Counting and sight reading

January 27, 2018, 9:58 AM · Hello! I am a high school student and I've been playing violin for a while now. I am terrible at counting different rhythms and sight reading? What can I do to improve these two things?

Replies (28)

January 27, 2018, 10:10 AM · Well, you can't sight read without getting the rhythm right - at least not if you expect to be sight reading in an ensemble. I was discussing this with another player last week as we were both bothered by the tempo changes in our ensemble due to other younger players (the are generally still in their 60s while we two are in our 80s and have been life-long players). The problem was that they were trying to get ALL THE NOTES.

First you have to get the tempo and get it steady - then get the notes. In practicing you get both by playing more slowly until you get both.

If your problem with counting is getting "chopped rhythms" right you have to just sit in front of the music and "do the mental math." I have known very good players who had trouble with that - at least when sight reading. It's really just a few simple fractions.

Edited: January 27, 2018, 10:16 AM · I think "sight-singing" could be an more approachable step to achieving the two things that you just mentioned. Because the human voice is usually less lenient towards intonation and rhythms, so and distortion that's out of the place can be picked up more easily than if you had played it on an instrument.

So you could just take a very simple score (can be something as simple as twinkle twinkle) and try to sing it, and once you have done that for a while, whenever you need to sight read a new piece, the tune would have already gotten into your head as soon as you have seen the score, making it more practical to play it in such short amounts of time.

January 27, 2018, 10:20 AM · Look at the time signature and look for the downbeats. Does your teacher have suggestions?
Edited: January 28, 2018, 7:07 AM · by this time, you should have hundreds of hours of solfeggio... it is a pre-requisite for music playing and, in my opinion, for developing solid sight-reading skills.
Other than that, sight reading is a skill-set on its own and the only way to develop it is to practice doing it. You may get surprised to hear that big % of sight-reading is in fact sight-listening! Impossible to develop unless you play a lot of chamber music. Find a bunch of friendly musicians and meet once a week for that activity. You will be surprised with your progress in just a a few months.
counting.... the best is if you do not count at all, but have developed an internal sense of bit.
January 27, 2018, 1:58 PM · Don't worry too much about the sight reading -- that comes with time. As for the rhythms: get a score and a recording of 'Sacre du Printemps' by Stravinsky and read and clap along with the music. This will not only improve your rhythmic skills, but you'll be having a ball too. Once you get the heck of it a bit try clapping or singing the rhythms without the recording. Inventing silly dances that fit (or don't fit) the music is also recommended.
January 27, 2018, 7:25 PM · Another good thing for practicing counting and rhythms are the slow movements of baroque and classical era concertos and string quartets. Plenty of them on IMSLP and you can usually find the recordings on YouTube as well.
January 29, 2018, 5:06 PM · Hi Andrew,

You're an old hand - if you don't mind me using the term - at this business of creating music pleasant to the ear and I'd love to get your insight and knowledge about this matter of getting all the notes right.

Have you ever committed to memory the entire musical score that you are going to play without recourse to reading as you play?

Let me illustrate this by being specific - bearing in mind I'm a newbie and wannabe violinist with modest aspirations.

The music 'Eternally' from Chaplin's last movie 'Limelight' is, to me at any rate, a truly beautiful piece of music consisting of only 88 notes. IF I can play that piece somewhere close to that in the youtube video of 2mins 37 seconds I'd say Mission Accomplished.'

To that end I've committed to memory the 88 notes using a 'Memory Palace' in which the notes are grouped in 'two's.' For example the first 18 notes are bcdcedabcabcbdcgab. To memorise those notes I've grouped them as: bc dc ed ab c ab cb dc ga b

This is really easy to remember as bc stands for Bob Charles - dc stands for Dale Carnegie. You get the picture, right? The initials are those easily recognizable persons.

BUT - there's alway a but, right? You'll quickly have spotted the problem. This would be a perfect system IF all the notes were grouped in 2's BUT obviously they're not!

So, I'm working on a solution and maybe with your wealth of knowledge and experience this is in the archives of your mind and which you may want to share? Thsnks for your patience.

Edited: January 29, 2018, 5:37 PM · Will. Beautiful song. I remember seeing the movie while I was in college Freshman year - we found a way to sneak into the theater near our dorm.

The music is in here:

I've never looked at it that way so I probably am no help at all. I've always been a music reader and the very few things I have actually memorized happened because I had played them so very much.

Personally I think using a mnemonic "memory palace" may be a counter-productive approach to learning to play the violin. If you are going to learn by playing the "note names," you might just write the note names above the music score and start out by playing that. But if you are going to do that, why not just learn the names of the few notes for this one pice as a starter.

I suspect (I can't remember that far back) that I learned the finger placements on the violin by relating them to the note positions on the staff.

I do know that when I started cello at age 14 I never paid much attention to the note names - especially in bass clef and it was not until 50 years later when I tried to learn a bit of piano that I anchored down the note names in bass clef - but I got through a lot of tough cello literature without the "A B Cs."

In my experience every step you add to a process like this (i.e., playing an instrument or speaking in another language) just clutters the process. It is better to bite the bullet and go at it directly. Which is why playing "Twinkle" is so useful!

January 30, 2018, 2:10 AM · This memory palace concept sounds amazingly difficult to me. Why not just read the music off the page, or write down the notes in order on paper?
Edited: January 30, 2018, 3:26 AM · As someone who uses the method of loci for a lot of stuff, from shopping lists to lists of musical terms, I can tell you from experience it is not maintainable for memorizing music. The music is also contextual. Even if you can build and view the entire score as you make your journey you're likely going to miss out on some of the contextual parts of the music. By breaking it down into such small chunks you lose the overarching phrase structure, among other things. This isn't even beginning to touch on how flawed human memory is, even when using advanced mnemonic techniques such as MoL.

It's just too slow - both in encoding and recall. You can 'academically' encode the notes that way but then you haven't formed the patterns with your fingers, bowing, etc and are missing out on all the other connections required to make convincing music. When playing from memory it's probably at least a third muscle memory, if not more. Similar to being able to write a huge list of words in a foreign language but not having the ability to speak them or know what they all actually mean. you have a convincing list, but you won't be able to have much of a conversation.

There is no way to cheat sight reading in the long term and memorizing the music without memorizing the physical aspects is pointless unless you plan to analyze the music instead of playing it.

January 30, 2018, 4:09 AM ·
What can we do to improve our sight reading?
If you have a technique regime, a daily review of scales, arpeggios, chords and inversions, and broken chords, you will be much, much better prepared than those players who do not.

I’ll start the list with the easy things we all know (but do we do them? – do you play with a metronome ticking beside you?), and I hope skilled sight readers will add to my list.

Sight read often – every day. Play four pages of unseen music every day.

Slow down – when you’re hot, you’re hot, but when you’re sight reading, slow down. Mm = 60 bpm might be just right. (Some teachers say that anyone can sight read anything, if they think about the next note, and they play slowly enough. This is hard to argue with.)

Count aloud, as you play, and count the subdivisions. Count every semi-quaver, (and every semi-quaver rest).

Sight read with a metronome ticking along side you. It is a skill to listen to a metronome, and it might take you some weeks to comfortably listen (and to lock into the time) of a metronome. Few of us do enough practice with a metronome.

Tap your foot.(or a toe inside your shoe).

Look ahead. How far ahead should one look? You might look several bars ahead. I often find myself struggling to look more than a bar ahead – but then I am not a great sight reader. Good readers can look whole phrases ahead, or so they tell me.

If you can, and usually you can, before you sight read a piece:

Look at the key signature, and look for changes in key signature throughout the piece.
Look at the time signature, tempo indications, other instructions – style, expression, dynamics, anything written.
Memorise the first bar (and anacrusis, if there is one).
Look for repeats, DC, DS, Coda, chorus, bridge, 12 bar form, rehearsal letters turnarounds – anything that clues you about the form of the piece, for we love repeats (if we don’t miss them) when we are sight reading.
Look for any strange rhythmic figures, notes on ledger lines well outside the staves, anything particularly busy.
Look at key motifs, that will be played again and again, varied often, but still ongoing points of comfort if you can play them, (or challenge, if you cannot). Sequential patterns of any sort should help you, if you spot them in time.
Pencil in anything that will help you when you come to a tricky section.

And, as you sight read:

Avoid loosing contact with your instrument. Make no unnecessary movements.
Focus – concentrate.
Count aloud.
When you read and play the music, keep your eyes on the music.
Listen well as you play. (If sight reading in an ensemble, remember, one ear for you, one ear for the band.)
Did I say, “Count”?
Don’t stop.

January 30, 2018, 4:38 AM · I have a question for those with good sight reading skills: The music you read in the paper "sounds" in your head before you play it or does it automatically transfer from there to your instrument...
I guess it's a bit like reading aloud. It's easy to do (eventually), but often the reader does not really know what he or she is reading about. However, that's the most common.

When I am studying/practicing sight reading I do as recommended above. I pick up a etude I don't know, set the metronome and... just play it. With better or worse results. But I don't "hear" the music. It is more like muscular instructions.
When I know the music and it's in my head, mostly I ignore the sheet (my bad). Then I just need to fill the difference between what's in my head and what come's from the instrument.
So. My question is: The goal is to read, then hear in your head and play what's in your head or you aim for a more automatic "from paper to fingers" goal?

January 30, 2018, 12:36 PM · Hi Andrew,

Many thanks for the link to Chaplin's music and when once I have Mastered 'Eternally' which ought to be very easy for a newbie with arthritis in the fingers I shall work on the rest of his creations :-)I shall send you a recording of my very special 'interpretation' of his music.

I never really found Chaplin at all funny - W.C. Fields is more my brand of humour - but from what I've read about him ,controversial figure that he was, he was also a highly intelligent thoughtful serious man with a decent and kind heart. And in Limelight it shows - if he was acting he was a darned sight better actor than I had considered him to be.

Best, Will

January 30, 2018, 1:00 PM · Hi Erik,

When I first heard about 'Memory Palaces' and other memory-recall techniques/method I was somewhat skeptical.

Actually it's really very simple. The central question is: does it work?

In one of his books, Dominic O'Brien shows how easy it is to remember a randomly shuffled deck of playing cards and to give total recall in the order they were shown, and backwards, and to give the precise location of any given card in the deck.

So, I tried it and after a few attempts rattled of the names of 49/52 cards. This demonstrated to me that his method is effective but as I'm not planning to hit the casinos any time soon I didn't spend time in getting 52/52 cards correct.

Instead I tried out in a few other areas such as remembering bank account codes, passwords, credit and debit/card numbers - basically all the things we must know as we go about daily life. 100% record.

So then I set about committing to memmory the names and order of the 88 violin notes in 'Eternally' - a walk in the park. I can rattle them off forwards - backwards and swiftly tell you the 10th note - 32nd - 55th - you ask it I can name it.

BUT the problem I have is as stated in my original post. Andrew is of the belief that it is counter-productive.

Why did I create a Memory Palace and why don't I just read of the music score or write the notes down on a piece of paper? Good question(s).

And the honest answer is that when I look at a music score it takes me a while to correctly identify each note; and even if I could swiftly recognize the notes I find it distracting to look away from the violin and bow and keep playing whilst also trying to read music. To me it would be like getting a number of plates spinning at one side of the stage and havind to dash across to the other side and keep plates their spinning and then have to dash back again all the while listening to the awful noise of plates smashing onto the stage.

If someone can show me how to read music and perform the other tasks that person has my full total 1005 attention.

January 30, 2018, 1:28 PM · Michael, thanks for your input and I fully agree that the 'knowing' and the 'doing' whilst inextricably connected have (major)points of difference.

Let me illustrate what I mean. I know some professional golfers who make a great living at the game/business but if they were to give you a lesson they would be quite ineffective because they, I know it sounds unbelievable, are 'natural's who learned how to swing a golf club in the manner of 'monkey see, monkey do' and because of their natural talent which proved highly successful in their early years didn't trouble themselves to learn about the 'technicalities.' This puts them at a disadvantage when they go 'off-key' because they can't accurately analyse the cause of their not striking the ball with the desired precision.

If you're a golfer or observer of the game you'll see that even the top guys on the tour have their own professional coaches - who don't come cheap. That tells you something.

And then you get other professional golfers who whilst expert 'technicians' and analysts (and who can play a decent game around par) who know about cause/effect/cure can't actually apply their in-depth knowledge to their own game. What a mad mad world, is it not?

So, here's the deal. You teach me to speed read music with precision and I'll sort your golf game. Deal?

January 30, 2018, 1:29 PM · I recently got the Trala app (on free trial), to give it a shot with sight-reading and counting (and intonation). Might be worth giving it a go - they have a lot of songs you can practice your sightreading with, I believe...
January 30, 2018, 4:20 PM · "And the honest answer is that when I look at a music score it takes me a while to correctly identify each note; and even if I could swiftly recognize the notes I find it distracting to look away from the violin and bow and keep playing whilst also trying to read music. To me it would be like getting a number of plates spinning at one side of the stage and havind to dash across to the other side and keep plates their spinning and then have to dash back again all the while listening to the awful noise of plates smashing onto the stage."

But you've only been playing a month or so, right? You just need to give it some time. It only seems impossible because it's unfamiliar, but 10,000 eight year old children learn this skill every month (I'm admittedly hazy on the actual numbers). My wife and I recently started taking lessons in Viennese waltz. At the end of the first lesson, we were both convinced that we were wasting our time. By the third lesson, we were actually waltzing--more or less--some of the time. So we all need patience.

January 30, 2018, 7:02 PM · Memorizing a piece is a totally different skill from sight-reading.

However, both are rooted in aural memory to a certain extent. The best way to sight-read is to cheat a little -- to already know what it sounds like before you ever see the music. Similarly, memorization relies significantly on knowing, in your head, what it should sound like. Your hands automatically learn, over time, how to translate the things that you hear in your head, into the proper movements on the violin.

Sight-reading is, to a large degree, the identification and automatic execution of patterns. Good sight-readers see a pattern, and they automatically read ahead of where they actually are in the music. That allows them to be predictive -- to distribute the bow properly given where the music is going, to shift into the correct position instinctively in order to play a particular pattern with greater ease, and the like.

Counting rhythms is also partially a matter of learning and carrying out common patterns, at least initially. I have a terrible sense of pulse, and consequently reading (and taking dictation of) rhythms can really throw me. I therefore rely more on my aural memory; I tend to listen to the music that I am learning with a score in hand.

Edited: January 30, 2018, 7:24 PM · Will,

It has less to do with reading the music and has to do with learning the music. You've learned dots on a page, not music. That's what this method offers you. It's extremely similar to my example of learning a list of words in a language you do not speak - you can make a facsimile of the sounds, but not speak the language.

If you want to compare it to golf, the correct comparison is closer to swinging the club and moving the bow. You might know every variable needed to calculate the force needed to hit a golf ball directly into the hole from memory (the precise note and rhythm), but if you don't practice hitting that ball everyday without knowing those factors, you're going to be completely up the creek the second something comes along and throws those calculations off.

You learn to speed read music the same way you learn to speed read English. very slowly, and through doing it.

The other issue at fault here is human memory. No matter how good a mnemonist you are human memory is not a hard drive. There is no evidence for something like edict memory - the person who probably came closest was Solomon Shereshevsky and he had huge issues and deficiencies because of it, and his memory wasn't perfect.

Every time you recall a piece of information there is a risk of confounding it. Let's say one day you make a mistake twice during your recall (or more likely, your playing) while this piece of music is in your working memory, retrieved out of storage with method of loci.

Because you made those mistakes, there is a significant chance you will encode them in place of what was supposed to be there. Every time you access a memory it is at risk for tampering. There is a reason eye witness testimony is extremely unreliable, and the reason many people still practice with the score even though they have a piece memorized.

January 31, 2018, 4:11 PM · Hi Scott,

Thanks for the encouragement and suggestion - appreciated.

It takes 2 to Tango when Waltzing round the ballroom with your wife and I think, unless I'm very much mistaken, you were not reading the music at the same time :-)

January 31, 2018, 4:15 PM · No, but we were counting the beats, paying attention to the steps, and watching so as not to run into other dancers or wooden columns! It's possible to learn new skills, is all I'm saying.
January 31, 2018, 4:34 PM · Michael,

You're absolutely right in your connection with my golfing analogy. Have you seen the comedy movie 'Caddyshack' starring Chevy Chase - he that's so laid back he's almost horizontal? Anyway, he's on the course with this younger guy and he says to him profoundly (he thinks: "Be the ball."

But you are correct. He ought to have said: "Be the club."

And of course in Violin playing it's not be the violin but rather "Be the bow."

Now I'm definitely not saying that your advice about reading music is wrong and not good advice because I do believe you are correct. However, let me ask you this. Let's say that you've played the same piece of music that you really love over and over and over - a hundred times and more, okay? Do you still need to read the music score? Or is it in your memory?

You say, rightly so, that memory isn't infallible and that when relying on memory we're likely to err. Okay. But doesn't that also apply when reading music? And if you've played that same old music that you love over and over and you are playing from memory - how many mistakes have you made in say a music score of 100+notes?

A final point on this memory issue. I've looked at your photo and you're a fine looking young man and whilst I still look only 35 I've got a suit older than you :-) and memory exercises such as the one we've been discussing are quite valuable for old but young looking chaps such as me.

BUT if you can recommend a good and practical book/publication on how to effectively read music I will definitely follow through - especially so as my golfing days are over and I no longer can make even a three-quarter swing far less follow through.

January 31, 2018, 4:37 PM · Scott,

Quite so.

I was making (attempting anyway) a Scottish joke.

January 31, 2018, 4:41 PM · Learning to read music is a very important part of learning to play violin. I too was intimidated at first, and went through a few method "Book 1"s to learn it before I started exploring real sheet music. That included just reading the little student pieces aloud and naming the notes before even picking up the bow. After a few weeks you'll be able to read it aloud as if you were reading the alphabet.

So glad I did all that! And now I can tell you, as a self-taught (so far) intermediate beginner (less far along than a beginner intermediate!), it's actually a lot easier to learn to read music than it is to learn how to get sweet sounds out of the playing. And it's been even harder for me to learn to count time and play the correct rhythms.

For me, reading the notes turned out to be the easiest part of learning violin. The rest is still ahead for me.

Edited: January 31, 2018, 4:52 PM · Will,

You absolutely do continue using the score to practice. If you've been playing the same piece for 40 years you should still periodically check it against the score, because human memory is not perfect.

In this case age is not relevant at all. The topic isn't general memory or brain plasticity - it's that using MoL isn't a short cut to learning music and that you are genuinely cheating yourself by approaching music this way.

I recommend the 'All for strings' series for learning sight reading. I don't think a more basic, step by step approach is on the market. That said, there are literally hundreds of books offering what you're asking for - from methods, such as all for strings, to progressive repertoire books, Barbara Barber, to a piece a day books, such as Fiddle Tune a Day.

You learn sight reading by doing it.

Ultimately, find a teacher who also reads music. Anyone teaching violin outside of folk traditions likely has that skill, and even many in the folk tradition should have that skill.

February 1, 2018, 6:27 AM · Michael,

Okay, you've made a sale - even with your inclusion of 'periodic checking of the score' - and I'll follow through and check out 'All for strings' series and similar.

Much appreciated.

February 2, 2018, 7:03 PM · I highly recommend Rhythm Sight Reading Trainer app. It's $2.99 and well worth it - 5 minutes a day every day can make a huge difference in both learning to count more complicated stuff and sight-counting. It's fun too.
February 3, 2018, 8:54 AM · " this time, you should have hundreds of hours of solfeggio..."

That's plain silly. Well, ok--the "should" is valid. But the reality is that NO ONE practices solfege on their own unless they're made to. Most students hate singing or being made to sing. They just won't.

I highly recommend the 2-volume series "I Can Read Music: A Note Reading Book for Violin Students"
by Joanne Martin. Very good for beginners. The second volume has duets that the student can play with the teacher to get used to playing with others. I wish I'd discovered it earlier.

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