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Most efficient method to learn to read music?

Discussion in 'Composition, Orchestration & Technique' started by camerhil, Dec 19, 2017.

  1. camerhil

    camerhil (Tim Cameron)

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    Up until now, I’ve been playing by ear, and it’s worked fairly well. I took a few years of jazz piano lessons and learned to muddle my way through cheat sheets, but now that I’m trying to write grown-up compositions, my inability to read music quicker than a stoned snail is becoming a liability. I need to start analyzing famous scores, and this is beyond me right now.

    I’m wondering if you could recommend any books or websites that could help me to learn theory and sight-reading as quickly as possible. Are there particular methods that worked well for you, or your students? I’m obviously prepared for a lot of regular practice.

    Thanks for your help!

    Tim
     
  2. ed buller

    ed buller Senior Member

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    there're are loads for iPhones and the like . My fave is SWYFTNOTE. It listens to what you play and tells you if your correct. 10 mins a day will work wonders.

    e
     
  3. douggibson

    douggibson Senior Member

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    Having been there both as a student, and now years of teaching I can offer a few thoughts.

    First there is "something hidden" in your question. I don't know what it is, and you might not either.
    By far the most effective way to make progress is daily practice. 20 minutes of dedicated focused practice.

    You probably already know this.

    Also, there is nothing "Bad" to read. Wether you are sight reading Bach, or the Beetles it will help.
    Go ahead and pick things you like.

    You probably knew that too.

    Often a "Aural Skills" teacher will break it down for students, and spend time just on
    rhythms. There are a number of good books out there. I used the one by "Starrer" personally.

    You may have known that to.

    So, I would kindly offer the real "thing" to address is:

    If you really want to learn at this, and you know regular 20 minutes a day practice will get you there..... what is stopping you ?

    As I mentioned, I don't know what specifically it is for you. However I can tell you with my own students often when I pry like this something comes up like "I want to get better but I hate practicing it." or "It's boring", or "I'm so busy I can practice everyday" etc.

    __________________________________________________________________________________________

    That said, my two biggest pieces of advice:

    1. Get a partner: Time simply goes by quicker and it required less "discipline". Almost all of the really great sight readers I have met have done extensive ensemble playing, or chamber works. It's fine if you are slow. Find another person just starting out. It also is going to help develop a good habit all good sight readers have: Not stopping because you made a mistake.

    2. Learn all 7 Clefs: I am a bit "old school' here, but since you stated your goal is to study famous orchestral works, I think this is essential. Strangely, while it is a really hard slog at first, you will learn the two common clefs
    better this way. Also this lets you read transposing scores on the fly. It really opens the door for this. It takes too long to mentally go "up a maj 2nd" for each note you are reading. If I am reading a Bb Clarinet part and the score is transposed, I simply think of it as being in the tenor clef. Vice versa, if I am reading "C" score and what note the player has on their part to communicate with, I'll just think of the stave as in alto. Just adjust the accidentals according to the circle of 5ths. (in this case two in either direction)


    Basically I don't think you need any apps, or anything like that. I am sure they are good quality, but none of that matters if one avoids it. The two steps I mentioned above are by far the most useful in my experience.
     
  4. OP
    OP
    camerhil

    camerhil (Tim Cameron)

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    Thank you both for that helpful advice. Doug, you're right that it was a bit of a loaded question. With most other topics that I've taught myself, I'm used to seeing rapid progress. But I don't get this with sight-reading. I've tried to learn it a few times in my life, and the last time, I practiced regularly for several months; however my progress was so slow that I ended up getting frustrated. I literally couldn't play the simple pieces any slower, and I was still messing them up. I think I need the constant back-patting of success, otherwise I get discouraged.

    I also get a kind of panic when I'm trying to sight-read, the kind of feeling you have when someone is tailgating you on a busy road. I can see the notes coming, and my stress that I won't be able to read them in time means that I end up not reading them in time! It's ridiculous but it always happens.

    That's why I was curious about teaching apps that might supplement sight-reading in front of the piano, so that I can practice without always having to face the frustration of bad playing. I know there's no replacement for real piano practice though. Ed, I will check out SWYFTNOTE - thanks.

    I was also wondering if it would be helpful to have an equal mix of sight-reading and actually writing my scores using something like Sibelius; that way, I could keep composing while I'm learning.

    It hadn't occurred to me that it's worth learning all of the clefs at this point, so thank you for that advice.
     
  5. bryla

    bryla Senior Member

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    Take rhythm out of the equation and make sure to play the simple pieces one correct now at a time. Don't play the same note twice just read it play it and get on to the next.
     
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  6. Justus

    Justus Senior Member

    For years I have been struggling with this. Sightreading doesn't seem to be the most natural thing for me, like playing by ear.
    However I have found that writing notes (through transcription, for example) is as important as reading them.
    This might be the missing part for you as well.
     
  7. OP
    OP
    camerhil

    camerhil (Tim Cameron)

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    Justus, that makes a lot of sense to me. I guess it's the difference between repeating something back to a person, or writing down what they told you. Simply the act of committing it to paper seems to engage a different part of my brain, and I find it much easier to retain stuff that way.

    Bryla, it's a relief to hear that maintaining the rhythm doesn't matter at this stage. That will help to alleviate the stress.
     
  8. JohnG

    JohnG Senior Member

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    Doug's advice is excellent.

    The "stoned snail" is how I still feel after doing this for some time.

    The main thing is to nurture your love of music; never let that get overbalanced by the tedium of learning to read / notate / orchestrate. Whenever you think, "this is awful," go back to what you love about music and do some of that, whatever that is.

    If you can play jazz piano, improvise, pull things out of the air, and if you love the idea of writing music, you are actually a long way there, so don't lose those. Honour what you do know and work on the other stuff, but don't let it get you down -- dwelling on what you don't know can be discouraging.

    However, if as you wrote you want to write grown up compositions, you will indeed have to learn some of this other stuff. I like Adler's orchestration book because it has professional ranges for players, the examples are all on audio (even snippets) and the guy's voice is hilarious.

    Kind regards,

    John
     
  9. OP
    OP
    camerhil

    camerhil (Tim Cameron)

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    That's my Christmas present sorted! Thanks for the book recommendation.
     
  10. ed buller

    ed buller Senior Member

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    yes this really helps. Also don't forget learning to read rhythms !!...

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rhythm-sight-reading-trainer/id396302174?mt=8

    as to clefs ...i'd say start with Treble, Bass and Alto.....they get used all the time. Everything else to be honest is occasional . However my Teacher at the San Fran Conservatory ( the awesome David Conte) suggested using a clef as a plug in to read transposing instruments . I thought that was very clever and for that you will need to learn them ....!

    as to theory there really is so many choices these days. I think Alain's courses are superb.

    https://scoreclub.net


    the "Essential Composer Foundation" is a great place to start . But you'll need them all eventually and they are fantastic . Alain is a superb teacher and his approach with the videos is very carefully managed. Highly recommended

    good luck

    e
     
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  11. tack

    tack Damned Dirty Ape

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    Improving my sight reading was one of my goals for the year, and will be again for next year.

    For drills, I really like https://sightreading.training/ because when you use Chrome, it supports the Web MIDI API and so you can actually play, which for me is far more useful than flashcards. You can also ramp up the complexity to taste (click the Configure button). My main criticism is that I wish it would make more effort to be a bit more musical in its randomization. It's clear that it tries, but it could be a bit cleverer there.

    The key to improvement is frequency and consistency. I've been quite lax on this of late (thanks to low back issues -- sigh), but when I forced myself to do these drills 15 minutes a day, my improvement after 2 weeks was (for me anyway) remarkable.

    I also tried a subscription with FlowKey but didn't end up liking it as much as I thought I would. It's quite nice for what it is, but I find that outside of actual rote drilling that sightreading.training offers, I preferred to sit in front of the piano with actual sheet music.
     
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  12. Wolfie2112

    Wolfie2112 Senior Member

    I'm the opposite. After playing piano by ear for 20+ years, I began formal conservatory lessons three months ago. It has become somewhat of an obsession now, and I practice for at least two hours per day. I make a point to "hack" my way through a random piece (from the many Classical/Baroque books I bought), so that I can force myself to sight read. I also feel like the "stoned snail", but the results are now 10-fold. Just immerse yourself in the music, and try a completely new piece often. IMO, you will eventually break through and the reading will become second nature. My biggest learning curve so far is being able to read the bass clef notes instantly...especially chords.
     
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  13. ColonelMarquand

    ColonelMarquand Senior Member

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    Practice. Slow and methodical with a lot of application.
     
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  14. chrisphan

    chrisphan Senior Member

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    I agree with Doug that you probably won't need any app or website for this. It's really just like...working out, which also takes a long time to see your progress. Persistence is really the key for this. Try to aim for a realistic routine, stick to it and you will definitely improve.

    I would argue though that learning to read in all seven clefs is a bit too much at this point for you. I would suggest learning the treble and bass clef fluently first, which will let you study piano reduction scores. Writing helps A LOT too and I can't stress that enough. I no longer write music using pen and paper, but I still try to transcribe something once a week.
     
  15. OP
    OP
    camerhil

    camerhil (Tim Cameron)

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    Here's a fairly basic question: once you get good at sight reading, how far ahead do you actually read? i.e. are you looking at the next measure while you're playing the current one? Or is it all just instinctive, so you're not actually consciously looking ahead: your peripheral vision can just recognize the upcoming note positions so you don't need to give it any thought?
     
  16. bbunker

    bbunker Senior Member

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    Reading ahead is sort of intuitive, I think...once you've gotten used to it. ;) It's kind of like having to read something aloud to the class; how far ahead would you read in that situation? Probably not literally the word that you're saying aloud, or you'll sound like you're reading a series of individual words, and probably not too far ahead or you'll start mixing up what you're saying now with what you're meant to be saying next. I'd say don't worry about it too much yet: you need to build up your reading skills to the point where you can look briefly and pick up a phrase at a time instead of a word - otherwise there's little point in reading ahead of what you can read, if that makes sense!

    Don't forget that you can use literally any music out there for reading purposes. Try Solo violin music on piano like the Sonatas and Partitas, or Solo Cello music like the Suites. How about reading the Cello Suites transcribed for viola? Try taking a string quartet and reading each voice in turn separately? Then try reading two voices, or three, or all four, depending on the piece and how your chops develop...

    Point is, I guess, that you can plateau pretty easily if you're trying to read the same kind of stuff over and over. So, mixing it up can be pretty productive, besides being musically rewarding.
     
  17. OP
    OP
    camerhil

    camerhil (Tim Cameron)

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    The solo instrument approach is a really nice idea. I like the idea of starting with the old stalwart Bach Cello Suite no.1 and working from there. I also love the idea of taking a quartet apart, since that might provide valuable compositional insights at the same time. Last time I tried to learn sight reading, I got royally sick of playing music meant for 3-year-olds. I'm glad there are ways to avoid that.
     
  18. douggibson

    douggibson Senior Member

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    It's too "context" dependant to answer. Basically what happens you simply begin to notice larger patterns in a single instance. Like "zooming in" or "Zooming out" or like reading words where at first you sound out each letter. Later the words just pop out.

    However, this happens with domains you are familiar with. For example, since you are an improvisor, if you took a
    professional jazz musician and asked them to improvise on "Rhythm Changes" no problem.

    If you then say "now lets play that in F# major" the odd key choice means more attention has to used to anticipate what is coming up. Thus they would rely on more chord tones, guide tone etc where as Bb would have more alterations.

    Basically the harder it is, the less looking ahead you will have. A person at a single glance can notice 6-2-5-1 or
    Sonata/Minuet etc. because these larger patterns exist in numerous pieces.

    The person who instructed me was also a direct student of Nadia Boulangier. David was too. This is the exact same "system" I am recommending.

    That's not the point. It's true, but not the reason for learning them. I'll explain below.

    Well, it depends on ones goals of course. I can't emphatically state that one should do any of this, as I don't know anyone personally. My own goal was to become a professional composer so I wanted to take actions that would lead me towards that goal. That might not be everyone here. I highly respect people who have 9-5, family to take care of,
    (sometimes called functioning well behaved members of society) and practice music as a hobby.

    To give an analogy.... When Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to get a stronger back, you know what he did ?

    Went into a forrest and lifted huge rocks, and the biggest trees he could find. Pure caveman stuff. Maximum intensity. That is what built the muscle.

    Vice versa, I see people all the time at the gym getting on the tread mill, looking at there phones, watching TV, talking to other people during their exercise, headphones on... worried about not "over-doing-it".

    Even after a year or more this.... they look like me ...."Dad Bod".

    So you know.... you gotta make a choice.

    I will again emphasize "join a group" in which you have to sight read. I had a jazz guitar teacher make me learn to read from these awful Berklee books when I was 13-14.. So boring. But I got fluent at reading on the guitar.

    When I went to highschool, there were no guitar players who could read music. So from freshman year to senior year I played in the jazz big band. Over those 4 years the other everyone's sight reading grew by leaps and bounds because we had 55 minute rehearsals everyday

    ________________________________________________________________________________________

    The other reasons for learning all seven clefs, when you will only ever see four of them at most,
    is two fold. 1) Fluency in transposition (both reading and on your instrument) 2) "Mindful Practice"

    1) Fluency in transposition: This is probably self evident. If you can picture in your mind a Bass Clef stave and the
    notes C-D-E. Imagine you want to transpose this to the key of A.
    First step..... think about the circle of 5ths and what accidentals need to be adjusted. Just picture a dial being turned.
    Now see clearly those same pitches as before, and change the clef to treble. See how easy that is.

    Classically trained musicians, with exceptions, are very poor at transpoing. The opening to the Moonlight Sonata is not hard for Piano majors, but if you asked them to play it in B minor..... most likely not.

    As a composer, know how to transpose your material and ideas fluently on the piano is so helpful.


    2) "Mindful Practice": This is kind of similar to the arguments that happen over "Hannon" exercises.
    The clefs scramble your mind (aka mind fuck) so you have to think about half steps and whole steps.
    One of the things this approach revealed was how much I did not know, about things I thought I knew really well.
    As you probably noted with example above you have to mentally know that scale degree 3 in a major 3rd (4 semitone) from the tonic. The failure to adjust the accident results in A minor. This is training you really know your materials.

    It's was shocking to me when tested, and now I torture others with this, how long it takes some people to answer very basic questions like "between which scale degree do the half steps (semitones) in the Dorian mode occur"

    Often I get an "ahh.." It obvious that it's between 2-3 and 6-7. This is not trivial either. See if you really knew that then there is not much of a problem transposing it. But most of us don't really know it. Instead we some long winded answer about D Dorian being like C major but starting on D.

    I can then go "Ok tell me on which scale degrees, in the dorian mode, have major triads"

    The point is the scrambling prevents mindless practice. It builds a stronger musical foundation.
    Even reading in treble clef alone will be enhanced, as you will become more aware of the intervals and
    not "every good boy does fine"

    (which is a snarky way to say mindless reading based on a memorized pattern)

    To acquire a talent one must pay first with attention. These things, that at first make your head want to explode, is building your level of focus. Like a telescope you can aimlessly search the sky, or directly focus.

    You will never be handed a score in baritone clef, but soccer players will never have to run through cones on a playing field either, or do "suicides".
     
  19. bbunker

    bbunker Senior Member

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    Totally! And the thing about reading a lot of Czerny, Burgmuller, easy German dances and Landler, that kind of thing...is that at some point you are mostly getting better at reading those kinds of things, rather than better at reading music. You know: lots of hand patterns built for piano players, cadential figures that look exactly the same from piece to piece. Good for building velocity, but I think there's a limit for reading.

    Check out sonatas by Carulli for guitar. You have to absolutely work your butt off to read something like that, but it still kind of 'feels' easy. It's the same kind of thing as all those easy piano pieces, but you have to be on your mental toes to figure out what fingers need to go where, instead of having all that fed to you. Now - I might be crazy, but learning to be on your mental toes is kind of the whole point of reading, isn't it?!?
     
  20. ed buller

    ed buller Senior Member

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    He's going from playing by ear to wanting to study. I suggest he set's himself steady goals that give him rewards . Nadia Boulanger was a musical Jedi....and it's a good system , but I personally think at this stage it's overkill...as would be species counterpoint . I strongly recommend the iPhone apps as you see results very quickly .

    e
     
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