the classes. 

During one class, students were paired together to explore contemporary scales and chords. Each group studied music based on whole tone, pentatonic, twelvetone, or modal scale structures, and discussed their discoveries with the class. In contrast to the contemporary scales, they played four-octave scales in major and minor keys with a heightened sense of tonality. The various scale structures helped them realize that music can be organized around pitch centers in a variety of ways.

Students prepare assignments each week in harmonizing and transposing. At one class they extended their background of primary and secondary chords to learn secondary dominant chords. They immediately put the theory to use through playing "The Star Spangled Banner" by ear and searching for a chord to harmonize the raised fourth degree of the scale—a Bb dominant-seventh chord in the key of Ab Major. They then found instances of the raised fourth degree of the scale that signaled a secondary dominant chord in other pieces they read. Such similarities between pieces are becoming more evident to them. 

Playing chord progressions in different inversions in all keys ensures a tactile memory of chords. The students harmonize melodies with popular chord symbols as well as figured bass. They play songs by ear with a variety of accompaniment patterns. 

Transposing is the most difficult skill for the class members, probably because they were not taught to read by intervals and patterns. Transposing forces students to read intervals, a basic skill necessary for good sight-reading. Rather than choose a key only a step away from the original, a key that is a fourth or fifth away requires them to read by intervals. 

Students learn to improvise melodies and accompaniments with primary, secondary, and secondary dominant chords. In addition, improvising in modes with harmony in stepwise root movement frees them from the classical constraints of I, IV, and V chords. They arrange well-known melodies in the style of each of the historical periods of music. Students plan the key, meter, harmony, and accompaniment patterns. Because of the activities, they begin to observe the same concepts in their sight-reading and performing repertoire. 

Benefits of group learning

The group environment is the key to their success in improving sight-reading. Working with their peers in pairs and as a class, they discuss the new concept and teach each other what they have learned. In the sight-reading hour each week the students read Bach short preludes, Beethoven sonatinas, Schumann's Album for the Young, and Bartók's Mikrokosmos, Volume 2.

I instruct them to practice sight-reading in the repertoire books outside of class in order to become familiar with the composers' styles. During the class they play the selections together, which requires them to keep going even if they make mistakes. I stress continuity in sight-reading and encourage them to improvise in rhythm even if the pitches are not accurate. Initially it is very difficult for them to keep going when they make mistakes. However, as they become more comfortable with improvisation, they start to trust themselves to keep going. 

Counting is so important to their success in reading.We are never too advanced to count out loud! Counting naturally contributes to looking ahead in the music. For instance, beat four wants to go to beat one, etc. 

Evaluation of progress 

In the sixth of eight tests during the year, students were required to read a piece of my choice from the Schumann Album for the Young. After the sight-reading test, I interviewed each student about their study of the score. Questions were in regard to their awareness of key, patterns, theory, style, and progress since the first semester. 

When asked about their progress, the less confident readers said they now see patterns in notes, rhythms, chords, and fingering that help them move around the keyboard without looking. The better readers analyzed chords, key, and structure. They were aware of stylistic differences between composers such as Mozart and Brahms. Previously, Tony thought Schumann was trite, but after studying the inner contents of pieces in the Album for the Young, he changed his mind. Several students commented on the mood of the music and the high points of phrases. 

In their last class meeting, Christina, Tony, John, Kelsey, Angie, and Patrick rehearsed for their final exam. They were responsible for reading any selection from the repertoire books. Three of them served as the jury committee, while the other three performed functional skills and sight-reading. In their spirited exchange, they demanded excellence from one another with humor and support. When asked to discuss what they have learned, Patrick and Angie said they now harmonize melodies at church and Patrick jumped in to transpose a song down a whole step for a singer. John said learning harmony helps his jazz playing. Tony and Kelsey are more aware of chord analysis and structure in their repertoire. Christina remarked that playing in tempo as a group is more like the real world in accompanying, rather than practicing alone at a slow tempo. I am gratified that they have grown in their skills through their growth as a group.

Books used in the class: 

Bartók, Bela. (2004). Mikrokosmos Volume 2. London: Boosey & Hawkes. 

Hinson, Maurice, Ed. (1986). Beethoven Seven Sonatinas. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Company. 

Lancaster, E.L. and Renfrow, Kenon D. (2008). Alfred 's Group Piano for Adults, Book 2, 2nd ed. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Company. 

Kern, Alice. (1994). Harmonization- Transposition at the Keyboard, 2nd ed. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Company. 

Linn, Jennifer, Ed. (2005). Schumann Selections from Album for the Young, Op. 68. Milwaukee, WI: G. Schirmer, Inc. 

Palmer, Willard, Ed. (2004). J.S. Bach 18 Short Preludes for the Keyboard. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Company.

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