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A fresh approach to violin sight-reading

7 years ago

With the publication of the latest in our series of Joining the Dots sight-reading books, this time for violinists, author Alan Bullard explains the idea behind the books and what you’ll find inside. How do we learn to sight-read? All teachers agree about the importance of developing this skill, but are nevertheless often challenged to fit in regular study within the context of a short weekly lesson.

Joining the Dots for Violin

Joining the DotsThe Joining the Dots series represents an integrated approach to this area. Each book provides a number of activities related to sight-reading, grouped by key. The activities include exercises, technical workouts, opportunities for simple improvisation and short pieces for sight-reading. This approach was originally developed for Joining the Dots for Piano and continued with Joining the Dots for Guitar, co-authored with guitarist Richard Wright. The books are designed to provide teachers with a variety of ideas which they can easily integrate into lessons, providing pupils with an enjoyable way to improve their ability to read music. So now, with the invaluable assistance of Douglas Blew as violin consultant, Joining the Dots for Violin has been published with a separate book for each of Grades 1 to 5. Although the technical skills and demands for learners of piano, guitar and violin are very different, the need for the development of sight-reading skills remains. It’s my hope that these new books will give young violinists the confidence to explore a wider range of music, by ear, by improvisation and, particularly, by reading from the page. For the violin, of course, the differentiation of key by accurate tuning (as well as correct notes) is of primary importance, and in ABRSM’s Violin syllabus the keys of the sight-reading tests are generally those of the scales in the previous grades. (For Grade 1, sight-reading is restricted to one octave in just two major keys). This means that the player will probably have a ‘feel’ for each key by the time the sight-reading preparation is tackled, and this is the starting point for the separate sections in Joining the Dots. The books are divided into different sections, one for each relevant key. Within the sections, keys are explored via four activities: Key Features; Workouts; Make Music and Read and Play.

Key Features and Workouts

The Key Features revise the pupil’s familiarity with the relevant finger patterns, leading on to Workouts which are technical exercises in the key. Some of this material is repeated, transposed, in other key-sections, helping to consolidate finger patterns while introducing, by stealth, the concept of transposition.

Make Music

The next activity in each section is entitled Make Music: echoes, responses and ideas for improvisation. Varying from book to book, these are designed to give pupils confidence in thinking and playing in the key. You’ll probably find that each pupil will benefit from a different approach to this section, perhaps with some careful tailoring to suit ability. Most will be happy to follow the suggestions in the book, welcoming the opportunity to be less constricted by notation, but others may prefer to write ideas down first. Teachers might also want to produce further similar material of their own.

Read and Play

All this leads to the last activity in each section, Read and Play – pieces similar in length to the sight-reading tests in the exam, with titles to help stimulate the imagination. There may be a temptation to skip some of the earlier material and jump straight to these little pieces, but I believe that better results will be obtained by working right through the section. For example, if your pupil is learning a piece in the key of F major, there’s an opportunity to work through all the material in the F major section – warm-ups, improvisations, and sight-reading – over a period of several weeks. You can then finish off with the last piece in the section, a two-part canon for pupil and teacher (or two pupils).

Additional pieces

At the end of each book we’ve included a section of additional pieces to play, in the keys already studied. Some of these are longer than the tests in the exam and could be usefully used as quick studies or as something for a pupil to learn on their own between one lesson and the next. And finally, to round off the books there are several short ensemble pieces. Teachers today are very aware of the benefit to their pupils of ‘joining the dots’ – making connections between ear, eye, fingers and bow within a well-integrated lesson. Although this series may not completely answer the question ‘how do we learn to sight-read?’ it provides teacher and pupil with the resource material to approach the topic from many different angles. With musical content reflecting a wide range of styles and moods, I hope that these attractively produced books will result in greater musical understanding and skill, as well as success in that sight-reading test!

This article was originally featured in the October 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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