So you’ve decided to make sight reading a priority in your studio. Great! Now what? You may have a couple of books that accompany one of the method series from which you teach (Bastien and Faber&Faber have associated sight reading curriculums, for example). Or perhaps you have the most familiar stand-alone series, Jane Smisor Bastien’s A Line A Day (Neil A. Kjos Music Company). These are great places to start. The world of sight reading curriculums, however, is much broader than this. Today, I will begin to introduce you to several sets of books designed to teach sight reading to students of all levels. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.
As I mentioned, Bastien’s A Line a Day series is quite familiar – and with good reason! This 4-volume set starts at the very beginning (quarter notes in C position), but expands over the course of the set to reading in keys up to four sharps and flats, with a variety of intervals and hand position moves. Each page is laid out with a “Daily Note Search” followed by three individual systems for sight reading.
The daily note search is meant to increase students’ ability to hunt for individual notes quickly, to make them more fluid in keyboard topography. They are encouraged in the opening directions to say the note names out loud while doing this daily note search. While this becomes more difficult in later volumes when chords are present in the note searches, I find that this “talking out loud while playing” approach is quite helpful, particularly with younger students.
Speaking of directions, Bastien’s introductory page to each volume is perhaps the most important part of the collection. She walks students through a comprehensive process of how to absorb material from a musical excerpt before playing it. It reads like a more detailed version of what Robert Schumann once wrote, “If any one should place before you a composition to play at sight, read it over before you play it.” (Robert Schumann, Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln, translated by Henry Hugo Pierson). While Bastien’s directions may seem a little too pedantic for the more experienced student, I find that all students benefit from a specific process when sight reading. I encourage my students to try all the steps for a week or two, then allow the more advanced ones to drop the steps they feel are unnecessary, but keep the rest as their own sight reading process. I use these steps with most of my students, regardless of what particular sight reading curriculum they are working through. Also, most of these steps work for sight reading on other instruments as well.
It is important when working through the 3 lower systems of each page that you encourage (i.e. force) the students to not look at their hands, but instead to play by feel. The way the books introduce hand positions makes this fairly simple at first. You can cover the students’ hands with a sheet of paper if necessary (many will want to look down as a safety precaution). I find that once a student has had several successful sight reading attempts while not looking at their hands, that they will be less likely in future attempts to need that extra security blanket.
I appreciate that Bastien’s books are inexpensive. With all the associated books in a curriculum getting more expensive (theory, ear training, pop song supplements, etc.), it can be cost prohibitive to add one more book to a parent’s invoice. These volumes however, priced under $6, are inexpensive and well worth their cost.
Sometimes you encounter a student who reads one clef particularly well, but not the other. This often happens when a child begins another band or orchestral instrument before they’ve played the piano. Depending on how long they’ve read only a single clef, introducing and solidifying the reading of the second clef can be a rather laborious process. I find this to be particularly true of students who only read treble clef.
Enter The Bass Clef by Steve Tirpak (obtainable from www.musikpak.com)
In this practical, easy-to-use book, students are introduced to bass clef reading in an ever-expanding range. I have found this book to be very successful with students who are motivated to learn bass clef to complement their treble clef reading. As for the unmotivated student – well, we all know that no curriculum is going to fix that problem.
As mentioned with the Bastien set above, I have students say the note names as they play these excerpts. I find that often, if I don’t have them name the pitches they attempt to read the clef as a transposition of treble clef (or alto clef – I had a viola player do this last school year). While this step may not be necessary for all your students, I do recommend it.
I also use this book as a supplement for the student first encountering music with extended ledger lines in bass clef. Giving them opportunity to read those pitches intervalically (and to verbally reinforce their pitch names) is sometimes helpful for the student attempting to read above middle D or below low E in bass clef.
Next week, I will discuss John Kember’s Piano Sight-Reading as well as some books related to method series. In the meantime, I hope you have some time to explore the methods outlined today and hopefully use them with some of your students.