Tag: Sight-Reading

(中文) 鋼琴文憑考試:快速讀譜 Quick Study (II)

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Piano Diploma Exam: Quick Study (Part I)

Quick Study is definitely deemed one of the most challenging parts in a piano diploma exam (ABRSM).

Many exam candidates are confused, believing that a quick study test in piano diploma exams is not much different from a sight-reading test in graded piano exams. They cannot be more wrong.

Needless to say, passing a sight-reading test in graded piano exams is not an easy feat for some. Many piano students spend most of their time drilling the piano exam pieces, leaving little time on the scales (because they are “boring” and “technical”, and ah, they bear less marks), and not much at all on the sight-reading test.

The truth is, one does not need to pass the sight-reading part in order pass the whole piano exam, and therefore, students (and teachers) simply ignore this part that’s deemed “unpreparable” and focus instead on the other parts that are much more manageable. Years go by, and many piano students’ sight-reading ability went undeveloped.

Poor sight-reading skill is a major contributor to a majority of piano students’ decreasing interest in music learning and piano lessons. When a piano player can read quickly, grasping most of the music elements at first glance without taking a lot of time to figure out what’s going on in a new piece of music, s/he can then focus on how to project varieties of beautiful tone and express musical phrases and styles suitable for that particular piece of music.  Reading and learning new music become fun and exciting as opposed to a chore or to some, an excruciating experience.

When students in their graded piano learning years are not trained with the amazing skills to sight-read quickly, they are not only left with the notion that learning new pieces is a difficult and long process, they also find themselves dread about advancing to the next level: piano diplomas.

A lot of piano students (and piano teachers) choose ATCL, the first professional piano diploma by the Trinity College London, as it does not have a sight-reading/quick study test. On the other hand, for those who prefer dipABRSM, the first professional piano diploma by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), one must pass “all the requirements of both sections” in order for his/her diploma to be awarded, and that includes a quick study test (Note: Section I is the recital, while Section II has quick study and viva voce, towards which programme notes is counted).

Now, a lot of piano diploma exam candidates thought they were well prepared for the quick study test, since they believe they could read music fairly well. Sadly, they are usually surprised (or even shocked) by the fact that their quick study score is so low that they cannot pass the whole exam, even when they pass all other sections.

So what is the difference between a sight-reading test and a quick study test, you might ask?

The difference cannot be underestimated.

The level of difficulty in sight-reading tests increases as the grades progresses. Examiners might not be as strict in their markings when it comes to earlier grades like grades 1-3, but I see comments on sight-reading test for a grade 5 piano exam candidate that demands certain level of musical phrasing and stylistic awareness. One can understand the level of sight-reading ability a grade 8 piano exam candidate needs to display in order to achieve a higher score.

In a quick study (using dipABRSM as an example), the music is of two pages long. That requires quick reading and grasp of musical styles in the 5 minutes of preparation given to the piano diploma exam candidate. Although the music is composed especially for the exam, the styles can be of any musical period. What that means is it can be composed in any style of the Baroque to contemporary period. Candidates should familiarize themselves with all kinds of musical styles and periods.

One must wonder, “how is it possible for me to know all kinds of musical styles and periods before the exam?”

To this question, I say, no one can do that in a week or two. However, it is entirely possible to learn to play all kinds of music with certain level of ease at first glance, not to the degree of perfection, but to show a pianist’s awareness and well-rounded knowledge (and surely, skills), performing a new piece of any style at a pleasantly enjoyable level. I myself absolutely enjoy playing all kinds of musical pieces at first glances, from early period to new music. For me it’s a great opportunity to learn something new – there’re just too many pieces I’ve never heard or played before even after years of study, performing and teaching!

Since one cannot improve his/her quick study ability in a short period of time, a diploma piano exam candidate must start training early and systematically.

Technical Command and Musical Knowledge

These days I have been giving this simple guidance to my students. Whenever they get stuck in their practice, they must ask themselves, “is it technical or musical?”

Technical Command means two things : 1. appropriate application of technique, and 2. sufficient command of the technique applied.

For TC 1, you must find which technical application you need to execute that certain passage, is it more of a forearm rotation or an upperarm rotation? Is it the palm grip or knuckle issue? Or are your fingers not close enough on the keys before execution? Etc etc. Or for TC 2, you have the right technical application but you have trouble in making it happen with solid control, then how are you going to fix it? Is it just about slow practice that magnifies the movement? Or is it a preparation problem, meaning you don’t prepare your hand position early enough prior to the execution of the pattern in question?

Musical Knowledge on the other hand, includes : 1. harmonic and structural analysis of the music (form, sections, phrasing, tonality, key changes, chord progression, notes: chord tones and non-chord tones, and relationships between notes i.e. intervals etc) , 2. historical background of the music (genre, the composer, and the period – other genres, philosophy, aesthetics, and other arts e.g. literature), and 3. interpretation resulted from the understanding of both 1 and 2.

I would point out MK 1 is what most need for the basic interpretation for MK 3. Without 1 there is no basis and knowledge as to where one’s performance interpretation and discretion arises from. How do you know what to do with that particular phrase or chord or note in terms of emphasis, articulation and dynamics? What do you feel and how do you present it and what is the difference when there is a minor 6th but not minor 3rd, or even, and augmented 5th? Of course, now I am pointing out a very small detail here, but always, especially when you have little experience in analyzing the music, start with something big. You start with bigger sections, then find out where each phrase starts and ends, and also the repeated /similar patterns in terms of melody and rhythm. Look for the chords especially some special sounding ones, and the cadences which define the keys and key changes. Where are the secondary dominants? The pedal points?

Let me discuss further in the next post. I think there is already a lot to digest for now. Always one step at a time.

Until then,

Teresa Wong