Make Your Music Practice Sparkle, Part 2: Six Ways to Sharpen Your Music Reading

Part One of this series explored ways to enliven your piano tone---before even opening the music book. Now is the time to turn to those music scores and let the sparkle and shine continue!

How do we pianists interpret musical markings with both technical and artistic skill? Here are six strategies to sharpen your music reading and breathe new life into your practice sessions. Prepare to be invigorated!

1. Move to the rhythm

Who says rhythm is only expressed through your fingers as you sit at the piano? Move your body and fit the rhythm around the beat with the following preliminary activities:

  • Walk the beat and clap the rhythm of the melody

  • Walk one hand's rhythm and clap the other hand's part

  • Play one hand while tapping the beat with your other hand

2. Combine single notes harmonically in a melodic passage

When there are challenging sequences of melody notes with varying intervals, practice the skip-wise intervals (thirds and larger) by playing them harmonically. Doing so helps distinguish scalar from chordal intervals, enabling efficient note-reading when later played as written.

3. Practice melodies and harmonies in various rhythms

Playing a complicated section becomes easier when practiced in a LONG-short-LONG-short rhythm, then in the reverse: short-LONG-short-LONG pattern. Grouping notes into three-note patterns (two short notes and one long note in varying placement within the three-note group) helps as well. Interspersing long notes within short-note sequences, as above, gives the eyes time to look ahead and process notes in various rhythm arrangements, which increases accuracy and fluency in note-reading.

4. Peel apart thick harmonic texture by intervals

Practice, for example, a triad passage in these ways:

  • Top and middle notes together

  • Middle and bottom notes together

  • Outer two notes together

  • All notes of the triad rolled from bottom to top

Playing hands separately and with no concern at first for the rhythm are additional ways to simplify new passages with complex textures.

5. Sing the melody to discover natural phrasing

A pianist does well to observe phrase structure by singing a phrase before playing it. All one breath vocally translates to all one gesture pianistically. This exercise helps combat the tendency to over-emphasize each beat one within phrases.

6. Take a break when your concentration wanes

This step may be the single best thing you can do to make your practice sparkle. When you find your concentration slipping and mistakes increasing, step away from the piano. Stand up, stretch, drink a glass of water, walk outside into fresh air---anything to get your mind tuned in a different direction. Take a few minutes to refresh yourself, and then enjoy your return to the piano, newly invigorated for the task at hand!

Making your music practice sparkle---it begins before opening the score (while playing without music), continues during focused music reading, and even builds during brief breaks away from the piano. Play, move, read, revitalize---and turn your practice from dull to dazzling!