The Sight-reading Saga, part 1…

…in which our intrepid heroine continues her quest for the skills that will enable her, when given a new piece of music, to play approximately the same notes, at approximately the same time, as the rest of the harp ensemble.

Learning to sight-read is the bane of my musical existence. Nothing brings me closer to tears and a total meltdown than seeing a piece of music for the first time and being asked to play it. The rest of the harp ensemble will be competently playing measure 16 while I’m still looking for the downbeat of measure four.  Assuming I made it through the downbeats of measure one, two and three intact.

I have learned to identify notes on the staff and then find them on my harp, thanks to a year spent with Ray Pool’s The Treble Harpist, followed by lots of work with flash cards and with writing in the names of those pesky bass clef notes on lots and lots of music.  But what I am able to do at this point is much more akin to a slow and painful translation of music notation into actions and sounds that make sense to me (think high school Latin and the joy of translating Caesar’s commentaries; who remembers, “Gaul is divided into three parts…?”) I can now study a new piece of music, and learn to play it from the dots and squiggles via a slow, measure-by-measure progression through the piece, which still has the aura of total miracle for me, as I lived most of my life thinking that I would never be able to play anything that I had not heard first. But what I am able to do in no way could be considered sight-reading, wherein I would look at the music notation, understand its meaning and direction, and immediately play it with some degree of fluency.

And all those books either titled or subtitled “How To Read Music” do not teach or explain anything about the act of reading music, about the process of quickly seeing and understanding the message and finding meaning in the black dots and lines on the page.  If you need to learn how music is written down, if you need to learn the symbols and the vocabulary of music, these books can be useful. If you already know what a quarter note is, and what a half note is, but don’t know how to comprehend what they are trying to communicate while coming at you at the rate of 60 beats per minute, then, there’s not so much to be gleaned.

But from my ongoing effort to see the glass as half-full, preferably with a Guinness, I am claiming that it is due to my complete ineptitude at sight-reading that I’ve been able to figure out the skills that I need to develop, if I ever hope to be able to play my way through a brand new piece of music and end on the same final notes with everyone else.  In other words, here’s what I know I don’t know how to do. Yet.

  • I absolutely have to be able to play without looking at my hands. Fortunately, my hands informed me about a year ago that they do not appreciate being stared at and scrutinized and warned about possible mistakes; neither do they want to be judged and scolded for missing a note or playing a note that was unintended.  So I’ve spent the last year learning how to not look at my hands. At least here I am making progress!
  • I need to be able to visually scan from the bottom up to see the notes and other information contained on both the bass and treble clefs, in order to know what both my hands are supposed to be doing.
  • I need to be able to see a wider swath of notes horizontally, instead of seeing one note at a time. The reading-English equivalent would be seeing and recognizing whole words and groups of words instead of sounding out each word by single letters.
  • I need to be able to look ahead in the music, to keep my eyes moving ahead of what my hands are playing, to prepare my hands for what’s coming next.
  • I need to be able to glance back and forth between the music and the harp strings, without losing my place either in the music or on the harp.
  • I need to be able to recognize groups of note patterns, both when they are stacked on top of each other in chords and when they are spread out.  
  • Needing to recognize note patterns means I need to be able to immediately recognize intervals.
  • Once I recognize the note pattern/interval, I need my hands to automatically form the right shape, to be able to immediately place that pattern on those harp strings that the music says should be played at that moment.
  • And once that pattern is played, I need to release/relax my hands so that they can form the next needed shape and place/play the next required series of notes.

And it would be ever so lovely if, while managing and accomplishing all of this, the music could sound beautiful!

To be continued…………

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4 thoughts on “The Sight-reading Saga, part 1…

  1. Reading an old post of yours…made me want to share that I feel what you feel about reading music. But, I was so encouraged when my teacher, who got her degree in harp, said she doesn’t sight read well….and that because of the nature of the harp beast, you can’t just get a new piece of music and start playing it from beginning to end at one sitting and be in rhythm. So we all need to cut ourselves slack. That really helped me lighten up on myself. Maybe playing with a group is too stressful at this point…I don’t know having never tried it and don’t intend to. Maybe someday….
    I like reading what you write because it puts into words the same feelings I have…odd isn’t it?

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    1. My teacher says she’s always been a good sight-reader, and so has a hard time understanding how my brain goes frrizzztttt when I try to do it – though she’s not short on empathy for the struggle she sees me go through. I’ve way lowered my expectations since that post. I’ve decided that harp sight-reading/playing is just a hard thing to do, period, and I’m happy now if I can play the downbeat of every other measure using at least some of the same strings that the other players are using. Reading the new music in the ensemble is stressful, but the joy of making music together, and being a part of this little harp community that is our fall semester ensemble, makes the stress worth going through.

      My teacher said this would happen when she encouraged me to start this blog – that what I could put into words about my harp journey would resonate with other’s who are learning to play the harp. And I am so relieved and comforted to know that others share these same feelings and struggles with this instrument that for some reason we love. I’m glad to have your company on this journey.

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  2. I am 56 years old and started taking harp lessons almost 4 years ago. I had never played an instrument and couldn’t read music.

    I think your list of what you need to learn is almost exactly the same as mine!

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    1. Hi Denise- Now, if we could just figure out how to learn it!!!!! Please keep me posted on how learning to read goes for you, or if you find any neat tricks for making this any easier. Janet

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