Tag: SightReading

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.

The Ultimate Solution to Your Success at the Piano

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New Piano Programs !

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My Email Response on Sight-Reading Issue (Diploma Levels)

A reader sent me an email recently about her problem on preparation of sight-reading section (the so-called “Quick Study” for the ABRSM diploma exams). Since she has very little time between now and then- namely the arrival of her exam, I could only offer such advice as below. I thought it would be good to share with you all as well here.


***
Dear (Reader),

Thank you for your email.

To be honest it’s hard to improve sight reading skill in such a short time.

Like you said, it’s all about identifying and recognizing the patterns, harmony and chords quickly. With 5 minutes’s preparation you can actually do quite a lot of that already. One thing bear in mind is that do not try to play through the whole piece in one go in that 5 minutes of time. You won’t have time for that. Instead, read the essentials:

First and foremost, establish the PULSE.

I find many students neglect this point. How fast is your tempo? How fast is ONE BEAT? Then, find out the sub-beats as well. For example, the 8th/16th/dotted notes etc. Quickly look for patterns that are repeated. There must be some of them at the beginning and later in the piece especially the last section usually.

Second, recognize the key of course, based on the key signature/ first chord/ last chord of the whole song. The last chord definitely tells you what key it is in (*Note: in most cases in this level anyway). Read EVERYTHING from bottom up, i.e. the LEFT HAND CHORD. The fact that a lot of people merely read the right hand to decide the key/chord perplexes me tremendously. Without the left hand/bass notes one cannot tell what chord that is.

Next, it would be wise to look through the song and see how many SECTIONS there are, and if there are any tempo/key(/or even meter) changes. Tempo changes include not only the absolute change from one tempo to another (for example, meno mosso/piu mosso to a tempo), but also gradual change (accelerando/allargando). Then, you should check if there is/are certain climactic point(s) where the music grows very dramatically (i.e. really loud) or dies down a lot (i.e. really soft). Those are the points that you would want to bring them out. Another aspect of feature you would want to bring out as well is the sequence, in which the melodic/harmonic pattern is repeated more than once (most likely thrice), that you need to show the tension by increasing the dynamics and tempo before you broaden the dynamics and tempo again when reaching the steady high point (a lot of the time such sequence/repeated patterns would lead to a climactic point to give a satisfying sense of arrival in growth and expansion after all the tension is built).

After that, you can play the opening a bit. One thing to remember is, KEEP PLAYING. Many stops in between or try to self correct themselves going back to the beginning of the same bar or repeating the same beat/chord over and over again. It’s simply wrong way to do a sight reading. You are trying to play through a piece like you are performing, that you are showing others how much you know the piece by playing as much as you possibly can, instead of correcting yourself something you have already played wrong in the previous beat/bar. It’s not maths. It’s a piece of music. Just keep going. The moment you are in is the most important. If you keep fixing the one spot you have already tried many times yet failed, it’s like mending a tiny hole on your white shirt over and over again with a black piece of thread: it’s only making the hole of mistake bigger and more visible!

I know, playing through a new piece at first sight seems frightening to a lot of people (although to me I am always excited about playing through an absolutely new piece I’ve never played or even heard of), but that’s the only way to improve one’s sightreading skill. You would never get better if you keep stopping and do not care about adding a few beats here and there; one can hardly recognize the song as a coherent piece of music without a steady pulse! The general problem of piano players who cannot sightread well is that they have no sense of a clear pulse and have hardly thought about its importance whatsoever. I blame that to their constant solo act of playing on their own without ever collaborating with other musicians (no duet playing, no accompanying other instrumentalists or playing in a choir/an orchestra ever). It’s a shame if as a pianist one still does not know how fast a dotted 8th note-16note pattern is in a quarter note! I tell my students, if they want to read faster and better in sight-reading, establish a steady pulse. Use a metronome, listen to how fast one beat is, then clap/tap the sub-beats, like half beat, 1/4 beat, triplets, dotted rhythm, and interchange between the rhythmic patterns with the same pulse. Do not try to play the notes when you want to establish a better inner pulse/clear rhythm; the pitch is simply there to confuse anyone from the start. Always remember, A NOTE IS COMPRISED OF BOTH PITCH AND RHYTHM. “Getting the note right on the keyboard” is only getting the pitch right. You need the rhythm as well. Pitch without the framework of rhythm and pulse is merely sound not music.

I hope this can help explain a bit to your problem here. My suggestion is always, sightread as many pieces in many styles as you can, read something new every day. Don’t try to be perfect; just be good and keep going. No one leaves the house (walking or driving) and turn back home when s/he makes the wrong turn – s/he won’t even just stand there and does nothing or circles around at the same spot! One simply keeps moving forward. Thats goes the same in sight-reading and in our journey of music learning/piano playing.

Good luck with your diploma exam!


Cheers,
Teresa Wong


P.S. Let’s see if I can make a video in time before your exam to show you how I teach my students about establishing pulse with metronome and so on.