Tag Archives: sight-reading

Sight-reading, rhythm, recording…

Coping with the abstractions of music, when teaching, often relies on analogy to help pupils grasp otherwise elusive ideas. Consequently, you end up with a bank of ideas of all the things to which music seems comparable. However, this doesn’t often run the other way round – and, in my experience, people using music as an analogy for something else often don’t quite hit the spot.

Listening to Radio 4’s Open Book the other day, I caught an article about a new, unabridged audio book version of George Eliot‘s Middlemarch. At nearly 36 hours on 28 CDs, recording this 800-page novel is a gargantuan task. The reader, Juliet Stevenson, completed it in 12 days – a feat of which many musical recording artists would be extremely proud. She talks here about the many features involved – notably rhythm (of character and also of writer), inhabiting character, and coping with paragraph-long sentences – scroll forward to 19′ 20”

p.s. if this doesn’t seem like a big deal, why not try recording yourself reading a few paragraphs?

Free Will & Sight-Reading

Catching up with a podcast of Start The Week, I was delighted to be pointed in the direction of The Mysteries of the Brain – a series of programmes on BBC World Service by Professor Barry Smith.* In his discussions with Andrew Marr, he referred to experiments carried out by John-Dylan Haynes, which pointed to the illusory nature of free will. Volunteers were asked, repeatedly, to decided whether to press a button with their left or right hand while in an fMRI scanner. Evidence of brain activity, which enabled those reading output to predict with 100% accuracy which hand would be used, appeared up to 7 seconds before the volunteer was aware of their conscious choice. John-Dylan Haynes describes the situation as follows:

Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.
I couldn’t help wondering what kind of activity would be produced by someone sight-reading this:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/nuvzMq0YZ3k?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
I wonder if, one day, we’ll have much more of a handle on what helps us turn a skill, with which we are not born, into a learned reflex and of ways in which this can be done more effectively. Perhaps until then we’ll need to content ourselves with the following equation:
10,000 hours = expert

You can listen again to Professor Smith’s series here.
You can see John-Dylan Haynes lecture on this material here.

* I first came across Professor Smith in an excellent episode of In Our Time on Ludwig Wittgenstein.


I spent Friday afternoon at NBHS in a very enjoyable, whole school CAT/CPD event on Literacy. One of the features I especially enjoyed was the cross-curricular nature. I often find myself questioning the wisdom of our discrete Instrumental Instructor In Service days, wondering if so much micro at the expense of macro is a good thing, given the direction in which Scottish Education is currently heading.

The event comprised two sections:

  • all staff – randomly grouped – discussing and sharing what we considered literacy to mean at various age groups from 0 to 25 – led by Karen Haspolat (QIO) and Mary Howie (Literacy Adviser).

  • a chosen workshop from a list of five – I chose How We Learn To Read presented by Hilery Williams

Within a few minutes of discussing our given age group (13-16) it became clear that the definition of literacy was becoming boundless and our post-its included the following literacies: traditional; digital/web; musical; physical; social; inter/intra personal; foreign language; political; sexual (meaning – sense of appropriate behaviour); moral; economic. Many of these quickly necessitated sub categories. Language, for example, distinguished between reading, writing, listening & talking, while Music featured playing, listening, composing/arranging/improvising. Both also contain higher order skills such as critical commentary/review; pastiche; a sense of appropriate register e.g. is this level of irony suitable for a wedding ceremony?; or is a pipe band the best medium for this lullaby? I was very impressed with the presentation of each group’s findings which, without exception, seemed comprehensive – even although the given age range may have fallen quite far outside the area of professional expertise.

How We Learn To Read was entirely hands-on and practical – and fun. Hilery guided us through them with a gentle hand, which sustained a sense of challenge, and an infectious joie de vivre which belied the time of the week and the previous day’s house move! The activities had been very well designed and selected to allow us to discover, often by stealth, how we may have accrued the various literacy skills which we now take for granted. A vital part of that discovery necessitated discussing the strategies that we had used to arrive at our answers. Having turned 49 that day it struck me that my formal introduction to reading had begun 44 years before and that I had very few memories of the process – although I can recall sounding out and seem to remember using a book mark to discourage the eye from wandering into the wrong line. Again, I felt that the cross curricular nature of the teams accelerated rather than impeded effective team-work. Our table featured Art; Modern Languages; Computing; Guidance & Instrumental Teaching.

Throughout the tasks, I tried to keep a corner of my mind free to consider the parallels (no matter how inchoate) between traditional and musical literacy. The first activity involved concentrating on syllabification by means of a jigsaw whose individual pieces contained only one syllable. Within seconds of the pieces being spilled out, I found myself gravitating towards syllables which could only be found at the end of words. Why this should be I remain unsure – particularly as the capitalised beginnings ought to have stood out more. Fortunately our mercurial Modern Languages teacher had already identified and lined up the beginnings and pretty soon we were all able to predict the syllables we needed to find to complete the four words. It was interesting to note how prediction played as much a part as identification in this task. This is certainly a feature of musical sight-reading. Perhaps my fascination with endings constitutes one of the parallels with musical literacy. I would contend that one of the first steps in playing a phrase musically is to make the ending sound like an ending. It is an easier notion to grasp than making the middle sound like a middle or the beginning like a beginning. This has implication for interpretation, performance, composing/arranging. One level of listening would be for pupils to consider what it is about the content of a particular passage that makes it sound like an ending. A slightly more tricky one could include the question, “what is it about the content here which makes it seem that the ending is just around the corner?”

I won’t divulge here the contents of every activity undertaken, lest there remain readers who have yet to undergo them. Suffice to say that there were many more than time allowed and I’d have enjoyed doing several more.

I hope to engage in further consideration with Hilery of the parallels between our respective literacies as I have an intuition that the similarities may well outweigh the differences. More immediately, I’d say I have been inspired to devise more games for lessons as the animation they bring to learning is undeniable.

Games already in use can be seen here:

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