How to Improve Sight-Reading with Julian Zalla 

What do F1 drivers and good sight-readers have in common? Find out in this fascinating interview with Julian Zalla, creator of the YouTube channel Gamma1734.

 

how to improve sight-reading with Julian Zalla

 

Recently, I interviewed Julian Zalla, a PhD student in mathematics, a piano player, and the creator of the YouTube channel Gamma1734. On this channel, he publishes score videos of unknown and obscure composers. 

 

I had this fascinating interview with him. It was meant to go for 30 minutes, but we lost track of time, and we went for 60 minutes! From this interview, I’ve extracted some of the most relevant parts for you for this video.  

 

You’re going to hear Julian’s opinions on perfecting pieces, on how he edits videos for his YouTube channel and also his advice when it comes to improving sight-reading.  

 

 

If you prefer to read, here is the transcript of the interview: 

Manu: And so, you did concerts. Did you also do exams and things like that? 

 

Julian: You mean music exams or something? 

 

Manu: Yeah. 

 

Julian: Nothing at all. I think I did a test when I was, I don’t know, 13 or something, but it had no relevance for anything, basically. I did some competitions a couple of times, but my experience was not that.  

 

I’ve always been more amateur, so this is really correlated also to my sight-reading because, for me, it’s very hard to play a piece 100%. I could always play something 80%, and when I play for myself, it’s like millions of errors but I kind of know that because in my head, I know how it should sound, you know. But if you’re in a competition, then you don’t want to have 20 errors. You want to have one error at most. And I remember there were passages where until the competition, I didn’t figure out the fingering because I was just too… I have like this block in my head, and I never do it and then it’s like yeah, I’m gonna do it, kind of, whatever. You know, this is not professional. 

 

If it’s professional, I should really be OK, exactly know every time what I do. I can’t play without sheets, for example, because it takes too much time to be so along with the piece. The tempo I went through pieces has been really high. It’s been always high, but now it’s like really… I play a piece, and then I basically never play it again, so it’s a little bit crazy.  

 

But this doesn’t work at all with a professional way of doing it, so when people say “OK” or sometimes people comment negative like “Oh, this is so bad” or “It sounds so amateur”, and I’m not offended at all because it’s really amateur. And I’m really appreciating the professionals who do this all the day and practise that stuff ’cause it’s just different what I do, you know.  

 

Manu: Yeah. I feel like there are two kinds of musicians. There are the musicians who really specialize, and they do fewer pieces but like 100%.

 

Julian: Yes, right. 

 

Manu: And then you have other musicians, like yourself and like myself, who rather than do, you know, some pieces 100%, they do thousands of pieces 90% or something, so it’s like these two groups of people. 

 

Julian: There’s a general principle that if you have to… isn’t that, I don’t know how the principle’s called, but if you want to get to the 100%, it’s more time and more time for the last percent and for me this has been, to be honest, it has always been a bit boring. And it just takes the fun out of it so much. 

 

I play other instruments too, by the way. I play recorder and violin, I played many years, and I play organ and accordion, but piano was always the main thing, but I was always open to play instruments, and I had this recorder teacher, a flute teacher, and she was really… I played a piece by Telemann for 5 minutes, and if there was one error, she basically said, “OK, hm… let’s just try again”, you know, so then we played this piece like for one hour then the lesson was over. For me, that’s just ineffective. I mean, that’s a professional thing to be professional, to be perfect. It’s good to be perfect and so on, but yeah, I’m really in this lucky position that I can do the YouTube, and I have the PC. I can edit mistakes, you know, play a 7-minute piece, and I have a mistake in the end, I just edit it ‘cause realistically… 

 

Manu: Aha! You can do that? 

 

Julian: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I edit the notes. In the beginning, I edited really a lot of notes ’cause I had like two subscribers, first thing, and I had a keyboard which was 100 bucks, so I knew what I can do on a real grand, and I had this cheap unweighted thing so I thought, “OK, honestly I can edit it in such a way”…  

 

I never edited things because I couldn’t play it like that. I don’t know how to say it. I always wanted to edit it in such a way like I felt I really could pull it off on a grand without a problem or with a little bit of studying, so this was just my personal thing. I never wanted to, you know, play random wrong notes and then edit it perfectly because it takes too much time, one and second, it’s just not what I wanted to do.  

 

I always wanted to record it and just straight to YouTube, but because I have… Life is difficult. There are always external parameters, problems, so that’s how I do it. 

 

Manu: I’m just wondering how it works. So, do you use a special software to… Do you alter the pitch of the notes, is that…?  

 

Julian: Yeah, so I’ve always had E pianos, electronic pianos, digital pianos and so on. Now I have a hybrid piano which is this mixture of upright and electronic piano, and I have a cable which is just a USB cable which goes from the thing to the PC. And in the PC, I have plugins. So basically, when I play, in the piano, the information is captured. Everything I do. What I press, how quickly I press it, which pedal I press and so on. And this information is stored, and the cable it goes to the PC, and in the PC, there are these VST plugins which are samples, and then they play back this information with high-quality samples. And in my computer, I can see the notes I played. It’s like a visualisation of what I did. It’s in the piano roll, in my software I use. It’s called Piano Roll, which is like a piano here vertically and then I can see the notes which I played and then if I want to change something, I just drag it up or down or if I want to change the length, I just drag it longer or shorter.  

 

Manu: It’s a bit like Garage Band, right? 

 

Julian: Yes, right, but a little bit more expensive and professional thing but which I bought in the very beginning of this whole thing in 2018, but it’s very helpful. 

 

Manu: OK. Interesting. 

 

Julian: So maybe I should say something about sight-reading. A lot of people have asked me also in live streams, “Can’t you do a video where you talk about that, and it helps” and so on. For me, always, if I do a video, I wanted it to be very concise where I just say, “OK. This helps, this helps, this helps”, and so to make an effective video. I’m not good at effective because I always talk lengthy or I don’t know. And then also, it’s really hard to point out what really is the thing that helps for me or what I see is helpful to sight-read.  

 

One thing I know is if you play a lot, if you just play a lot of music, don’t stay at one thing, you will… for example, let’s say romantic music. Then you will just learn the harmonic progressions. It’s just a certain amount of harmonic progressions you will see. If it’s a piece like I played today, I think this is a F minor piece from the 1830s, and then if you have F minor, in my head, when I start the piece even before I play anything, subconsciously, I have C major, I have B-flat major, and I have A-flat major and things like that, which are like already stored so when I start to play the piece, I sight-read it. I know, OK, we will have now dominant, we will have subdominant, we will have something like that. 

 

I struggled a lot with modern music because when I play Prokofiev, it’s like, OK, I can play the first measure but then woosh! What happens in the second measure? You know. And I have no… and then I even don’t know. Is it even right what’s written there? And I have to…, and my CPU uses a lot of that thing for… “What are you using your CPU for?” is the question a little bit.  And many, many years, I couldn’t play, I couldn’t sight-read with both hands at the same time. 

 

I remember right now that I tried to play the right hand at least, you know, and then the left hand separately and then for me, it took a long time to play both. It’s like always the same a little bit. In romantic like, if you have a nocturne, you have this left hand which is pam pam pam, pam pam pam. If you have a mazurka, you will have, I don’t know. The left hand has this bom pam pam, bom pam pam. If it’s in A minor, there will be E major in some measures or something. So, it’s just an experience which helps a lot so that your CPU has more space to look a little bit also in the next measure. 

 

I think Formula… how do you say? Formula 1 drivers? The race cars? Formula 1 or? 

 

Manu: F1, maybe. 

 

Julian: F1. Let’s say F1. I heard that how they drive, because they’re so quick, you know, they have to be very quick and we, when we sight-read, we have to be quick too. I heard they basically look into the next corner already. A normal person would look into this corner, but they already look at the next corner. So, when I sight-read something, then I try to look already at the next measure in some sense. 

 

Manu: So, for all the members who are, you know, more at the start of their journey, what advice would you give when it comes to sight-reading? 

 

Julian: This is a difficult question, of course, because everybody has a different background, everybody has a different technique. Also, the way you approach the music is different for everybody ‘cause sometimes you can say, “Do this, do that,” but it will just have a different effect. 

 

I think you need to be sure or realize what your level is, what you can play. Look at things you can do and look at things you can’t do and just see, OK this is what I could, because sometimes people I think also watch my channel or they try too difficult things. You shouldn’t force it. It doesn’t make fun if you just try to play something so hard. It’s just frustrating. 

 

And this is just because really this is something I learned also. There was so much music very beautiful nice music at almost every level and everybody just plays, this is another thing, I don’t know what people play. Czerny or how do they call them? The standard things which everybody plays that is like la la la la, la la la la, la la la la, la la la la but there are from Russia for example. 

 

Manu: Hanon? 

 

Julian: Yeah, right. Things like that. Hanon. But there are like literally hundreds of children’s piano books with nice melodic beautiful pieces which help you to improve your sight-reading ‘cause the level is not that high, it separates left and right hand. Yeah. So, I would suggest to play these things to improve with these things. 

 

Biggest takeaways? 

In summary, Julian Zalla advises you to:

  • Play a lot of music so that you learn common harmonic progressions and patterns. 
  • Try to look at the next bar like a F1 driver looking at the next corner.  
  • Know your level and don’t play pieces that are too difficult for you otherwise it will just be frustrating. 
  • Play easy pieces like those you find in children’s books.
  • Ask yourself, “What am I using my CPU for?”

 

This interview is one of many more to come for members inside my membership, the Sight-Reading Club. All the interviews are recorded and the replays are available for members to watch. When you join, you will get access to these videos as well. 

 

If you want to learn more about the Sight-Reading Club, then I invite you to go to this link where you can join the waitlist to be first notified when the doors reopen again.  

 

And don’t forget to check out Julian Zalla’s YouTube channel and to subscribe, if you haven’t already. 

 

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    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.

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