There are many similarities between reading music and reading books. Like learning to read a language, you begin with the basic ‘symbols’ (letters/pitch names) and begin to identify them. After a little practice, it is possible to string together a few symbols to make a word (a combination of sounds that together make more sense than alone). After a little more practice, we begin to read phrases (sentences and part sentences); a little later, we start to make meaning of what we read while reading.
We also learn to decode words that we have never seen before. Gradually, we read more complex sets of symbols combined in books. A person with reasonable reading skills can pick up many books for the first time and understand what they are reading.
Sometimes we come across more difficult writing (such as a complicated legal document). This language is awkward – and if we can manage any reading fluency, we probably don’t make much sense of the content. Nevertheless, with motivation and work, we could decipher the material and practice reading until it made sense to us. This is similar to the process of learning to read new music. Even complicated ‘language’ can become familiar and ‘easy’ after some exposure.
To improve the rate at which we can read (learning speed-reading), we return to easier books. We see how many words we can read accurately within a short period of time, and try to increase the number of words without losing the accuracy or comprehension. Learning to speed-read makes the reading of everyday material much easier – we gain the information we need with less work. This process is similar to sight-reading music. By practicing reading easier music with expression (meaning), fluency and accuracy, we are able to read more difficult music with less effort. This allows us to learn new pieces much more quickly, play popular music for fun and to participate in other musical activities (e.g. playing with groups, accompanying other performers).
After the first six months of learning music, students should begin a sight-reading programme that involves reading a small amount of unseen music everyday. (Students can begin earlier than this by reading and playing single notes or steps and skips on flashcards.) Suitable music is usually several stages or grades below the current learning level (e.g. a student at level 2B can use books they have from the beginning stage.) Start with very simple material, and only a few bars or one line, and gradually increase the difficulty over the longer term. (It is exciting to look back and see how much you’ve learnt since then.
When sight-reading music, the aim is accuracy – playing exactly what is written on the page the first time. The playing probably won’t sound like anything very musical for quite some time – it’s important to go slowly enough to be accurate. Sight-reading in the early stages involves playing the written note pitch, soft and loud volumes, counting and the correct hands. In the intermediate stage, we add phrasing, musical expression (different touch used to contrast between consecutive notes), key/tonality (major/minor) and speed. In the later grades, sight-reading also involves knowledge and expression of musical genres (e.g. different dance forms, anthems, musical images).
A piece used for sight-reading is played once (or a couple of times most) and then left. We take notice of the sorts of things we misread and focus on these the next time. Before reading the next piece, we study the piece, trying to hear it in our minds before we play it. We look for details (like volume or sharps and flats), especially any we might have not read well last time. Two important skills gained through sight-reading are increased rate of deciphering symbols and reading ahead (both create fluency).
Lesson pieces are like the things we read everyday – they generally give us more information. Sometimes the purpose of our reading is enjoyment, but much of our reading simply increases our knowledge or skill in handling the world around us (e.g. traffic signs, recipe directions). On the other hand, if we dislike what we read, we are likely to avoid the process – thus it is important that students have enjoyment and not just ‘purpose’ behind lesson pieces.
Lesson pieces are usually learnt for about 2 weeks in the early stages, and up to a couple of months in later grades. Sight-reading skills are relied on for learning the majority of any of these pieces, which do not target perfection. The selected pieces each contain one or two new and valuable ideas or skills that students need to learn. They are the basic building blocks – how to play with character, what symbols and terms mean, how composers ‘build’ music that makes sense to listeners, etc.
Analysing the details of the lesson piece (the same process as sight-reading, but with more content) and separating the new idea for isolated work is the way to tackle lesson pieces. Much of the learning work is done during lessons with the guidance of the teacher. The idea or skill is grasped during practice at home and the piece is left once the focus is understood.
These are the reason we learn and play music! Performance pieces should be chosen (or at least liked) by the student – work is involved, so the result must be satisfying.
Performance pieces seem difficult the first time they are seen or played. They can demand a little more technical or reading skill than the student has developed. This is quite all right, since the process of learning the piece means it doesn’t all have to be faced at once. In early learning stages, it can take a couple of months to learn one piece; for a virtuoso player, some pieces take several years. After some time, becoming familiar with the music, the piece no longer seems difficult – as a result, students can play the piece they long to play, and equally demanding music doesn’t seem quite so hard.
Learning a performance piece requires all the skill developed through sight-reading and lesson pieces – as well as additional study. Top-down and bottom-up approaches are used to get to ‘know’ the music, starting with an idea of the piece as a whole – “how might it sound when I can play it properly?” (e.g. listening to others play or recordings) – and meeting the composer (e.g. “what did the composer mean this piece to sound like? Why did they write it? Do I like how other people play it?”).
Next, each detail of technique, chord / harmony structure, dynamics, fingering, note contrast, hand and wrist motion, pitch accuracy, timing, etc is pulled apart one at a time and worked at for full control before putting the bits of the jig-saw back together again. True mastery of a performance piece requires more separate hands practice than together, at least some memory work, changes in speed (too fast and painfully slow), and working with the most challenging groups of notes before trying to play the piece as a unit.
Mastering performance pieces can be a little intimidating – but the process is worthwhile. Often exciting leaps forward are made when some aspect ‘clicks’. There is no replacement for the satisfaction of really understanding a piece you are playing – and being convinced that others have sincerely enjoyed hearing you perform!