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Reading at Sight.

We all know that there is a difference in the sight-reading ability of our pupils. Some of them seem naturally to read rapidly, while others seem never to be able to read, no matter how long they have been in the hands of a teacher. Some pupils read fairly well, but always stop to correct all mistakes, and thus become musical stutterers. Others read fairly well one measure at a time, and become musical mice. Still others read approximately well in that they keep the place and go ahead, even though they strike half the chords wrong. These are three classes of defects in sight reading with which every teacher comes in contact, and the problem is how best to cure them.
Now the matter of sight reading is an important one, and I do not hesitate to make the broad general statement that no one can become even a tolerable musician if he cannot learn to read readily. Of course you will cite the pupil with the great memory who cannot read at all, but who memorizes his pieces almost simultaneously, in refutation of this, but I still maintain that the great memorizer really never gets into the musical game unless he is also at least a fair reader. I have seen many of those great memorizers, and I never yet saw one with a repertoire of perhaps over a dozen pieces, who was not absolutely devoid of all knowledge of the literature of the piano, or the violin, or whatever instrument he was studying. Pupils of this kind listen to others play, but, owing to their reading defect, they are not able to grasp that which they hear, and frequently get no pleasure out of listening to others. If they had been taught to read they might have done something in music themselves, and would have delighted in the playing of their friends or of artists. So it comes about that this matter of reading is one of vital importance, and should not be put aside for other things which we may consider more important. As a matter of fact, there is really nothing more important in the education of a young musician than learning the art of reading music.
Very frequently do you hear a pupil or a teacher say: "Oh, I can read all right; it is not that which bothers me; it is the performance. If I could play as rapidly as I can read I would be all right." Let us set that poor, deluded person right at once. He cannot read, and his statement that he can read, but cannot execute, is a confession* of his inability to read. For, let it be understood, reading means mentally grasping that which is on the music page before you, and if you can grasp what you see you will have no difficulty in playing it; it will, in fact, play itself, because as soon as your mind takes in that which you see, your fingers will execute it.
The very best practice in the world for all classes of poor readers is ensemble work. Nothing can equal it; nothing takes its place. So, if you are a poor reader, or have pupils who are poor readers, try and arrange ensemble practice for them or for yourself. Piano duets are the poorest form of ensemble practice, and next after them come two-piano pieces. But it frequently happens that we do not have access to any other form of ensemble work than such duets, so we have to do the best we can with what we have. Some pupils will be found who cannot perform simple piano duets at first, and for those it is good practice to take simple pieces for two hands and play them in the form of duets. Let the teacher first play the part for the left hand, and the pupil the part for the right hand, and then change over. Take the piece at a tempo that will be convenient for the pupil, and then let nothing stop the performance of the piece until the end is reached. Of course, the pupil will make mistakes, get hopelessly tangled up, and stop frequently. But don't you stop. Keep relentlessly on, pointing out the place and encouraging the pupil to get in at once, and NEVER STOP. After you have done this a few times the pupil will begin to understand that you are not going to delay the movement of a piece for his sake, and will make greater efforts to keep up, eventually keeping with you all the time. After you have accomplished that much with piano solos, you can take up duets, and the same rule must be applied here as in solos—never stop—and after a time your pupil will keep the place even if he does not play all the notes.
Better than piano duets are ensemble pieces with orchestra, or with violin, or with cornet, or with any instrument playing a solo to which you play an accompaniment. Here the work is more relentless than in the close association of duets, and the pupil learns more rapidly that he must depend on himself alone if he would get anywhere.
Did you ever watch a mouse run along the floor? It makes a little run and then stops, then another run and stop, and so on until the desired refuge is reached. You never saw a mouse make a journey across a room in one complete run. To cure musical mice (of which we all have a few) the ensemble practice seems to give best results. If that is too hard for them take some very easy pieces and erase the bars, and then count rhythmically (one for each quarter note, two for a half, etc.). In this way the pupil does not get the habit of depending on bar lines to guide him, and *so learns to go forward instead of stopping every measure or two.
For the musical stutterer ensemble practice is imperative. There is absolutely nothing else that will cure him. If you cannot give him plenty of ensemble practice, he will go on to the end of his days striking wrong notes and then stopping to correct them. Eventually this kind of a pupil gets so that he never can play a piece through, even after he has learned it. without stopping several times to correct wrong notes, or notes not struck loud enough, or for no reason at all except that he must strike a note or chord over again to satisfy himself. Give that pupil lots of ensemble practice. It is his only salvation.
For the pupil who always gets many chords wrong, and does not seem to know, or understand, or care about it, there is only one cure, and that is making him spell the chords by letter
The opponents of programs, who deem them a desecration of art, cannot deny that long before our epoch preliminary attempts have been made in that direction, and the fact that they have been adopted generally by many illustrious disciples of the art of music proves their raison d'etre. However, composers who achieve recognition should remember the misuse that can be made of them ; that programs or titles are permissible only when they are a poetical necessity, an inseparable part of the whole, and indispensable to intelligent comprehension.— Liszt.

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You are reading Reading at Sight. from the August, 1910 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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