How do you read grouped notes.....?

August 8, 2006 at 06:28 PM · I have trouble learning orchestral music. At least the speedy fast stuff. Especially when there are large groups of notes. All my teachers say..oh...thats easy, u just kind of "know" after a while, u dont read each individual note, u read it in a group.

HOW??? i get so frustrated! It takes me FOREVER to learn orchestra parts...and thats pathetic! how do u read a bunch of notes grouped like that?

Replies (29)

August 8, 2006 at 07:26 PM · Hi Lauren,

Practice scales every day. Three or four octaves, galamian acceleration, major and harmonic and melodic minors. Also, arpeggios, thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, tenths, and broken thirds. (Flesch is an excellent option) This will familiarize your hand with the physical feeling of each scale and position, and even more importantly hone your ear to listen profoundly to each note. At the slower speed, your mind will be focused on the individual characteristics and qualities of each note as it is played. As the speed increases, however, there will come a point where you are no longer conciously thinking about individual finger changes or shifts, but are thinking in larger "chunks" of notes (while of course still keeping an open ear for intonation on every single note). Most fast passages in the literature consist of some fairly logical and familiar combination of scales and arpeggios. Another thing that will help for non-scalar or arpeggiated patterns is etudes, specifically Schradiek and the Sevcik excercises for the left hand. These contain all sorts of unusual finger patterns. Since I think you are saying that the problem is visual recognition of the notes, looking at the etude book and scale book for at least part of the time while you're playing it is essential - just like identifying the model and make of a car by its familiar shape, you can (eventually) quickly make a connection between the visual shape of a group of notes on the page and the physical feel of it in your hand. Ultimately this connection will become pretty much automatic and without concious thought. Of course, there are notorious passages that are just wierd, and there's no substitute for slow practice of anything. And the automatic recognition stage usually takes quite a while to achieve.

You might want to look around in the archives for threads on practicing fast passages well or scales and etudes - Buri and many others have given some excellent advice on this kind of thing which might be very helpful to you.

August 8, 2006 at 08:06 PM · There's no quick fix for this, Lauren Smith.

All you can do is forge on just as you're doing. The more mistakes you make, the better you'll become.

August 8, 2006 at 09:22 PM · Hi Lauren,

This may not be of direct help to you, but I wanted to explain what your teachers meant when they said "you just know after a while". It's a mental process called chunking. When you see a pattern over and over, eventually you recognize it without having to see every individual part. Piano players can immediately strike familiar chords without having to figure out every note in the chord. Chess players can memorize certain piece configurations that they've seen many times. When you speak a language, you have phrases that you use, like "On the other hand", without thinking about what a hand is, and that you have two of them, and that they represent opposing views.

Reading groups of notes on the violin is just like these examples, and as Kevin mentioned, the only way to get to that point is experience. But Nicholas's suggestions are a good idea, as they will have you practicing the most common patterns and developing familiarity with them as quickly as possible.

Good luck!

August 9, 2006 at 06:14 AM · Karin, great points. I'm sure you were thinking of this when you wrote, as was I - there is a recent article in Scientific American which deals with the way experts (chess, classical music) think and gain skill. "Secrets of the Expert Mind," I believe. It might clarify further what we are talking about.

August 9, 2006 at 07:09 AM · Oh, yeah, Nicholas, I did see that article---hubby has a subscription to SciAm---but didn't read it in detail at the time. I should dig it out and do so. :)

By the way, what is Galamian acceleration?

August 9, 2006 at 08:06 PM · Definitely an interesting article in Scientific American you recommended Nicholas Tavani. It certainly gives hope to those who often feel hopelessly ungifted.

Thanks for recommending it.

August 10, 2006 at 06:01 AM · Greetings,

Karin, it is fully explained in his book on violin technique which I would heartily recommend to you anyway. It is also written out in hi scales manual as exercises no three to be applied to the three octave scales which follow.

Set the mm at around 52 and play two notes to a bow using the whole bow, at the bottom segue directly into the same scale using triplets instead, then 16ths, then 32nds. Or you cna do the procedure in rverse. Up the mm and contnue.

It can also be done in separate bows. At the slowest rythms use martele, then a whne not posisble staccato with a cleanly stopped bow and finally. When this is no longer possible use detache,



August 10, 2006 at 06:08 AM · Lauren,

Do you remember when you were first learning to read words? I don't know about you, but I had to sound out new words. As you read more and more as you got older, you no longer had to sound out words because you recognized the words as a whole, rather than as each individual letter. I think it is similar with music. There are common patterns out there that can basically form musical words. You learn just the way you learn to read words. Do it over and over again. Take every chance you can to read music so you can learn your "vocabulary." Scale work (while reading it) is also good to really learn those vocab "words." Read etudes, sightread with friends or on your own, spend lots of time learning those orchestral parts. Read, read read! It will get easier. At least, that's been my experience.

There was a time where I saw people sightreading so well and I basically felt like they had some impossible magical power that I could never have. But that's just not true. Look at how easy and natural it is to read words's the same process! To a child that is just starting out reading, a parent who can read a passage in a book outloud without mistakes must seem incredibly smart and almost magical. We know that it is easy though. No magical power or genius intelligence required. Same with music reading. Tell yourself it's actually natural and easy and just keep plugging away until it is.


August 10, 2006 at 06:18 AM · Don't forget that in hindsight many different methods of learning are possible. For example, when I come across an orchestral part for the second or third time, I'm often amazed that I had such trouble learning it before. "It's so simple; here are the patterns!" But the first time I was just learning the notes.

"Chunking" was mentioned before and is a phenomenon that we all use, consciously or not. It's a vital part of Artificial Intelligence research, but it's hazy how it happens. The more music you see, the easier it occurs.

I wouldn't worry about whether or not it's happening right now. If you'd like to increase the speed at which it happens, look at etudes with patterns similar to the ones you see in a particular orchestra piece. Are the patterns like scales or arpeggios? Are they like scales but with unexpected half and whole steps (modes)?

Again, realize that it's a pretty rare group of people who look at a piece for the first time and magically see groupings to their liking. Your level of sight reading will increase as your general playing does, I believe. You can help it along by constantly exposing yourself to new challenges.

If I may say one more word about orchestral playing, I recently returned from a two-week chamber festival where I played no orchestra music. During that time, I held myself to a higher standard of playing than usual, but with only a few pieces during the 2-week period. When I returned to the orchestra, I felt like I couldn't play the instrument at all! The patterns and rhythms felt completely foreign to me. You definitely feel most comfortable in the style that you're used to. So if you want to get better reading orchestra parts, read more of them. For this reason, the International 3-volume set (edited by Gingold) is beneficial.

August 10, 2006 at 07:25 AM · Thanks for the explanation, Buri. I've heard good things about that book and should probably acquire it, but the $60 price tag is a bit steep right now. :)

August 13, 2006 at 04:09 PM · Practice sight reading and scales. Piano players are very good at looking ahead; just practice! You'll eventually start "seeing the notes in groups".

August 13, 2006 at 09:08 PM · I teach my younger pupils to substitute words or phrases for different rhythmic groups.

Simple ones, like, say, four semiquavers, would be said to the rhythm of "Co-ca-co-la" while quaver and two semi-quavers would be "Mar-ti-ni" or two semiquavers and quaver might be "lem-on-ade".

For very complex phrases in orchestral music, ingenuity is required. For instance, the sequence in Purcell's Rondo (and, of course subsequently, Britten's Young Persons' Guide) would have the phrase "Please can I have a Big Mac". They love it!

Children really learn quickly with this method.

August 13, 2006 at 10:56 PM · you made me very thirsty.

August 16, 2006 at 05:14 AM · You teach little kids with "mar-ti-ni"??!! Wow...

Oh, and whoever was talking about learning by sounding out words etc then being able to say whole words without thinking - that's phonological awareness (:D - I do learn something at uni!)

I have that set of 3 books of orchestral excerpts, it has really helped me for preparing for sightreading and excerpts for orchestra auditions :D

August 19, 2007 at 05:19 AM · Lauren: I don't play violin much by reading: I improvise with it, but I read piano music a lot (and perform regularly). Didn't really have difficulty reading but I had a whole interim for quite a few years where I composed mostly. Then I won a competition for having my music performed and had to practice piano to play my own music (and I hadn't practiced that much for so many years I won't say). I had kept my fingers limber enough by practicing a bit and using them to sort of discover what could happen in the music, as well as using them at the keyboard to get the music in the computer. After I had to play my own music and actually practice a piece of music that much for a performance like I used to, I went and started practicing other things like I used to, for concert. I was surprised to find out that it had become much more accessible to me. In the interim the music was there for me, for healing, to ease my mind but I didn't have to perform it or deal with the stress. Somehow, I had integrated something at another level about what music is that things "came together" by themselves more. I also, after awhile, started being able to think about the music sort of like an actor would think about a role and think about what emotional life was going on in the piece (and not something concrete that would have to be an answer to a question, just "I think that ..........." Space to muse).

When I was composing music more than performing, I gave the music reign to run through my head. I would even have things happen that many a psychiatrist would equivocate with insanity. If I had been working on a piece, and I did something really simple go into the kitchen and make a meal, it happened regularly that after awhile a light would go on something like the sun rising in a gentle way and I would actually hear in my head a new turn the piece had taken... in my head on "it's own" – about as clear as if I had just heard it in performance and truly listened to it. Then, I would have to actually figure out what was going on and I could go back to my computer and my music notation program and integrate that in the piece. I might also have something to eat or have done a real simple every day task rather than have gone about the music at a "cerebral" level.

The brain is an amazingly multidimensional vehicle. You are processing life and emotions all the time, and the brain is putting together what has gone and what goes into an experience all by itself. Things come together in chunks, in groups and it's also called quantums as in quantum physics. Quantum physics says things that spiritual sources have said all along, that we interfere with matter in trying to determine what it is. It's something the "ego" does that interferes with our ability to relate and it's part of the human experience. Quantum physics even breaks down the laws of science which say that a controlled experiment can pin down the essence of what something is.

OK, after all of that (and don't disqualify all the exercises to help you recognize groups of notes) . What I'm saying is that if you allow yourself space to not think about the notes, and think about what's going on with the music at another level you might find that things come together by themselves more, and you have given yourself respite from worrying about it too much.

Relax your mind, allow yourself the freedom to think about the music at another level from just the notes.

Einstein flunked beginner's math I heard, and he would be in a whole other world just thinking about things, but he did give himself space to do that and we all know the results (despite that he "flunked out" at the beginning.

There's also a book called A Course in Miracles which can help train you to get the thoughts out of your mind which, trying to make too much out of things, would get in the way.

I won't mention who wrote the book...

Oh, and I'll look for that article in Scientific America.

August 19, 2007 at 06:36 AM · You do sort of just "know". Music contains a lot of patterns - recurring over and over again. Often times these recurring patterns occur in groups. After enough playing/practicing/experiencing these patterns, one can just glance at the pattern and "subconsciously" be able to play it or know it. This is largely connected to sight-reading, sight-reading can only be improved through experience of encountering rhythms/patterns and also solid knowledge/practice of etudes and scales.

BTW - wow this discussion is an old one! (sort of)

August 19, 2007 at 06:39 AM · Hi everyone!

Thanks for the article info. Here's the site to read it:

I have been playing for 5 years. BUT I feel like I really started to play when I was invited into a "senior" string quartet six months ago. It is ironic because the other 3 members have been playing off and on all of their senior lives, however they assigned the Violin I to me.

It is a good thing that I don't know what I can't do.

Becoming accountable for timing, reading.... WOW I was overwhelmed. I practice 2 - 4 hours a day, and have a 1hr. lesson each week. Plus the group meets at least once a week to practice.

We play at retirement homes, so there is a non-judgemental environment. The pressure comes in my wanting to know everything yesterday.

I found a great site to help in "ear training". I found this thread by looking up suggestions to improve intonation.

Any ideas of how to slow down the need to know everything at once? I just want to cram 10 years of learning into the next week. I keep reminding myself that I have the hardest parts to learn, with the least training.

Can anyone share experiences that may shed some light on my unrealistic expectations LOL.


August 19, 2007 at 09:28 AM · Another thing I think helps to put the mind in a place where it can recognize patterns in music is allowing yourself the space to experience how you move through a phrase and the kind of give and take, moving forward and then easing down (or moving forward, then moving forward more and then easing down) or whatever motion you experience, it will be different with each phrase (could be moving forward, then moving back, then moving back a bit more and then thrusting forward). This way you aren't focusing on the notes so much that you hamper your mind from being able to take in patterns more by itself. It gives you a perspective more how things come together.

I have to laugh when I go to a museum and see how some people look at paintings. They look at the painting, then they put their head closer to the painting to inspect something closer up and then they move to the next painting. But, then you do have the people who look at a painting and then relax and maybe move back a step to take it in more completely.

If you're thinking about the notes all the time you never give yourself the chance to see the whole "picture."

LOL by the way, I hadn't looked at the year of the date of this thread (Nicholas Tavani had a performance with his quartet to listen to which I was intrigued with and enjoyed so I wanted to see what you had to say.........I didn't look at the year of the thread LOL. I thought oh that's from August 8 and pretty recent, but I didn't see it was from last year)... Then I found this interesting, well I have this interesting article to read too now,

If um the thread had been like from 3500 years ago or so, then it would have been much easier to pick up on....

Thanks for giving me a link to the article Alex

August 19, 2007 at 05:50 PM · Practicing etudes also can help with reading; since each etude usually focuses on a certain pattern.

August 19, 2007 at 06:39 PM · Thanks Roelof,

Some good advice there. I didn't see the date either. WOW maybe we found each other as it was supposed to happen.

One thing that seems to be helping me, albeit very very slowly, is to use a free on-line ear trainer. I listen to the note interval, and it has a place where you enter what you think it is. So, I am listening to that, and playing it on the violin before I hit the "submit" button.

If I had lots of practice time to do this, I believe it would really help. BUT I am feeling pressure to learn the new pieces for the quartet, working on my bow motion, playing for enjoyment and ......... Any suggestions as to how I can structure my practice time to optimize the time I have?

Thanks very much, Alex

August 19, 2007 at 08:35 PM · anything you do involved with music should help you learn to recognize how notes come together to create meaningful patterns.

August 20, 2007 at 12:01 AM · Thanks Roelof!

August 20, 2007 at 01:08 AM · I saw the answer earlier in Karin's initial remarks I think: "chunking".

And someone who noted piano player's reading ahead I think made a 'very' good point.

Then there's of us who generalize too well, and change a note. So, patterns yes, but details too.

I personally go for the chunks first, then refine. I hope that helps. You received a lot of valuable information on this.

August 20, 2007 at 02:44 AM · Interval, arpegio studies really helps on the fast stuff too. Chunks then intervals. As someone mentioned, it is a pattern study but one notch more specific. This helps me read ahead on piano as well.

August 20, 2007 at 03:47 AM · Alex, did you ever try letting your arm slide your fingers around on the bow to see what interval comes out? Some times there's this whole unconscious thing going on. It's like throwing something or jumping in the water, somehow part of you knows where it will land. Last night. I was practising a Mozart concerto and then thought about this piano trio I am composing. I have three movements but was thinking about a fourth. I could imagine trying to come up with something for the fourth movement but just thinking of getting my conscious mind to do that seemed like I would make a devised monstrosity. What happened was that I decided to play with my marbles (an "invisible" friend who plays violin got me to go get them). Somehow, I could let my muscles be free to push the marbles around and my mind was free to make a musical association with the movement (where if I had tried to do this consciously, the very thought made me feel like I had a head ache just thinking about it). After playing with the marbles long enough to let the idea materialize in my head, I went to the midi keyboard and started putting the fourth movement in my computer. It easily integrated into the material from the other head ache.

There's all sorts of reflexes.

You might just try sliding your finger up and down the string to see where it wants to go, then see if you know what interval it is.

Just an idea.

There's lots of fun things you can do.

August 21, 2007 at 07:43 AM · Lauren, the number one thing that has helped me to read more quickly is playing loads of new repertoire in an orchestra. I do realise that all people are a little different and may need different approaches to learning, but lots of repertoire in a short amount of time is a pretty failproof method. On my own, I tend to spend a lot of time perfecting the same old pieces, which I usually memorize in a short amount of time. This is not conducive to good note-reading skills.

At school, when we were children, I saw that those who spent the most time delving into books naturally developed into the best readers.

August 21, 2007 at 08:29 AM · I agree with Emily. I would be concerned about playing too many etudes (and then there are etudes and there are etudes that are actually concert pieces like the Chopin etudes for piano)...If you play too many etudes you may end up getting stuck on the physical part of feeling note patterns, then you lose a certain flow in your head.. something that links back to the reason music exists (emotions, beauty, a different relationship with time). I would really be concerned when a person starts becoming like "maniac" with being able to conquer a piece and involving all sorts of diabolical exercises to faciliate such an "amazing" ego trip. When they are done with it all, and the audience secretly cowers in their seats (while smiling profusely to go along with it all) wondering if this is all necessary to become a concert artist – it's all very convenient for anyone who wants to go home and see that it's really much simpler than that.

Not that exercises and etudes can't be a wonderful way to learn what having fingers can do. But, there's a difference between conquering a bunch of notes like you're a conquistador or actually making music....

August 21, 2007 at 01:35 PM · My teacher in high school had a mean old trick that did wonders for all of us. In addition to weekly reading orchestra and etude reading class (from about age 12), we had to sight-read an etude in a lesson while he covered up the bars we were playing with an index card! He'd move it along as we played. This forced us to read ahead and memorize patterns instead of trying to read every note at the time of playing. Everyone from that class could sightread thanks to this!

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