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I am sure we all at some point introduce the idea of analyzing music to our students. For me, harmonic analysis is an ongoing discussion with the students from the moment chordal analysis is first introduced in method books. In this article I will write about other elements I have students study prior to sight-reading.
As a starting point, I will ask the student questions to point out certain aspects of the music. These questions might include looking for new musical concepts introduced recently. We also look for patterns of repetition. These patterns might be rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, or a combination of these as in sequences. It also could include fingering, articulations, changes in hand position, regularity of tempo or dynamic changes, and even when the pedal is employed throughout the piece. Recognition of these patterns may ease feelings of anxiety about sight-reading new music that looks challenging, includes new unfamiliar concepts, or is longer in length than what they are use to playing. Forms of repetition and any varied approaches provide a model for the student who is composing or improvising their own music. I will discuss more about some of my thoughts on teaching composition and possibly improvisation in future articles.
I often have students scan the music for anything that might look unusual or things they might not understand. This often happens when students face a new concept such as music without bar lines that one might first encounter with the music of Eric Satie. In my book Vignettes for Solo Piano, the solo Hang Gliding has a middle section without bar lines.
At the intermediate level I might ask them to scan the music for accidentals to see if any exist, and if so, do any reoccur. This is bound to happen in tonal works in minor keys as the raised seventh of the key allows for major V or dominant seventh chords. Occasionally the raised sixth scale degree occurs for the formation of major IV chord or possibly a V/V in minor keys as well. After playing numerous pieces in a minor key, looking for these types of accidentals should hopefully become second nature for them. Examples of these types of accidentals in a minor key can be found NMP literature of Journey to an Oasis, Ashore on an Unknown Island, and Toccata.
Sometimes I might relate back to music played earlier in the lesson to look for any reoccurring issues they may have had and to see if these issues occur in the new piece about to be sight-read. For beginners it may be pointing out those occasional half notes that were played as quarter notes. Unfortunately, I hear this from time to time when the quarter note is the predominant rhythmic value.
Another possible question is “What is the form?” If it is a new form, I will take the time to discuss. Once a student discovers that an ABA form exists, I remind them that the return of the A at the end actually reduces the amount of new material to be learned if it is an exact repetition. If I work through the A section and leave them with the B section to learn for next week (for elementary level it’s probably only eight measures long), I will point out that there is a little more than one measure a day to work through for the following week. If they need extra encouragement, I will point out how quickly they got comfortable with the A section and compare that to the amount of time they practice in a week or even a day if it came together fairy quickly. My goal is to make everything seem manageable. This may be necessary for those who feel that I have assigned a lot of music for the week or for the student who is easily overwhelmed.
Sometimes analysis opens doors to introducing new vocabulary and helps young readers understand why they may run into difficulties. For example, in Noteworthy Elementary Solos of Carol Flatau and Carrie Kraft, the solo A New Little Minuet was placed specifically as the last solo in the book due to the challenges of reading different types of melodic movement between the two hands. After an introduction of parallel, contrary and oblique movement between the two voices, often demonstrated by drawing a set of arrows in relation to each other at the top the page, I will have the student point to examples of each type in the music. My experience has been that a mixture of these movements from note to note tend to give students trouble in reading. Often when difficulty occurs in the reading process, I will draw, though you may wish to have them do it if time allows in the lesson, arrows showing direction from note to note in order to see how the voices change direction. I have had some luck with students improving once the addition of the arrows are drawn in the music as the arrows provide the visual feedback through tricky passages. A further challenge may occur, even with arrows added, when one voice is moving by step and the other by the leap of some interval. If necessary, to further help when needed, I will label the interval. Two specific areas of difficulty I have noticed tend to be with the reading across the bar line and between systems. This discussion is often repeated once the student starts playing the music of J.S. Bach.