One of the certainties of my professional life in music has been the frequency with which I am asked to sight-read.
This can include accompaniments at rehearsals, auditions, and even public concerts. More informally I often find myself sight-reading when pupils bring their own choices of pieces to learn. So I am very grateful to those teachers who, often in spite of my protests, ensured that sight-reading was a part of my musical learning.
In this review I will give an overview of two recent series of publications which aim to break the mould and make sight-reading more relevant and pleasurable than is often the case – innovative and exciting publications which I am sure readers will want to explore…
Lindsey Berwin: ‘FunKey!’
Subtitled “sight-reading is fun, we really mean it!” this series takes a radically different approach to introducing sight-reading to youngsters. According to the publishers:
FunKey!´ is a brand new series of five books of short pieces designed to develop students’ sight-reading skills and awareness of key, using fun material which supports the sight-reading requirements of the ABRSM examination board.
The pieces are in a variety of styles, notably rock, swing and Latin, increasing in difficulty from Level 1 up to Level 5. Each book comes with an accompanying CD. The backing tracks first appear with the melody incorporated, then as minus one, covering all the keys of that level.
FunKey! will improve rhythmic awareness and confidence, and the ability to play fluently. Students will be encouraged to sight-read regularly, changing an element of piano playing which is often seen as intimidating into a pleasurable one.”
“’FunKey!’ will improve rhythmic awareness and confidence, and the ability to play fluently. Students will be encouraged to sight-read regularly, changing an element of piano playing which is often seen as intimidating into a pleasurable one.”
The first thing to say is that these books have stunning, eye-catching covers, likely to grab youngsters’ attention right from the start. The accompanying CDs are included in plastic sleeves stuck inside the back cover. The books contain no advice about how to sight-read; this is left entirely to the teacher to explain to the student. The focus here is entirely on the pieces themselves – and they are great!
The Level 1 book includes 20 short pieces in the keys of C major and A minor, which are then repeated in G major / E minor and finally F major / D minor. Nine of the pieces require “swing quavers/8ths” which may well come as a new concept to players, so will need introducing first (note that this isn’t required in the ABRSM sight-reading tests).
Unlike the ABRSM test pieces, which are four bars/measures long, these pieces vary from eight to sixteen bars/measures. Hand position changes are more frequent than in most Grade 1 material, and I would say the pieces are harder than the specimen sight-reading tests that teachers will be familiar with. Teachers will probably want to use easier material before launching into the book, and may perhaps consider using ‘FunKey!’ as “quick study” material rather than one-the-spot sight-reading.
Level 2 includes a new set of 20 pieces, this time with hands playing together. The pieces are repeated in the same three sets of keys as Level 1, plus in D major / B minor, with six then also appearing in G minor. Level 3 introduces another 20 pieces. This time the first set incorporates all the eight keys from Level 2, with selected pieces then repeated in A major, Bb major / G minor, and Eb major / C minor. These are longer and more complex than ABRSM Grade 3 sight-reading, again perhaps making them more suitable as “quick study” material.
The pieces themselves are well written, stylish and great fun to play. The inclusion of the CD backing tracks ensures that players must develop a good sense of pulse and timing. They are nicely recorded, adding the expected range of (fairly traditional) popular music flavours to the pieces, and are deliberately recorded at a steady pace so that the player does not need to sight-read at faster tempi.
I am sure that youngsters will indeed enjoy this material far more readily than the rather dry fare offered elsewhere, and I think that ‘FunKey!’ is a really great concept!
My one reservation is that the music notation is printed too small, which might present a problem for younger learners. And while the pieces in the Level 1 book are mostly spaced well, Levels 2 and 3 have a rather cramped layout. Squeezing too many pieces onto each page seems unnecessary given that there are some pages left blank elsewhere in the books.
Overall though, I have no doubt that the series will succeed in its aim of making sight-reading more enjoyable and approachable for young players, and I think they will particularly appeal to the 9-15 age group. ‘FunKey’ offers fantastic new material to support the development of good reading skills, and I urge you to get a copy and see what you think!
John Kember: ‘Piano Sight-Reading’
Given the aversion some students (and teachers!) seem to have for sight-reading, I wonder how many consider whether they would teach it at all were it not an examination requirement – and if so, how?
With a varied career that has included professional engagements as an arranger and pianist in concert halls, theatres and recording studios, composer and writer John Kember knows the importance of developing good sight-reading skills, and he is the perfect man to answer this question.
The ‘Piano Sight-reading Series’ began life back in 2004 with the publication of John’s first ‘Piano Sight-reading’ book. Since then the series has steadily grown to six books, the latest of which is ‘More Piano Sight-Reading 3’.
The full series comprises:
- Piano Sight-reading 1
- More Piano Sight-reading 1
- Piano Sight-reading 2
- More Piano Sight-reading 2
- Piano Sight-reading 3
- More Piano Sight-reading 3
The books have a classy presentation, with notation nicely engraved and well spaced, and seem to be aimed particularly at older teens and adult students who are keen to get to grips with sight-reading using a no-nonsense approach. There is plenty of content, with the books ranging from 52 to 84 pages in length, packed with useful tips and well over 100 exercises apiece.
What excites me most about these books is that by eschewing specific exam requirements they effectively start from a blank sheet, with an obvious goal of teaching sight-reading as an important, relevant and useful skill. The core ‘Piano Sight-reading’ books in this series certainly cover the skills required for the graded exams, but do much more besides.
The first book (which suits players up until ABRSM Grade 2 standard) is focussed on five-finger positions, building up to hands together playing in a variety of easy keys. There is a particular emphasis on pattern recognition – rhythmic and melodic – and as with ‘FunKey!’ the early material is grouped according to keys. The book is logically laid out, with a clear progression from one page to the next, and brief but helpful tips and observations on every page.
‘Piano Sight-Reading 2’ continues this path, reaching around ABRSM Grade 4 level, but again without being explicitly linked to exam requirements. John Kember places an emphasis on recognising chord shapes that is often missing in sight-reading materials, with a section about recognising triads, inversions and dominant sevenths comfortably sitting alongside the more conventional material.
‘Piano Sight-reading 3’ develops the skills one would need for the higher grades, but here more than ever John Kember diverts from exam requirements towards more musical applications. There are four sections, covering “New Keys”, “Rhythm and times”, “Styles” and “Accompaniments”. The “Styles” section is essentially a collection of pieces covering a wide range of classical approaches, and these could be used as sight-reading or quick study material.
The “Accompaniments” section includes an upper melody line for another musician to play. The message here is clear: sight-reading is a real-world skill, and accompanying other musicians is one of the contexts where it is most regularly required.
The ‘More Piano Sight-Reading’ books are not simply collections of additional test material either. The first book supplements ‘Piano Sight-Reading 1’ by providing a range of solo pieces that use different five-note ranges within the same keys, and adding several duets for each key. This ensemble aspect is then developed in the other ‘More Piano Sight-Reading’ books. And in the third book, the “Accompaniment” section is supplemented by an introduction to figured bass reading, roman chord notation and jazz chord notation.
Throughout these books, the advice given comes across as deeply authentic – borne of John’s professional experience as a pianist and sight-reader. While many sight-reading publications are written by educational composers to assist exam preparation, these books are clearly the writing of an experienced professional pianist who has worked and performed in a variety of musical contexts.
For those looking for an authoritative and well structured approach to learning real-world sight-reading skills, John Kember’s ‘Piano Sight-Reading Series’ jumps to the top of my list of recommendations.
By now it will be clear that Lindsey Berwin and John Kember have written material aimed at a very different demographic, and that both have done so with considerable success. Either of these series of books deserves a very positive review on its own; taken together I am more than doubly excited!
And this excitement comes from the common denominator: both authors have sought to provide material that is musically relevant, rather than churning out dull pedagogical exercises. Each author shows how sight-reading is an important core skill, and through their publications players will undoubtedly be more convinced than before that sight-reading can be relevant and musically rewarding.
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