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Music - Piano Pedagogy - Sight Reading Principles for Beginners



    FORUM v. 2, no. 2/May 1, 1999


    Laura Beauchamp joined the Capital University Conservatory of Music faculty in 1996 as Director of Keyboard Pedagogy. She teaches applied piano, piano pedagogy, class keyboard and directs the Beginning Piano for Children program in the Community Music School. An active solo and collaborative performer, Dr. Beauchamp is in frequent demand as an adjudicator and clinician and regularly gives workshops for local and state teachers' organizations. On the national level she has been a featured presenter at the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Convention, the National Piano Teachers Institute and the World Piano Pedagogy Conference. Her interest in the use of keyboard technology in traditional piano lessons has led to an association with the Yamaha Corporation, for whom she has given several presentations about her success teaching with the Disklavier and Clavinova. As a workshop clinician and editorial consultant for the Frederick Harris Music Company, she travels throughout the United States giving presentations

    on tips and materials for teaching repertoire, sight reading, ear training, theory and technique.

    Laura Beauchamp Conservatory of Music Capital University Columbus, OH 43209 614.236.6411

    THE 'BUILDING BLOCKS' OF READING Suggestions for Developing Sight Reading Skills in Beginning Level College Piano Classes

    by Laura Beauchamp


    Those of us who teach beginning group piano for undergraduate music majors face quite a challenge. Our classes include students who are expected to become functioning pianists in a very short time, but who have little or no piano background. Further, many of these students will have to demonstrate a predetermined level of competence before being granted their degrees. Preparing beginning piano students to pass their proficiency exams is a big responsibility.

    In my experience, when music majors don't pass their piano requirements it is usually because of

  • poor reading skills. Students in this predicament are often quite adept on their primary instrument, but at the piano quite the opposite is true. Weak readers can often play scales, arpeggios and chord progressions adequately, but their performances of repertoire and other reading-oriented requirements exhibit some all-too-familiar characteristics:

    l Inability to maintain a five-finger position l Hesitations before shifts and/or chord changes l Constant moving of the eyes back and forth from music to the keyboard, checking to see if the

    hands are in the right place. (Some students will do this even when an example stays entirely within one five-finger position)

    l Lack of understanding and application of basic fingering principles

    In an effort to develop better reading skills in my beginning level classes, I have become more diligent with the way I approach sight-reading and technique from the very first class period. Although much of what I've been doing is not terribly unique, the difference has been the way I now breakdown reading into its basic components, the amount of class time I devote to it, and the types of assignments I give.

    The "Building Blocks" of Reading Piano Music

    Few musicians would dispute the fact that a keyboard score is more complex than music for most other instruments. If beginning pianists are going to attain an acceptable degree of fluency reading at the piano, it is essential that we allow enough time for them to develop security with basic concepts and skills related to reading. I call these the "building blocks."

    The remainder of this article presents teaching approaches, class activities, supplementary materials and practice assignments for the five building blocks outlined below. For ease of discussion, the building blocks are numbered and will be treated sequentially, however this is not meant to imply a suggested teaching order, as most of these areas are best dealt with simultaneously.

    Obviously, many important issues could be written about with respect to class piano, but this discussion will be limited to the development of reading skills. For the most part, the students being considered are music majors at the beginning level.

    Building Block No. 1: Grand Staff Knowledge. Many non-piano music majors lack fluency in one (or both) clefs and need a crash course on the grand staff.

    Building Block No. 2: Security Within Five Finger Positions. This includes both reading and technique. In my classes five finger security is addressed through ear training activities and technique drills, and by playing countless sight reading and transposition examples.

    Building Block No. 3: Security with Keyboard Topography. Weak readers often look down at the keyboard when shifting positions because they don't gauge distances well; they also tend to be uncomfortable playing in and around the black keys. In short, their hands haven't memorized the geographic "feel" of the keyboard.

    Building Block No. 4: Security with Basic Accompaniment Patterns. Weak readers often have trouble playing examples that feature broken chords, Alberti bass, split bass, and waltz patterns. The problem is often technique, not reading. Beginning piano students should be given considerable experience with these basic accompaniment styles.

    Building Block No. 5: Understanding of Basic Fingering Principles. Weak readers often get "stuck" because they don't naturally apply basic fingering principles: five finger groupings, thumb crossings, extensions, contractions, substitutions.


    FORUM v. 2, no. 2/May 1, 1999


    THE 'BUILDING BLOCKS' OF READING Suggestions for Developing Sight Reading Skills in Beginning Level College Piano Classes

    by Laura Beauchamp


    The Basic Approach: Learn the Line, Not the Name!

    This strategy is for students with no prior piano reading experience, or those in need of a quick review. The amount of time spent on it will depend on the students. In my experience this approach also works well with private students, especially teenagers and adults. Briefly, the goal is to develop an automatic physical response to the keyboard location of notes on the staff.

    Once students have memorized the names of the piano keys, I tell them that when reading piano music from the grand staff, it's more important to know where a note is than what a note is - knowing the letter name of a note doesn't help you if you play it in the wrong octave. For dramatic effect I usually show them a busy-looking page from a Beethoven sonata and tell them that pianists simply don't have time to pay attention to individual note names. Fluent readers of complex piano music "sense" where the notes are, and over time their eyes, ears and hands have become familiar with most of the patterns in front of them.

    I explain to students that the lines on the staff represent every other white key on a piano keyboard. If they know where the bottom line of each clef is, they can easily negotiate their way around the grand staff without worrying about letter names.

    Referring to each clef as a "range" of notes on either side of middle C, we locate and memorize the first line of each clef on the keyboard. The bass clef range usually needs more attention, so when finding low G we call it "G for the ground floor." The treble clef range is not usually a problem, as most students remember the E above middle C.

    Once students know where the line notes are, finding the spaces is easy because they're in between

  • the lines. Also, ledger lines are not problematic when staff reading is approached in this manner, because you simply "add a line" above or below a clef range.

    To ensure that my students are secure with this I do a lot of in-class drill, assign independent flashcard practice, and depending on the students, request that they work on one of two software programs: Music Ace, by Harmonic Vision, and Keyboard Kapers, by Electronic Courseware Systems (ECS).

    Suggested Class Activities

    One of my first drills is to have the class "play the lines" of each clef range up and down until they are oriented to its position on the keyboard. For variety, we will call out line numbers, say "bottom, next-to-bottom, middle, next-to-top, top," or say the note names. Initially, I play along through the lab system while students are on headphones so they can check accuracy and self-correct when necessary. I gradually extend the range in these keyboard drills to include at least two ledger lines above and below each clef range.

    After the students can find the grand staff notes on the keyboard, I use the Visualizer to do a lot of staff-based note reading drills. (Depending on their situation, teachers without this piece of equipment can using large flashcards, overheads, or even notes written on the blackboard.) I work first with notes in each clef range separately, then choose notes randomly from the grand staff.

    Listed below are three basic note drills I do in class:

    1. Name Only. Students name the notes as they appear on the Visualizer staff. (I move very quickly.) My weaker students have told me this helped them keep up in the first few weeks of theory class, where fluency with grand staff was assumed.

    2. Name and Play. This reinforces both the name and the location of grand staff notes. I turn the volume down on my keyboard so the class can see the displayed notes but not hear them. This prevents weak readers from relying on their ear to find the notes.

    3. Play Only. This further reinforces note location and prepares students for the reality of reading