Our Sight-Reading Trainer app is a great addition to the piano teacher’s tool kit. Sally Cathcart, a consultant for the app, explains the thinking behind it and the benefits for piano teachers and their pupils.
Playing a piece at sight, after just a few seconds to look at it, is a complex and multi-layered skill. Make no mistake, to sight-read even at the simplest Grade 1 level requires a high degree of prior understanding and practice.
Good sight-readers have learnt to automate many of the basic responses necessary, so that any cognitive effort can be directed towards the less familiar elements of the score.
When they sight-read, pianists need to be working independently as musicians. Do they know how basic rhythm patterns sound? Is pitch recognition automatic? Are they able to grasp the meaning behind the notes and find the mood and character? The ability to do all these tasks indicates pianists whose musicianship skills are developing in parallel with their performance abilities.
Rapid-fire response to familiar patterns
As I argued in a previous ABRSM blog post, we know that good readers of unknown music have thousands of patterns – rhythm, pitch, tonality, metre – stored deep in the brain. These have developed over time through repeated and frequent exposure and use. The brain has literally wired up to recognise patterns and is able to retrieve them instantly.
So, efficient sight-reading skills are connected to rapid-fire responses to familiar patterns. If your students are reluctant to work at sight-reading between lessons it might be that they don’t have enough of these rapid-fire responses embedded. They will be overwhelmed by what they don’t know or understand. The whole process will feel rather serious and, when that happens, avoidance is often the most comfortable route.
How Sight-Reading Trainer can help
ABRSM’s Sight-Reading Trainer app is designed to help break down these perceived barriers. Through using it pianists can develop their reading skills in a systematic and sequential way. What’s more, it’s all done playfully so the learning is both light and engaging.
Guiding the player through all the activities is ‘Pam’. She celebrates your achievements with you, encourages you to go back and have another go at a game, and gives helpful advice when it’s time to attempt the full piece of sight-reading.
Each sight-reading piece in the app – 31 per grade, composed by Alan Bullard – can be unlocked through playing three games:
- Rhythm Match
- Pitch Patterns
- Quick Fire Five/What’s the Difference?
Let’s look at each one in turn to see how they can help your pupils develop those rapid-fire responses.
Have a look at the rhythm that follows. On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being easy), how easy was this to read? If you’re a teacher it was probably 1 – you were able to take in all the information in one glance and hear it instantly.
Now what about this rhythm?
This probably proved harder and you might have needed to work out where the beats were and the subdivisions.
The Rhythm Match game is designed to get pupils instantly recognising and matching pattern with sound, just like you were able to with the first rhythm. In the game, four rhythms from the related piece
of sight-reading are shown and three are played, one by one. As you hear a rhythm you match it to the notated version on the app.
The results can give us useful feedback about what our pupils have or haven’t absorbed from our teaching. If they struggle with elements of the game, then that’s a useful indicator that it’s time to go back to some basic work. Rhythm flashcards might be one way of encouraging pupils to use rhythm language (ta and ti-ti) or metrical counting. Building on this, some improvisation and composition work might help to consolidate learning.
A firm sense of rhythm is fundamental to all our music-making and the Rhythm Match game can be a valuable tool in helping this to develop.
The Pitch Patterns game focuses on a second important element in sight-reading: pitch recognition. There is a lot to be said for separating the two elements of rhythm and pitch, as it helps us distinguish whether there is a weakness in both or just one.
Pitch Patterns focuses on the quick recognition of the pitch elements of written notation. The game quickly shows up any weaknesses pupils have in this area. The sight-reading piece is seen complete for the first time, but with a highlighted section. This section is the focus of the Pitch Pattern activity, during which pupils have to absorb all the different elements, including pitch names and fingering, before answering some questions.
Again, this has the potential to provide us with useful teaching feedback. Do they know the starting notes or have an efficient strategy for doing so? Can they transfer the shapes and patterns of the notation onto the piano? Have they noticed the key signature? Can they look at the broader picture and feel what fingering will work? It’s likely that initially some pupils will find this quite challenging but things should improve as they develop a better understanding of the strategies needed.
The final game to play, before the sight-reading is unlocked, might be Quick Fire Five or What’s the Difference? – either one might pop up. Both are designed to get pupils looking at the piece holistically within a limited time.
Quick Fire Five
In this game, the complete piece of sight-reading appears for pupils to look through. When the music disappears, some statements appear and pupils have to use their short-term memory to correctly identify whether they are true or false. For example, ‘the key signature had two sharps’ or ‘there was a perfect cadence at the end’. It can take a few goes for pupils to realise the sort of things they need to scan for.
With only a few seconds to answer each question it is inevitable that a certain amount of guessing might take place. This is to be encouraged as good sight-readers often guess or simplify what they can’t read in time.
Once again, this game gives us very useful teaching information. It might show up a weakness in recognising key signatures, or a lack of awareness of musical details including phrases, dynamics and mood.
What’s the Difference?
What’s the Difference? is a variation on Quick Fire Five and appears several times at each grade. This time, two versions of the sight-reading piece appear on one page. However, the lower one has elements that have changed or are missing. So a clef might have been altered, dynamics changed around or notes moved.
Again, this is designed to encourage quick and efficient scanning of the piece, as the two versions of the music are shown for a limited amount of time. When they disappear, players are given four possible changes, from which they choose two.
The value of instant feedback
An important feature of every game is the instant feedback. Players know straight away if they have made the right or wrong response. What’s more, they can have another go at getting the correct answer. This is a really powerful tool and you will notice just how quickly pupils improve their responses.
Giving further support
So, Sight-Reading Trainer helps pianists to improve their sight-reading by focusing on core skills. Used systematically, it has the potential to be very beneficial. It will also provide teachers with insights into what pupils do and don’t understand. It isn’t the complete solution though, and there are lots more things that you can do to support this sight-reading activity. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.
- Ask pupils to write down from memory one or two rhythms from piece.
- Can they improvise a two-bar rhythm as a response?
- Can they play a scale in the key of a piece using the same rhythm?
- Can Grade 5 pupils play a perfect/imperfect cadence in the key of a piece?
- Ask them to write down all the dynamics, in the order they appear.
- Can they improvise a melody using some of the key ingredients of a piece?
Finally, it’s important to remember that a pupil’s sight-reading is only as good or as bad as their reading skills. If your pupils continue to struggle with their reading skills then maybe it’s time for you to re-assess how you teach this crucial skill.
Sally Cathcart is co-founder and director of The Curious Piano Teachers. She has many years of experience both as a piano teacher and as a classroom music teacher.
ABRSM Sight-Reading Trainer covers the sight-reading element of Piano exams at Grades 1 to 5 and is available on the App Store and Google Play. It helps pupils develop the skills to quickly spot the features, patterns and characteristics in music before they play it, and contains 155 brand new piano sight-reading pieces. Find out more at abrsm.org/sight-reading-trainer.