Feel the Music: Demystifying the Magic of Piano Sight-Reading | Arts

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David Holler


Imagine the thrill of opening the sheet music of your favorite song, placing your fingers on the piano keys and bringing the music to life, in an instant!

This phenomenal skill – “sight reading” – seems like magic. Avid sight readers can look at dots and squiggles written by composers of long ago, or pixelated piano versions of today’s hit songs, and make music on the spot. Thanks to this capacity, these “magicians” of music benefit from many professional opportunities, and can say “Yes! last minute song requests.

Unfortunately, the process of learning to sight read can seem less than magical and more like trying to pull a rabbit out of an ordinary hat. Aspiring sight readers get this well-meaning advice: “Don’t stop! Essentially, play hundreds of notes at the right time, without having practiced the piece. Is it any wonder that so many students dread sight-reading?

When I first moved to Winston-Salem in 2011, I knew I wanted to improve my abilities as a pianist and teacher. After more than a decade of studying the piano, I still couldn’t sight read well. Finally, the major turning point occurred in 2015. I put on a black “cloak” inside out, and I was initiated into magic…

My graduate teacher at Salem College, Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink, wrapped a barber bib around my neck and draped it over the keys, hiding them from view, and asked me to sight read a piece. simple. She had already helped me play great works by Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Suddenly, as I reached out my hand to play a little “minuet”, I was lost – and elated. Finally, I knew exactly why I couldn’t decipher: I didn’t have a sight reader. feel for the keyboard.

Remember learning to type? At first, every strike was a “hunting and pecking” effort. Thanks to the bumps on the F and J keys, you gradually felt the “starting line”, then the neighboring keys. Today your fingers fly over the keyboard and you rarely need to look down. The piano keyboard also has bumps: the black keys. Great sight readers have developed a strong feeling for the keys, so they don’t need to look down often. By keeping their eyes on the music, they enter a state of flow: seeing the notes, feeling the keys, and listening to the music.

After the breakthrough of the barber bib, I temporarily ignored the advice “Don’t stop!” and I took the time to feel the keys while looking at the notes on the page. Over time, with feedback from my private students at Winston-Salem, we have developed fun drills that train all aspects of the skill.

Learning to read music should be as accessible — and inevitable — as learning to read words. If you play the piano but struggle with sight reading, I invite you to join me for my six-week course, “Sight Reading Spark”, which begins September 14th. To register or learn more, visit www.sightreadingspark.com.

The Arts Council is the primary advocate for the arts and culture sector in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. Our goal is to serve as a leader in upliftment, awareness and support to develop and sustain artistic, cultural and creative offerings throughout our region. We recognize that it takes every voice, every talent and every story to make our community a better place to live, work and play. The Canada Council is committed to serving as a facilitator, organizer and promoter of authentic, inclusive and forward-thinking conversations. Each year, more than 800,000 art experiences take place in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. To learn more about upcoming arts and culture events in our community, visit cityofthearts.com.

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