Updated: Aug 5, 2022
This week, we will explore sight reading a classical piano piece, "Das Ballet", or The Ballet.
It is a good classical repertoire for the beginning pianist with some experience of reading notes and hands together playing, who would like to try a little more challenge coordinating hands together playing.
This piece was composed by German pianist, teacher and composer, Daniel Gottlob Turk during the mid-18th century.
To give you an idea of difficulty level, this piece is categorized as a Level 1 (Grade 1) piece in music conservatory syllabuses.
Turk wrote many piano pieces for children, and his students during his lifetime. These little works, no longer than a page long, are charming character pieces. His pedagogical compositions for keyboard are comparable to those of C. P. E. Bach.
Many teachers, including myself, use these musical pieces extensively for quick studies, and sight reading excercises.
In this piece, you will explore the following concepts:
Reading in the key of D Major (2 sharps),
Articulating two-note phrases across the barline,
Reading of ledger line notes in the middle position, and
Balancing of the two hands
Before attempting to read the piece, I highly recommend working first on a couple of technique excercises by rote (no reading).
Watch the following video and learn the excercise by rote to work the specific technique required to execute this piece to its fullest potential.
If you are familiar with D Major scales, you may also do a warm-up scale practice, hands separate, 1 - 2 octaves at a comfortable tempo. You can use a metronome, but be sure to practice counting as well,"1+ 2+", in this case using 8th note rhythms.
For scales, I recommend a variation practice working a slightly detached touch, or staccato touch.
As always, practice working your dynamic phrasing, i.e. start soft then crescendo on ascending, decresendo on the descent.
While you listen to a performance of this piece, try to tap, clap or sway your body left and right to the base beat of this piece, which is in 2/4 time. I like to think of myself as the metronome when doing this step!
Before diving into the fine motor movement of our fingers, it is important to first experience the gross motor movements associated with the timing of sounds.
While it may feel silly to some, I assure you this is a foundational step that will greatly aid in learning to read any piece.
Some questions to ask yourself while listening to this piece:
How many times does the first theme repeat? When did it change?
What is the form of the piece?
How would you describe the movement of sounds to a ballerina dancing?
Reading & Practice Tips
Now that you are familiar with the rhythm and melody by ear, it's time to get into the specifics of reading the score.
If you have not explored reading pieces in D Major, with 2 sharps, I encourage you to pencil circle all the notes that have to be "sharpened" in pitch.
For example, in the first phrase, mm. 1 - 4, you will find that there are Fs in each hand that you'll need to be aware of.
Next, visually identify locations where notes are moving by melodic intervals of a 3rd or 4th, You can draw a short arrow showing the movement between those notes.
Then choose a hand you’d like to start sight reading with. It is good practice to start hands separate so you have solid fingering down.
Always ask yourself these three questions when it comes to sight reading:
What is my starting note?
Which finger/hand do I have to use?
How are the notes moving (i.e, going up or down in pitch, any distinct or repeating patterns)?
Sometimes it also helps to look at groups of notes and their overall movement. Notice the first three notes in your left hand are the same, followed by a skip (3rd) down to D in measure 2 and then a step (2nd) up to E in measure 3.
Knowing these basic steps will develop your intervallic reading skills, which is an essential concept in sight reading faster and better.
Why intervallic reading is so beneficial?
Our playing becomes less efficient as it is challenging for the brain to process every single music pitch/note as we read more advanced pieces.
Knowing patterns and shapes of how music notes look on the score can help us sight read better (and landing the fingers faster!)
Anticipating where to go ahead of time just by the visual pattern is crucial to develop in sight reading. Take time to plan your fingering (write it down if you must!).
Don't worry if you don't get it spot on the first try, the most important thing is keeping a steady beat and start slowly.
When you’ve worked out the hands separate reading, now slowly put it hands together, 2 - 4 measures at a time.
You can also start your practice at a different section in the piece. In this case, this is a binary form of music AABB. Sight reading from section B and not always from the beginning is a good practice habit to develop.
Polishing Your Performance
My teacher used to say, you never completely finish learning a piece. There is always something to improve on, and elevate it to a high performance level. This is the difference between just playing it, compared to performing and communicating its art to an audience.
When you play this piece, try to visualize a ballerina's leaps and twirls. Since this is a relatively straightforward piece, can you distinguish which parts of the melody represent a ballerina leaping or doing small hops in her dance? Which parts represent perhaps a pirouette (twirls and spins)?
Taking it further, experiment with your own dynamic expression other than the one indicated in the score. No ballerina executes her movement with the same measure of strength throughout the dance. It is the same idea when you try to make your fingers dance across the keyboard.
When an audience can visualize what you see in your music, that's when you know you have performed it at the highest level. After all, piano instrumental music is a song without words.
I’d be happy to answer any questions you have in the comments.
You may also like to share your practice video progress at our community forum on Reddit r/sightreadingpianonerd