Patterns, Patterns, Patterns

John Kember’s 3-volume collection, Piano Sight-Reading: A Fresh Approach (Schott, 2004), presents the concept of sight reading differently than almost all other methods. Instead of presenting hands together from the outset, and having examples that increase in overall difficulty, Kember focuses on students ability to recognize and repeat patterns. In the preface, he writes, “Of course, names of notes and time values need to be thoroughly known and understood, but equally sight-reading is helped by an awareness of shape and direction.” This focus on recognizing patterns is crucial, but in practice we don’t often give it enough credence. Once our students can see chord inversions and scalar patterns, immediately notice changes of directions and navigate different interval patterns, their ability to sight read new works is greatly improved.

In the first book, Kember focuses on simple, familiar patterns. He also encourages students to tap the rhythm while picking up details up scale and interval. Here is a great example of the difficulty level of the early examples:

Chapter 1 Example.jpg

While this may seem simplistic, requiring that a student accurately read simple things at sight is much preferable to having them “play at” (to borrow from Ives) something more difficult. Also, these examples will train them to expect success from sight reading, rather than fearing the discipline.

Kember also highlights the need for sight-reading to occur in lessons each week. He writes, “Ideally, sight-reading in some form should become a regular part of a student’s routine each time they go to the piano.” I couldn’t agree more.

Hands-together sight-reading starts at the very the beginning of the second volume, with each hand still remaining in a single position for each example. Unlike A Line a Day (and other methods), these examples don’t attempt to play “out of position” for quite a while, reinforcing the idea that a pianist can feel the notes under their fingers, navigate rhythms and skips, and not worry about looking down at the keys to check their location. Staying in one position also allows a student to “feel” the key (in Kember’s language “Always be aware of the key you are playing in”). Knowing that, for example, the fourth finger of one’s right hand should be slightly up and in to accommodate the B-flat in F Major is something that must be experienced, not just intellectually assented to.

Chapter 2 Example.jpg

The examples presented in volume 3 are markedly more difficult than in previous volumes, as can be seen in the following example:

Chapter 3 Example.jpg

But, if you’ve followed the steps in the previous books, this work will not be overwhelming. You will already have, for example, experience navigating hand position changes, reading intervals up through the octave, feeling the sharps or flats present in a given key, and performing (at sight) rhythms that differ in each hand (after, of course, the initial tapping of the rhythm, which Kember encourages through all volumes). So, while they might seem initially intimidating, these examples flow logically and incrementally from the earlier, simpler ones.

The end of volume 3 includes examples with separate instrumental lines (to practice sight reading accompaniments) and instructions for transposition as well. While some may choose to omit the study of these separate-but-related skills, I would encourage you to work through them with your students. I find that learning to follow the third staff of a vocal or instrumental part, while playing the piano part, increases my accuracy when confronted with a standard, two-staff piano work. Transposition, which is a wonderful skill unto itself, will be a topic for some future blog posts.

I am a big fan of Kember’s curriculum. It is more involved than the other methods I’ve analyzed on the blog previously, and is designed for the student who really wants (or needs) to develop excellent sight-reading skills. It is less successful as a casual supplement (something A Line a Day is great for), as the examples increase in difficulty so sharply and require attention to the details the earlier examples illustrate. I would imagine with a motivated, late-intermediate level student, you could work through a volume each year, improving their sight reading immensely over a three-year time frame.