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@The Arts Unit Art Bites – Violin – 02. Tips for reading music for violinists
LEIGH MIDDENWAY: Hi, everyone. My name is Leigh. And today, we're going to think about sight reading. So first of all, what is sight reading? It's when you see a piece of music for the very first time, and you need to play it straight away.
Some of you think that's great fun, and you love it when your teacher or your conductor gives you a brand new piece and you get to play it for the first time. But for some others of you, it isn't so much fun. And all those notes up there on the page can look a bit scary or a bit confusing. So let's have a look at how music is written down.
There are five lines going this way. They're called 'staves.' And in Australia, we say 'stave.' In America and a lot of other countries, they call them the 'staff.' But it doesn't make any difference. They're just a different name.
So to make things nice and easy, there are only two kinds of notes in our music, space notes written between the two lines and line notes written around the line. I'm going to show you my note-reading chart now. I've written it especially for violin players. So of course, we start with the open strings.
Step 1, you all know what your open strings look like on the page, but have you ever asked yourselves what sort of notes they are and how far apart they are? Our open strings are all space notes and are five scale notes away from each other.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
That's all there is, five scale notes between each one. We call that a 'fifth.' So when you have a page full of new notes to read, it's a little bit like having four best buddies, and they're call G, D, A, and E.
Pretend you're going into a classroom in a new school, and you think, I don't know anyone here. But actually, your four buddies come up to you and say, hey, remember us? We're your special friends. Step 1 on the note-reading chart is to remind you what these buddies look like. Sometimes you'll see a note which is one of your open strings, but it might have a fourth finger element.
Same note but fourth finger. Or if you're playing in third position, it might have a 2 on it.
Now, if you're in third position, that's OK too. But if you're playing it as an open string, I like to call it a 'freebie,' something you get for nothing. It's like a mini-holiday for your left hand because you use no fingers.
Now, let's look at Step 2 on a note-reading chart. It's all about repetition. Step 2, repetition. So in music, we only have 12 notes altogether. So of course, we're going to repeat them a lot. In our violin music, we can have two main types of repetition, one note repeated a few times or, and it could be with different rhythms, or a pattern of notes repeated a few times or many times.
So have a look here. This is one bar full of the note B. And we've got different rhythms. But look. It's all the same note. And here's another bar with a whole bunch of Cs in it. Different rhythm, but your finger just stays in the same spot. Now, here is one with a pattern. Have a look here. I'll play the first one here.
And now here's the pattern that gets repeated.
A little bit different the third time.
So that's very easy if you look ahead because you can see that you just have the left hand repeating itself over and over. Now, we haven't talked about octaves yet. Let's play three different As on our violins. Here's a low one, first finger on G.
Next one, of course, open A.
Next one, 3 on E. You can also play that E as a harmonic on the A string.
So that's another type of repetition. They're all As. They're just in different spots on the violin. Now we're up to Step 3 on the chart. Step 3 is about notes moving by step, stepwise reading. One of the first things you learn on the violin is a scale. Let's do a nice easy one starting on the D string. Then we go up, step by step, until you get to the third finger on D. Let's have a look.
You've got two choices here. We've got one more step to go up on the D string. You can either do fourth finger or you can do open A. OK? And then we keep going.
OK, why am I talking about scales? Because in music, we have lots of bits of music which are written just like scales but not all the eighth notes, just little bits of scales. It's really good to recognise the pattern of notes going up and down by steps. That's why you've got my silly little drawing here going up by step and down by step.
Let's have a look at Step 3. So the notes moving by step look like this-- space, line, space, line, space, line, space, line, space, line, space, line, space. Now, there are no big jumps, are there? They're just all in a row.
That one is a whole bunch of quavers all in a row. This one, minim, crotchet, crotchet, but they're still moving by step, line, space, line, space, line, space, line, space. OK? And if you just look at these notes without any thought about the rhythm, you'll see that they're just like little bits of a scale.
Now, let's go back to our tones and semitones for a sec. When you see a bunch of notes all going up and down by step, how do you decide whether your fingers should play a tone or a squishy little semitone? That's a really great question.
Now, we have to look at the piece you're playing. The first thing you see at the beginning of the stave is a triple clef. You know that. That's the clef that all high instruments use, like the flute, the clarinet, the recorder, the trumpet, and the top end of the piano. The next thing you see before the time signature, which is the numbers, is one or more sharps, or one or more flats, and sometimes nothing at all. The 'nothing at all' is when the piece is in C major or A minor.
Now, a really great key signature for the violin is D major. And when you first started playing pieces, you would have had a lot of pieces written in that key. It has two sharps, F-sharp and C-sharp. They're easy notes to play. F-sharp is two tones above the D string.
And C-sharp is also-- it's on the A string, and it's second finger as well.
As well as that, in D major, we can use open G.
And open E.
That makes four freebies-- fantastic key to play in. So let's say we're playing a piece in D major, and we see a few notes moving stepwise which aren't in a normal scale. We just see-- check and see that we're playing normal notes from the D scale, and that gives us our tones and semitones. In D major, the only semitones are between F-sharp and G.
You can see my second and third finger are completely squished. And C-sharp and D--
Now, let's move on to the last step that we're going to talk about in the note-reading chart, Step 4. This one's all about intervals. What exactly is an interval in music? If you go to a concert or a play, there's a break in the middle where you go outside, stretch your legs, have a drink. No, this one's completely different in music. It doesn't mean the same thing. In music, the interval is the distance between two notes. Pick up your violins, and play open G.
Now, let's find a really high note on open E.
It doesn't matter if it's a little bit scratchy or squeaky. What we've just done is play an enormously big interval, two notes which were very far apart. If we were going to give that interval or distance a name, we might call it a 32nd or something like that, and that sounds really silly.
So let's look at some nice small intervals. The very smallest one we use in our music is, of course, the semitone, the one where you squish your fingers together. On a piano, a semitone is the smallest distance you can get between two notes, usually from a white note to the very next black note. But if you have a careful look, you'll see that there are two pairs of semitones which are both white notes, E and F and B and C. That's for you piano players out there.
So we already know that a tone and a semitone are steps, so they always look like line to space or space to line. Now we need to look at the three most-common intervals you'll see in every piece of music: thirds, and fifths, and octaves.
Thirds are really easy to recognise because they're line to the next line or space to the next space. Here's a space-to-space one. Here's a line-to-line one, but this one's going downwards. Here's a space-to-space one, two quavers. Here's a space-to-space one. I've popped in a sharp because that's also a third. And here's a going-down one, space to space.
If you see what looks like a third in the music, your eyes recognise this pattern, and they have a little chat to the brain. Hey, look, brain. Here comes a third. Then the brain says to your left-hand fingers, hey, fingers, you're on a first finger. We need a third above. And the fingers, if you haven't practised them, go, huh? What do I do now? But if you do really good eye-brain-finger chatting, you figure it out. And you realise that, first finger--
--you can play this.
And there, you've got a third above, just a third finger. So to read thirds easily, it's a really great idea to practise scales in broken thirds, like this.
Then you get used to playing thirds from any finger to the next finger that's the right one. The next interval we're going to look at is the fifth. This is super important for the violin because our strings are tuned five scale notes apart, like we said at the beginning. So to play a fifth is pretty easy, especially in first position. If you're playing a note with third finger on the D string like this--
--and you want to play a fifth above, all you do is go straight across [plays note] to the next string. Now let's go back to our first note [plays note] a fifth below. You just go there.
So, pretty easy, right? And fifths-- I made a terrible mess of this heading. I'm very sorry. But you can see the fifths are good. I call this, reading a fifth, space, skip, space or line, skip, line. And here's another one-- line, skip, line, space, skip, space. So that's what a fifth looks like on the stave. And there are two exceptions to this. But if you look at your key signature, you'll be just fine.
The last interval we'll look at for now is the octave. We talked about octaves in the repetition section when we played three different As. But what do they look like? Of course, they have to be pretty big because they're eight notes apart. We always count the first note and the last note, not just the in-between notes.
So we've talked about thirds and fifths, and they're both either space-to-space or line-to-line with or without a gap. Octaves, they're mixed. So that means there's line to a space or space to a line. Let's have a look at an octave here-- space note, line note, line note, space note, line note, space note. Here's a high one, line note to space note.
It's as if your eyes take a little tiny photograph really fast when you see two notes an octave apart, and your eye-brain-finger system works really well, and you play two notes an octave apart. Do you practise broken octaves? The open string ones are easy, right? G plus third finger on the D string--
--or open D plus third finger on the A string.
For the others, you have to do first finger and fourth finger, and you have to shift quite a lot. But you can ask your teacher about that. Now, reading a real piece of music, not just little exercises, one thing you can do at home is to find a new piece you'd like to learn or an orchestra piece.
And the first thing you can do is sit down without your fiddle. Get really comfortable. Make sure you have something nice to drink. Start looking at the piece, but only a few bars at a time. So we're doing some serious eye work here, eye-brain, but, at the moment, no fingers.
Go through each of the four steps. Look out for open strings. Look for any repetition, single note, or pattern. Look for some stepwise movement. Intervals, are there those common ones, the thirds, the fifths, and the octaves?
You can also learn how to recognise fourths, sixths, and sevenths. That's pretty easy. That is to say, look at the way each pair or groups of notes match up to each other. Are they the same note but different rhythms? Are they right next door to each other moving in step? Are there any pairs of notes moving in thirds or maybe fifths?
Are there any really big jumps, maybe an octave or even bigger? Can you see any little patterns? Everything you'll learn with just your eyes will help you play the right notes when you pick up the violin. Keep everything in small, bite-size chunks, especially at first. That's how the brain likes to learn things when they're new. There's always more to say about reading music. It's a very, very big subject.
Here's something very important for you to remember though. When you read words in a book when you were little, you never, ever read T-H-E C-A-T S-A-T O-N, et cetera. It probably doesn't make much sense. You actually learned very, very early that T plus H plus E equals 'the.' And C plus A plus T equals 'cat.'
So it's the same in music. If you try to read each note separately, you'll never be able to read quickly or easily. Every note has a connection to the note you've just played before and the note you're about to play. If you follow these patterns I've talked about today, you'll find yourself reading more and more easily.
There is, of course, a very big part of music I haven't talked about at all, and that's rhythm. Today's talk was all about pitch, how high or low a note is, and how to read it and find your notes on the violin after reading them on the page. Perhaps another day we can talk about counting and some of the many other things which make music so special.
By the way, I was calling our violins 'fiddles' or the 'fiddle.' Sometimes people ask me if that's a different instrument. No, it's just a nickname for the violin. Sometimes people might say they like country, fiddle-style music, but the actual instrument is the same. Good work, everyone, and have fun reading.
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