All Cows Eat Grass
I have a confession to make. I am a lousy sight-reader. I have always been a lousy sight-reader. When I studied piano as a child, I would slog my way through each piece, silently repeating the silly acronyms for the line and space notes of each clef. I depended on these tricks to remember the notes. By the time I learned a piece, I had usually memorized it. I am lucky to have a good ear. Not anxious to admit defeat, I would try to fake sight-reading in front of my piano teacher, Mrs. Kreutzer, who got wise to me and would turn the pages at the wrong time as I pretended to read the music which was never what I was actually playing at that moment. Unfortunately, Mrs. Kreutzer neither saw the humor in the situation, nor complimented my memorization skills. Mrs. Kreutzer never solved my sight-reading problem.
Studying the harp as an adult brings it all back. My current harp teacher, Astrid Walschot-Stapp, who plays with the Baltimore Symphony, has been a wonderful mentor to me, particularly with regard to my composing for the harp. Astrid empathizes with my struggles to sight-read, but insists that this problem is a minor one given my main interest, which is composing. Whenever I feel overwhelmed trying to learn a new piece, I need only glance over my shoulder at her music, which always looks as if colonies of ants have crawled up on the pages for some long-awaited picnic leftovers. It is mind-boggling to say the least. But Astrid has her tricks, which she has passed on to me. And I have learned some of my own. These I wish to share with you now in the hopes of making your sight-reading a bit less onerous.
When learning a new piece, sit down with the music, away from the harp. When you are not sitting behind the harp, you take the pressure off of yourself to play, and can focus on the music itself. There is a lot you can learn simply by looking at the sheet music, and making certain markings before you ever try to sight-read it. Have a pencil and some different colored highlighters with you. If you want to preserve the original sheet music, you can make a copy to incorporate all of your markings.
The first step is to understand the key in which the music is written. Now I know this sounds ridiculous, but I have met people who will play a piece pretty well, and have no idea in what key they are playing. For every key signature, there is a major and corresponding minor key. So music written in what looks like C major may in fact be in A minor. This is called the “relative minor.” The key signature looks exactly the same. A clue as to whether it is major or minor might be the beginning or ending notes of the piece, which is likely to tell you the key. If you don’t understand key signatures, Google the topic on the Internet, print out every key signature, flats and sharps, and keep it with your music. You can also print out chord charts for each corresponding key. These are handy references that can be kept in a little notebook along with your harp music.
Most folk harp repertoire has some pretty standard chord progressions that underlie the melody. The most common is I-IV-V-I. There are literally thousands of songs with that chord progression. So in the key of C, for instance, the chords would be C-F-G-C. In the key of F, it would be F-B-C-F. Of course, for each key, you are presetting the levers to allow you to play in that key. Then, any “accidentals,” or notes that would not naturally be found in the key are marked in the music and require a separate action to play just those out-of-key-signature notes.
Once you know the key signature, write it down in the top left-hand corner of the piece. Then, mark any accidentals requiring lever changes with a yellow marker (the color doesn’t matter, but the consistency does). Publishers mark lever and pedal changes in different ways. It is often the case that you might want to make a separate note somewhere else on the page as a reminder of an upcoming change. If there are notes requiring many ledger lines that are difficult to read, figure out what the notes are ahead of time and write them in pencil. (Mrs. Kreutzer, forgive me.) Also, a trick I learned from Astrid is to look at patterns of notes that might be similar and mark these patterns with the same color highlighter. Recognizing patterns and repetitions all help to decode the music.
Isolate the melody of the piece. Often, the melody is established in the beginning (we can call this the “A” section), and then somewhere in the middle of the piece, there might be a different melody (called the “B” section). The piece will likely return to the “A” section again, although with some variation. This is particularly true with folk harp repertoire. Knowing the melody can be helpful because it is often repeated and embellished during the piece. Melody is king, and should never be overshadowed by the accompaniment.
Assuming you are still sitting away from your harp, let’s now consider rhythmic structure. The “rhythm” refers to the time elements in music. The “beat” is the background pulse and the “tempo” refers to how fast the beat is to be repeated. When you see the time signature in the beginning of the piece, it defines the meter. The upper note signifies how many beats are in each measure and the lower note refers to the type of note (quarter, eighth, half, etc.) used as the beat, or main pulse. Here is the trick. You should clap out the rhythms in both clefs to make sure you understand the rhythmic structure of the piece before you ever try to play it. Sometimes, what messes us up is rhythm, and not the notes themselves. If you are ever in doubt as to the rhythm of a passage, break it down into smaller units so that, for instance, if the piece is written in 4/4, you might try counting it out in eighth notes rather than in quarter notes to make sure you have the correct rhythm.
Most people never pay attention to the dynamics of a piece while they are learning the notes, which I think is a big mistake. Muscle memory is part of what we learn when we work on a piece. If you are supposed to be playing a passage pianissimo (quietly), and you keep pulling hard on the strings and playing the section loudly, it will be much harder to undo what you have learned later. Take a minute to look at the dynamics and mark them if necessary. Be aware of the overall feel of the piece and try to incorporate dynamics as early as possible as you learn the music.
Ok, it is finally time to get in front of the harp with your music. I bet you note-challenged players never thought you would be looking forward to learning a new piece. Bring your pencil and your highlighters with you. Make sure that your music is well lit, and that it is at the right height and close enough to you so that you can read it. We do not want whiplash victims as you try playing and sight-reading. Tackle one section at a time, one hand at a time, and don’t stop every time you make a mistake. Decide ahead of time how many measures you will work on at this practice session, and don’t go any further. We want to reduce frustration and increase self-confidence. If you make mistakes, forgive yourself.
Marking fingerings must be done in front of the harp as you are learning the piece. This takes some time, but for a harpist, it is important. Some music includes extensive fingerings, but if you don’t like the fingerings as they are notated in the original manuscript, use whiteout and change them. Do be careful, however, because fingerings define not only how the piece will be played physically, but they define the dynamics and expressiveness as well. Finger markings can also give clues as to note intervals, and if you are consistent in your fingerings, it will be easier to recognize relationships among the notes. Whatever fingerings you choose, they should be ergonomically appropriate but also reflect the musicality of the piece.
When you practice, if you keep making the same mistake, slow down! Force yourself to play slowly and evenly. This will avoid the problem of reinforcing mistakes, and will also make it easier to sight-read if you simply slow down. If you are really masochistic, you could force yourself to begin playing the last line of your piece first, and work your way backwards, line by line, to the beginning of the piece. You could also play the music starting at any random measure. The ways to torture oneself in this process seem endless.
If you consistently run into a problem passage, write a symbol in the music above the problem area. (Astrid uses a flower.) You do this because at the next practice session, the very first thing you will play is that problem area you have marked in your previous practice. Get to the hard spot when you’re fresh. Nip it, I say nip it in the bud right away! Don’t keep reinforcing the same mistake over and over again.
One last suggestion is to make up flash cards for all the notes in both clefs, including those with multiple ledger lines. Make a point of drilling yourself a little bit each day. This is particularly helpful for those of you who are base-clef-challenged. You learned your multiplication tables, didn’t you?
Despite all of these pearls of wisdom I offer, I am still no ace at sight-reading. Although I will never be one of those people who can pick up a piece of music and just play it cold, I am getting better. The truth is, I would much rather write a new piece than have to learn an existing one, which may be why I started composing in the first place.
I hope these suggestions will help to reduce the pain of learning a new piece. Who knows? You may become a master at sight-reading, and when you do, you can be secure in the knowledge that Mrs. Kreutzer would never catch you faking your way through your music. Good luck, and have fun with those highlighters.
* The expression “All Cows Eat Grass” stands for the “space notes” in the bass clef!
by Meg Robinson
Published by the Folk Harp Journal