Monthly archives "March 2018"

TAO April 2018 – Sight Unseen

Back to the Basics, Part III

Sight Unseen


Look out, virtual reality is here! Faces covered by giant goggles. Arms waving in abstract motions. Cries of astonishment at invisible events. For techies, virtual reality is the wave of the future where a universe of alternate realities is possible. With virtual reality goggles on, the mind is fooled into accepting as real what is unseen to everyone else. Music and virtual reality are more closely related than you might imagine at first glance. After all, music is the original alternative reality, and we have been playing in it for a very long time!
This winter’s project is to consider the basic skills of service playing in a new light. Having grounded our playing in a spiritual context where service is valued more highly than stardom, we turned first to the art of accompanying. Then we looked at the ins and outs of hymn playing. Now, let’s look at the essentials of one of music’s most intimidating skills – sight reading. Musical representations on paper are the crowning achievement of the European classical music tradition. Whether you are a beginner or a master reader, the challenge is the same: to translate visual symbols into meaningful, musical sound. The complexity of this task is undeniable, especially for organists.
What connects those dots and spots on the page with the sounds they represent is the mind, body, and spirit of the player. The sight reader’s ultimate goal is quite simple – to achieve an effortless physical response to visual cues. We can help ourselves become better sight readers by considering the learning process from several points of view. But first, let’s consider the enemies of successful sight reading: perfectionism; backtracking to correct errors; and negative mental chatter, the source of self-doubt. The best way to conquer these enemies is by way of the back door. Rather than fight them, let’s replace them. Building successful sight reading practices is the key to overcoming whatever weakness plagues you today.
The moment you sit down at the keyboard, you are facing the multiple challenges sight reading presents. The largest obstacle is the simple fact that everything we do in the visual translation process is invisible. We cannot see our minds see the notes. We cannot watch as our brain translates them into physical motion. We cannot even watch our hands as they move over the keys. We cannot see what is coming in the score. Sight reading is learning to trust our interior process – learning to trust what is “sight unseen.” The best way to improve our skill is to develop strategies that will address the problems presented in each of these four modalities: visual, tactile, auditory, and mental. The grid that accompanies this article will help you follow how each modality progresses through four developmental phases.
In the visual realm, the eyes have it. Right in front of you is the score. Remember, it is a visual representation of music. Before you ever try to play it, look at it. Use it to develop a preliminary concept of the sound — what it does and where it goes. Analyze it for potential problems and figure out how you will address them. Often the layout of the score changes from measure to measure, so be sure you can locate the large beats in each one. Your knowledge of keyboard harmony will help you locate the basic harmonies and patterns on the page. Seeing harmonic and melodic patterns reduces note-by-note reading and increases fluency.
Evelyn Wood’s Reading Dynamics taught me that expanding the eye’s field of vision allows the mind to take in more information. The exercises she developed will be a revelation to you, and they are not hard to adapt to music reading. Two of them are especially useful. First, keep the eyes moving right. No backtracking! Away from the keyboard, follow your index finger as it traces a line across the score. Don’t try to read the notes, just follow the finger. Practice the sweep of the eyes. Second, using the same finger-tracing technique, trace a series of “W” wiggles in one measure from the top of the treble staff to the bottom of the bass staff. Again, don’t try to read the notes, just let the eye get used to tracing from top to bottom. Later, combine the two motions – up-and-down “W’s” moving forward and to the right. With practice, your eye’s focus will expand to include more and more information in the periphery of your vision. After you practice these two exercises, take the eye movements to the keyboard and give them a try. Expanded vision allows you to see more notes in the same glance. Now that you can see them, how are you going to play them?
Neuro-scientists can trace the exact pathway from the eye through the brain to the fingers and toes. What they know can help us to develop better strategies for learning to sight read. But first, we simply must be comfortable with the basics of the keyboard, including scales, chords and arpeggios. We must be able to keep a beat in our physical body, and we must be able to respond to the basic rhythm patterns we encounter every day. Just a little more work on these will give you instant results!
Another significant challenge in sight reading is learning to keep your eyes on the music. Looking down interrupts the flow of visual information, causing a breakdown in fluency. Our goal here is to increase our ability to navigate the keyboard using “blind touch.” The first goal is to keep track of your position by remaining in touch with the keys or pedals as much as possible. You can make great strides by simply closing your eyes and feeling the keys. There is a world of proprioceptive (sense of the body in space) information right there in front of you. Fix the keyboard and pedals in your kinesthetic memory so that you can rely upon it. Nineteenth century pianist, Tobias Matthay, described this phenomenon in his 1947 class, The Visible and Invisible in Piano Technique, which is still available today. Blind touch allows you to build greater trust in your body’s ability to solve keyboard and pedal problems without your direct attention. As you develop confidence in your tactile senses, you will be able to make adaptations and simplifications to adapt the flow of notes to your ability. With more experience, your body will be able to respond to the visual score with increasing trust and spontaneity. Ultimately, the body will be able to take the lead as the mind begins to relinquish its control. We will talk more about this later.
The process of learning to read music often causes students to prefer sight to sound, which can lead to diminished aural skill—not really knowing what you are hearing. The recent work of Edwin Gordon in Music Learning Theory (GIA Publications) helps right this imbalance. His main contribution centers around “audiation,” the ability to hear and comprehend music in the mind, including the ability to imagine what music on the page sounds like. Sight readers need to be able to confirm that what they are playing is what they are seeing on the page. We need to be able to track basic harmonic and melodic patterns for how they form the building blocks of musical meaning. Dr. Gordon takes us even a step further toward the possibility that our ear might be able not only to confirm, but also to anticipate the musical logic within the structure of the piece. Building on such confidence, we will eventually gain the ability to participate in the musical process as it is unfolding under our fingers and toes. It’s easy to recognize people who are at this level of skill – they LOVE to sight read!
Earlier, I mentioned that self-doubt is the real culprit in undermining sight reading. Some self-doubt comes from insecure technique, whose remedies I have just outlined. By addressing weaknesses in your visual, tactile, and auditory skill sets, you have laid the groundwork for overcoming the mental chatter and the negative self-talk that gets in the way of fluid performance. When the mind is busy, the eye is distracted. One’s muscles cannot respond to the neural signals the eye is sending them. The ear cannot follow (audiate) musical function fully. It’s the static in your nervous system. Just becoming aware that self-talk is mixed into your sight reading process is a giant step toward settling the mind into a calmer, deeper state. When the mind is quiet, you are free to become more involved in the music you are playing.
Positive sight reading experiences help you to cultivate the calm and confidence you need to do your best. I suggest that you begin sight reading music that is easy for you. Is it all right to hear the music played before reading? At early stages, hearing the music is a substitute for silent audiation. Later, you will not need to listen to the music first, because you will be able to hear it as you look at it.
The best sight readers will tell you that they sink into a deep state of mental stillness from which they do their best work. If you know that this objective state of mind exists, where the body responds effortlessly to the visual image, you can start by relaxing into it. To find that ideal mental state, you will have to let go of conscious control of your entire being/body. At first, you will find yourself going in and out of the deep state without realizing it. Just relax, and let it happen to you. Over time, access to deep state mental processing will become more reliable. You will be hearing what you see and seeing what you hear. After all, this is what successful sight reading really is. You will be inside music’s virtual reality — sight unseen!

P.S. Do you have a question or a topic you would like to read about? Please let me know by e-mail: