Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum - Part 1

Short-Term Memory (8)


As we sight-read a piece of music, we are engaged in a continuous loop of reading ahead, decoding and chunking information, briefly holding that information in our minds, then converting it into sound at the right moment in time. That brief holding of information before it’s needed for playing is called short-term memory, and is a crucial aspect of sight-reading. Unlike long-term memory, which we use to perform a recital from memory, short-term memory lasts only a few seconds, just long enough for the stored information to be used. Because the information is stored so briefly in our memories, it must not be too long, or too complex. It is usually said that we can hold from four to seven pieces of information in our short-term memory. In music, a piece of information can be a note, a chord, a rhythmic group, an accent or other expressive marking, and so on. Skillful sight-readers are able to chunk information together into larger groups, recognising chords for example, rather than individual notes. In this way, they retain more information in their short-term memories and are able to read further ahead. We will work on chunking information in later modules, particularly in Harmonic Reading. In this module, we will do some rather unconventional exercises that provide a clear experience of how short-term memory works in sight-reading, and improve its working in the process.

Since we use our short-term memory in a way that is largely subconscious, we must resort to some rather creative practice methods to become aware of it and improve its functioning. More specifically, we need to make our eyes hop around the page even more than they normally do, so that the mind is forced to memorise a few notes at a time in order to combine them with other notes.

We begin with vocal music of different kinds: recitatives, hymns, and folk songs. Vocal accompanists know very well that they must read the singer’s part while they play, and not look solely at their own part. We will go one step further and sing the voice part ourselves, with the words, while we play the accompaniment. This will require us to memorise in advance a chord, or a group of words, or a melodic fragment, which the mind will do in its own way, without conscious planning.

The second part of this module contains pieces written for two players, but which we will play as solos, reading from both parts. This section contains piano duets, variations on repeating bass lines, and Baroque sonatas for flute and basso continuo. Again, the eyes will have to hop back and forth between different parts of the page, and even between two pages, and the mind will have to memorise bits of each part before they can be combined. It may sound daunting, but most students find that it’s an instructive, and amusing, experience.

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