Sight Reading, Part I
This is a rather long but critically important posting ...
There may be some who are reading these lines whose interest in organ music has already been stimulated but who still lack a solid foundation of basic technical knowledge. To be a competent instrumentalist we need good coordination of ear, eye, and touch. A good teacher will be concerned that our awareness and sensitivity develop with a reasonable degree in all 3 senses. This process will seem less daunting by giving our eye a clear image of what our ear can expect to hear. At the same time, not all symbols written above or below a musical score have a fixed or absolute meaning. Some elements of musical language are open to interpretation. An interesting and original reading of these elements is the vital 4th dimension in any performance.
When we first start playing a keyboard instrument, typically we aren't fully aware of where this adventure may take us, how long we might stick with it, or even any inkling of how much talent we might have, if any. We're simply playing for our own enjoyment and sense of discovery. In the beginning two things start out at zero: 1) our ear and memorization, and 2) our sight reading skill. These two curves of progress separate from each other as time passes and proceed on their own. The more musical talent we have, generally the better will be our ear, the better will be our ability to memorize, and, in time, the more our ear and memorization will soar higher and dominate the weaker member, which is the eye. Left to itself, the two curves over time typically get further and further apart until, at some point, they're so far apart that we're sensing the inequality, if not disparity, between the two. This is usually the point where we can't seem to wade through the hymn book very well, handle new music, or make any real progress with learning the repertoire ... until, that is, we go back and retrain our brain to sight read the page more fluently to bring this skill up to speed.
Those with a good ear are often less determined to work at sight reading. They get to thinking it's an innate quality that they can't change instead of a skill that can be improved over time with the right kind of practice. And, if they never really made a point of sight reading with regularity, typically they just assume that, in that department, they're a lost cause. I knew an organist, now deceased, who managed to play successfully for a number of years only in the keys of C and few flats merely because, incredibly, he never learned how to read the sharp keys. But what an impediment it was for him, to be unable to read or play anything in sharp keys from a hymn book, from the literature, or from any unpublished score, because he never trained his brain to read in all the keys. Sight reading isn't fundamentally musical, but it's definitely a survival skill if we're wanting to get somewhere with vocal or choral accompanying or playing anything in the standard repertoire.
Sight reading is a special craft within the art of music that won't come automatically -- it must be worked at, just as one would work at developing technique or interpretation. A metronome (photo) and some simpler music or old beginner books are needed for this, the reason being that sight reading is nothing more than speeding up our reflexes against a constant of time, and this cannot be accomplished unless the music is well below our technical ability to play and a strict tempo is adhered to throughout the passage or piece. We start at a very slow tempo, and, if we make a mistake or two, we keep going and under no circumstances stop the tempo or the progress of the piece. If we do stop and go back and fix a mistake, the whole purpose of the sight reading drill is lost. Also, when drilling for sight reading, we never review old pieces no matter how many mistakes we made in sight reading them; we only go ahead to new ones. Music that has been played even once is no longer consdiered sight reading material.
Professional pianist and piano pedagogue Zach Evans has divided sight-reading into 4 separate subskills. His thesis is that SIGHT READING IS NOT JUST ONE SKILL -- IT'S A SET OF SUBSKILLS which interconnect, any one of which is essential and needs to be developed separately. It also takes NO MUSICAL TALENT WHATSOEVER to become a good sight-reader. It works just like learning to type -- we see symbols on the page, we press keys, and then speed up our reflexes to repeat this against a constant of time. Arriving at a plateau in sight-reading seems to be related to a deficiency in one or more of these 4 subskills. Once the new organist begins to understand this, a giant leap has been taken in becoming a good sight-reader.
These subskills consist of the following:
1) Quickly Scanning Ahead -- Before we play a single note our eyes need to first survey the notes on the page to recognize patterns, find those that are repeated and those which are different, and any changes in key signature, time signature, or accidentals; SCAN THE MUSIC FOR PATTERNS AND REPEATED SECTIONS;
2) Not Stopping At Mistakes -- The mind needs to be retrained NOT to stop to fix something when we make a mistake and to ignore mistakes, stay in tempo, and keep on going no matter what. It's highly recommended to use a super slow tempo at first so that mistakes will be less likely. PLAY THROUGH THE MUSIC WITH NO STOPPING NO MATTER WHAT;
3) Quickly Reading Notes As Chords -- It sounds unnecessary, but, with each new chord or change in harmony we should pause and say it out loud, what kind of chordal harmony it is -- this means stopping and saying out loud C Major, G7th, F Major, d minor 7th, etc. GO THROUGH THE MUSIC AND FIGURE OUT THE CHORDS;
4) Keyboard Topography -- We should try to play the entire piece, with hands separate if need be, until we can confidently find our way around the keys without looking down. PLAY THROUGH THE MUSIC WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE KEYBOARD.
If we develop a long-term workout plan specifically designed to dominate each of these subskills it can be expected to help bust through any sight-reading plateaus and enable us to make steady, daily progress. It helps to take a sheet of paper (or an Excel spread sheet), make a grid, put a different key in each horizontal row and a level 1 through 8 in each vertical column. This functions as a sight-reading monitor. The next thing to do is pick ONE KEY A WEEK and drill rock-solid in that one key each week, starting with the key of C Major, rather than try to learn them all at the same time. If we choose the same key we're learning with the scales we can drill the fingers and muscel memory at the same time that we're drilling the mind when we're practicing sight-reading, which is more productive and time-effective than trying to learn each separately. The next thing is to take one sight-reading example and go through the 4 steps, then another example, a little every day.
Once a key gets solid at a certain level using this sight-reading monitor, we cross it off or highlight the box. This shows that level to be "done" and we can spend more time on higher levels and, as the weeks go by, different keys. After 12 weeks we find ourselves back at the key of C and quickly jump up several levels because the overall sight-reading ability has increased. While this is not a "learn sight-reading in a week" method and demands consistent, disciplined practice, it yields results a lot faster than the hit-or-miss "play through random pieces" method.
If we stick to this method, all that remains is to settle on suitable material.
We should PICK OUT MUSIC THAT'S NOT TOO EASY, NOT TOO DIFFICULT, AND PROVIDES A CHALLENGE. This is usually at the new organist's current grade level plus one. These days it's now possible to locate the kind of material quickly that's just the right level of difficulty by means of a software program which provides an infinite number of examples suitable for any Piano Grade (1-8) which can be purchased online for one yearly reasonable fee.
Being able to sight read organ music reaonably well is a necessary tool for handling new music quickly. No other single factor can make or break our dream in organ playing than how well we can handle new music, and, when all of its layers are peeled back, we find sight reading at its core. Our approach to developing this skill cannot afford to be indifferent or half-hearted. We cannot afford to shrink away from it. If we feel called to be a keyboard musician, then there is no real detour around it -- it's really a non-nogotiable point. The way to go at it is with a full frontal assault, head-on, with determination to develop it, keep it maintained, and not let it scare us when the occasion arises to test us. It's simply a matter of familiarity. The more we do it, the less scary it becomes.
If we can sight read a hymn or a simple piece from sight without preparation, then probably the amount of time needed to master this hymn or piece, or any other piece, will be minimal. This skill is so important that every Guild examination [See blog, American Guild of Organists (AGO)] for certification includes at least one sight reading test: for Service Playing (SPC), it's a passage on 2 staves; for Colleague (CAGO) it's a passage on 3 staves; for Associate (AAGO) it's a longer passage in open score (separate staff for each voice) in G and F clefs, i.e., in the manner of an open choral score; for Fellow (FAGO) it's an organ work on 3 staves of 2-3 pages and a passage in open score in C and F clefs (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, in the manner of a Bach chorale from one of the Dover cantata scores); for Choir Master (ChM) it's a 4 part hymn setting.
The first 4 of these 5 Guild examinations also include a transposition requirement at the keyboard [See blog, Transposing] ... up/down a M2nd or m2nd for SPC, CAGO, and AAGO, and up/down as far as a M3rd or m3rd for FAGO. This is not included as a stunt merely for the purposes of display but, like other techniques, it's part of an organist's total musicianship and reinforces the need for this important skill in order that we may add beauty to and facilitate our service playing. Transposition is in fact a type of sight reading and comes in handy in various situations: for example, when altering the key of a hymn to make it more comfortable for the congregation to sing (usually this means moving it down a M2nd or m2nd), when changing keys from one hymn verse to another so we can reproduce it in the new key (usually this means moving it up a M2nd or m2nd into a higher, brighter key), when working with choirs, moving the pitch of a piece to change the vocal color of the music (moving it up a M2nd or m2nd can make an already lively piece have a special "ring" to it ... moving it down a M2nd or m2nd can render a quiet, reflective piece even more somber), and finally, it helps in improvisation where it may be necessary not only to change melodies and harmonies but to make a mode shift from major to minor, or vice versa.
This may soud far too daunting and virtually beyond the average person's musical capabilities, but one thing should be remembered: It takes no musical talent whatsoever to learn to sight read (or transpose) music. Read that again.
Sight reading is a separate set of subskills and simply a matter of training the reflexes. Musical talent takes no part in it, just like it takes no writing talent to be able to type, same difference. You simply see symbols, then press keys. And there appears to be no correlation between interest in the piece and the ability to sight read it; it may be as dull as paint, you could have zero interest in it, and you can still sight read it. You don't stop to count lines and spaces which only inserts another mental step into the process. You simply recognize symbols at sight and press keys. It's just like reading a book. You just do it and maintain a steady beat. The best sight readers seem to be those who read a lot of books. There seems to be some correlation between the different types of reading letter patterns as forming words, on the one hand, and note patterns forming music on the other. Their eyes are already trained to read ahead. Those who have difficulties sight reading often admit to not being active readers of the written word. Just as your eyes precede your voice by a few words when you're reciting out loud from the printed page, so your eyes need to precede your hands by a few beats when you're sight reading music.
Here are some tips: first of all, do it regularly if you can, every day even if it's just for a few minutes, one or two pages of simplified music. If 4 parts or 3 parts, or even 2 parts, together are too much for you, then practice only one line at a time, first one hand and then the other, or maybe the pedal, then, the next day, maybe read it by putting 2 of the voices together and only later sight read 3 and 4 parts at the same time. The biggest mistake we can make in the beginning is taking it at too fast a tempo. We have the story that when J.S. Bach visited his friends he had this tradition or habit of getting to the harpsichord, picking out some unfamilar music on the rack, and sight reading it right away. On one occasion he stopped and got stuck in the middle of one page and repeated the page 3 times. Finally he decided it wasn't possible to sight read everything perfectly, even for him. Even HE got stuck. So there's no magic bullet that will allow us to sight read everything at concert tempo without any mistakes [See blog, How To Learn A Fugue].
Don't play your first note until you've surveyed the music. Let your eyes be the boss first, and then, after you know the correct way to play, i.e. how the composer intends it, you can let your ears take over. A good teacher will recommend, when you prepare to sight read new material, to mentally prepare for it. Take some 20-30 seconds to look over the whole page or piece, notice key signature, meter, try to discover the more difficult measures in terms of chromatic notes, rhythms, sycopations, etc. This way you'll be watchful for what's coming. Then, when you start playing the piece (or a single voice), it's good if you can get into the habit of looking a little bit ahead of where your hands are playing. All the musicianship in the world is not much use until you've developed the ability to read ahead of the notes you're playing. Don't worry if, at first, it seems like this is going to be a difficult task. After you start doing it your note reading ability will become much better and you'll be able to look ahead easily. Remember that bad reading progresses 1 beat at a time. Good reading always involves looking a little ahead, past where the hands happen to be occupied at the moment.
TAKE IT SLOW -- SUPER SLOW AT FIRST -- slow enough that you have a chance of playing it without mistakes. KEEP MOVING AND DON'T STOP FOR ANYTHING -- tell yourself you can't go back and fix mistakes. KEEP THEORY IN MIND -- recognize harmony and harmonic progressions, which is a huge part of "educated guessing." READ AHEAD, NEVER A BEAT AT A TIME -- the further ahead you can get, the more processing time your brain will have. MAKE IT SOUND MUSICAL -- dynamics, phrasing, timing, character, passion, these are all parts of the music. Don't let sight reading turn you into a soul-less typewriter.
Lots of new material should be used, and there should be minimal repetition, where you don't go back and correct mistakes or memorize. You should, in the very beginning, take only 2 voices or maybe even one voice at a time. Move along always and don't get bogged down. If you run into a mistake, forget it and keep going. If you absolutely must fix it, then do it without going back over the measures which preceded it. Develop a "feel for keys, eyes on music" habit. Don't interrupt the "page to eyes to fingers" cycle by looking down at the keys. Short but frequent practice sessions at sight reading can be expected to work better than long sessions.
Good reading ability is a skill that also improves your general practice, as it gives you a clear picture of the result you're looking for even before all the details are in place. Practice becomes more focused and relevant. Your practice level increases with your sight reading level. If you can sight read anything in level 1, you can practice level 2. But if you're still sight reading level 1 when you're practicing level 3, you will spend more time practicing than if you were sight reading at level 2.
Thisisthewaymoststudentsreadmusic. You need to learn to read music like you would read any language. In music there are also familiar words formed through harmonic and melodic contexts. We need to learn to see these "words" instead of the individual letters that make them up. Sight reading is really about knowing how to read a language and understanding its grammatical syntax.
It's important to understand that sight reading and improvisation are 2 completely different skill sets. Some very proficient sight readers admit to not being able to improvise a single measure of music [See blog, Improvisation, Parts I-IV]. There is much useful source material which the new organist can use for sight reading exercise, and there is no one road to learning this critically important skill, but there are some general principles and recommendations with which most teachers can be expected to wholeheartedly agree ...
At the outset, we should beware of trying to sight read fugues. Fugues are unlike any other piece of music and demand a special way of learning them [See blog, How To Learn A Fugue] due to their dense texture. As for starter material for sight reading moving contrapuntal lines, there are many possibilities. If the ambition of the new organist is to play Bach (which is like most of us), AND provided that the sight reader is far enough along to take on his 2-Part Inventions -- then we might try sight reading just one voice of one Invention every day, right hand the first day, and then left hand the second day, working on this 2 days, then moving to the next Invention. This is a 30 day challenge because there are 15 of these 2-part Inventions. If we have the motivation and patience to do this step by step and trust that we'll see results at the end of this long way, it will pay big dividends. Also, if we would try doing this when we first sit down at the organ bench to practice and follow it with a short improvisation on what we just read at sight, it's a good way of warming up before working on learning hymns or repertoire.
One source for practicing sight-reading in 2 moving lines, one for each hand, are any of the bicinia in the Notenbuechlein (Little Note Book) for Anna Magdalena Bach. The authorship of the vast majority of the 40 little pieces contained among the sheets of this notebook is unknown. Johann Sebastian contributed very little of his own music to it. What he did contribute was the 3rd and 6th of the 6 Partitas which he collected in 1731 as part of the first part of the Klavieruebung and which had been published separately since 1726. The possibility of him having any part in the conception of many of the simple period pieces in the "gallant" style which it includes has been ruled out completely. In this connection, some of the simpler pieces from Bach's remaining 4 Partitas and his French and English Suites, if they are taken very, very slowly, might (emphasis on "might") also be suitable for practicing sight-reading, but be forewarned: anything by J.S. Bach almost always poses a significant challenge especially at the earlier sight-reading grade levels. Later on, the 15 remaining 3-Part Inventions (known as "Symphonias") might be used for sight reading practice in 3 moving lines, first by reading each line separately, then putting them together 2 at a time BEFORE trying to read all 3 together. This should only be attempted when the sight reader has arrived at a more advanced stage, as these are of more dense texture and consequently more difficult. In this connection the Alfred Masterwork edition of the Bach Inventions and Sinfonias edited by Willard A. Palmer, plastic comb binding, recommends itself for study. This edition lays flat on the rack, has been highly researched, compares variants in autographs of manuscripts, contains suggestions for fingering and dynamics, and has an extensive section on the use of ornaments in these works.
When we want to get started sight reading 4 parts on 2 staves, and we're looking for material that's limited to whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, the complete collection of harmonizations of the 150 Genevan psalms [The Psalms, 2nd edition, by Dennis Teitsma] which are available in PDF format as a free download (www.bookofpraise.ca) can be very helpful. For those who are comfortable with playing in 4 voices from the get go, this is a good place to start. History students will recall that during the Great Reformation of the mid-1500's, and under the guidance of John Calvin in Geneva, the Book of Psalms and other Bible songs were versified and melodies were composed to reflect the content and character of each song; these tunes were written in 9 of the age-old 12 "church modes" that had developed in the Western world since the 5th century and were collected in a book called the Genevan Psalter.
Each harmonization in Teitsma's collection fills a page and is written to accompany unison congregational singing of the 150 Psalms on Genevan tunes from the Book of Praise/Anglo-Genevan Psalter of the Canadian Reformed Churches. The harmonies are simplified but not simplistic and are relatively easy to play. In keeping with the Geneva Psalter there are no bar lines and no time signatures; rests are written into the notation to indicate pauses between phrases. Very brief preludes of several beats are also added to properly identify each song, its rhythm, and its pitch, and very brief postludes of a few beats follow each psalm to allow a musical closure. This gives each setting a nice touch. While the purpose of making these harmonizations was to encourage the unison singing of the Genevan tunes, they also make very good initial sight reading exercises prior to hymnal reading and can be memorized and used in a wide variety of teaching and performing situations. It's important to remember however, that these psalm settings are choral music, not organ or keyboard music, which the organist arranges to be playable at the organ.
A useful source of material for sight reading in 4 parts on 2 staves are the hymn intonations written by the late Theodore Beck. These come in 3 collections entitled 1) Intonations For The Hymn Of The Week, 2) Intonations On Selected Hymns, and 3) Forty Seven Hymn Intonations. These short pieces are all well written, fit on one page or a half page, have a simplified pedal part written on the bottom staff, and are very useful as mini-preludes which may be used to introduce the playing of hymns from the hymn book. Originally published under copyright from Concordia Publishing House, the copyrights for these out-of-print collections have been returned to the Beck family who through their generosity have made them available as a free public domain download from Beck Music (www.beck-music.com). Again, this is choral music, not organ music, which the author has arranged for the organ.
Eugene Gigout, a pupil of Camille Saint-Saens, was organist at St. Augustin in Paris and is noted for composing many fine pieces which have made it into the standard organ repertoire, but he also wrote a ton of easier organ music for two staves, many of which make good sight reading material. Each of the 2 Volumes of his Gregorian Album contain 115 pieces of various lengths in all the church modes, and some very short interludes are among the 230 pieces in this collection. Music of this type, once used for sight reading, will be found useful somewhere in the worship service. This is an important collection to have.
Johann Adolph Troppmann it a little-known composer today, but he was a 19th century organist and choirmaster at Regensburg, one of Germany's oldest cities. Among other things, he composed nearly 100 original preludes on 2 staves and collected them into 3 volumes, grouping them among pieces on 2 staves by various composers. These were published in 3 Volumes under the title Orgelschatz. Volume 1 contains 100 pieces (66 by Troppmann), Volume 2 contains 88 pieces (16 by Troppmann), and Volume 3 contains 75 pieces (15 by Troppmann). Two pieces for harmonium are also included as an addendum to each Volume. The vast majority of this music may be played with hands only. If and when the lowest bass note is notated for the pedal, the part for the pedal is very simplified. Volume I might be selected at first for relatively easy sight-reading material. These pieces also have a practical use and could be quickly learned if and when a new, short prelude is needed.
For those students who want their learning of this skill to be more formally structured, something like the Organ Sight Reading Master Course compiled by Lithuanian organist, composer, and pedagogue Dr. Vidas Pinkevicius, available on line from his web page [Secrets of Organ Playing], is a powerful tool which gradually retrains the brain in successive steps to sight read more complex notation. While it takes fully 9 months of disciplined, daily practice to complete, this course is extremely comprehensive and, after its completion, sight reading any of these harmonizations on the psalms, any hymn intonations, or any hymn from the hymn book, will be a piece of cake.
Standard hymnals with all hymns printed clearly in 4 voices in short score (2 staff) can be an excellent source of useful, sight reading material once the student gains more experience working with easier music (photo). Many earlier editions of hymnals have a very flexible binding which, when opened, allows the book to sit flat on the rack. Hymns are not organ music; they are choral music which the organist arranges to make playable at the organ, and when sight reading from a hymnal with many text lines inserted between the 2 staves, when the space between the 2 staves increases, it really becomes similar to open score reading. The only difference from playing from an open score and a hymn written this way is that in open score notation you have at least 4 staves with 4 parts, and in hymn playing you have 2 staves. Practicing hymn playing this way is even more similar to reading open score because even in open score you are supposed to master solo parts, 2 parts at a time, and various combinations in 3 parts before progressing to the complete 4 part texture. Pupils often have a difficult time sight reading a hymn with so much text written between the 2 staves because they're not used to open score reading.
The practicing of sight reading hymns in 4 parts may proceed 3 ways: 1) as written, with both hands on the same manual, all 4 voices in the hands, 2) playing the bass line with the feet, the tenor in the left hand, and the alto and soprano in the right hand, and 3) soloing out the top line with the right hand on a manual with a heavier registration, the alto and tenor in the left hand on a secondary manual, and the bass in the pedals. The fascinating part about working with hymns is, other combinations might be practiced where the pedals play the tenor line with an 8-foot stop drawn, or maybe with the pedals playing the alto or soprano line with a 4-foot stop drawn, and dividing the remaining parts between the hands. With practice, this is also a sight reading skill, a powerful one at that, which can be developed to lend considerable variety to our hymn playing.
There are a few other tips which can prove helpful for playing hymns printed with the words of the hymn occupying wide space between the upper and lower staves:
1. Study harmony away from the instrument and check out your ability to anticipate and mentally harmonize the top line. When an organist who knows harmony looks at the soprano line, in their mind they visualize the primary chords which go well with the soprano part. It won't take long for you to begin to see the various chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant, their inversions, 7th chords of various kinds, etc.) which fit best with the melody.
2. If possible, take mental note of which verse you're playing without actually following the text. In this case you can concentrate on playing the music only.
3. Remember that learning is like layering sheets of paper (See Balance in Organ Playing, Parts II, III). After sight reading about 100 hymns from various hymnals written in this way, it gets easier and easier. A good teacher generally recommends sight reading every day on a regular basis, and sight reading hymns as soon as possible. Remember that we don't need to sight read all 4 parts right away. This is exactly what makes it difficult for the beginner trying to learn. We start with just the top voice. When sight reading seprate parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) in all the keys starts to get easy, we can then move to sight reading in various combinations of 2 and 3 voices, SLOWLY, in roughly half the regular tempo. Only then do we attempt to put all 4 parts together.
The 4 voice settings of the Bach Chorales may be tried for sight reading exercise when the sight reader is more advanced. This will be found more challenging than sight reading hymns in 4 parts from the hymn book because Bach's voice lines are advanced, more independent, and sometimes cross (bass with tenor, tenor with alto, and alto with soprano). This, once again, is choral music, not organ music, which Bach has arranged from the Lutheran hymn book of his day to be playable at a keyboard instrument, but still there are some things about this music that can have us wondering why he wrote it like he did -- isolated passages where we might find all 4 lines moving in similar motion, consecutive 5ths and octaves, frustrated leading notes (7th scale degrees functioning as leading tones which fail to resolve by rising a half step to the tonic -- at final cadences these sometimes fall to the 5th scale degree), and even stretches of a 10th which are impossible for those with small hands to perform at a keyboard, as written. Still, all Western music schools immerse their students in these chorale settings as soon as they enter their course of instruction, considering them to be the foundation stone of Western music education. Many of the tunes found in these chorales are ancient modal melodies which Bach harmonized in the major/minor system, thus creating a kind of hybrid piece connecting the Renaissance modes with what we understand today as tonal harmony [See blog, Modal Harmony].
One of the best editions of these chorales for sight reading purposes or general study is J.S. Bach 413 Chorales, edited by Christopher Czarnecki. The entire Bach school of music education is, in many ways, contained within the pages of this well organized, spiral bound book in which just about every chorale harmonization in it occupies just one page. The fraternal organist especially, who may be performing routinely on a one manual instrument or stage piano having pipe organ samples and is looking for useful music, would do well to have this book handy.
NOTE: In 2019 Google Doodle created its first ever Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered Doodle to encourage even the less musically-inclined to create Bach-like melodies of their own. Users working with their own browser can now begin to compose a 2-measure melody in the top line treble staff for the mini band to play, which then transforms with the press of a button, adding an alto, tenor, and bass line in Bach's signature baroque music style to make a 4-part texture. This type of machine learning is a process of teaching a computer to come up with its own answers by showing it a lot of examples. By teaching the computer to recognize note patterns it is then instructed to fill in 3 additional voices below any top line that the user invents. The model used here was trained on 306 of Bach's Chorale harmonizations, since developers felt that this music had "all the rules" for how to write good harmonies and melodies baked-in, providing a really good mission resource for learning music. The fact that this music is also a veritable instruction manual for how to go about breaking all the so-called rules and getting away with it also was evidently part of the premise for this project. The developers' hope is that this new Doodle, called "Auto-Bach," will allow people to feel like they can dream a little more about what they can do musically in the future. It's chief value for the new organist seems to be in its ability to provide examples which help sharpen the eye to look for things the Doodle is doing that replicate any mysterious quirks we know the composer "baked into" the model himself (e.g., impossible stretches for small hands, frustrated leading notes, all voices moving in similar motion, consecutive 5ths and octaves) -- and to look for anything else the Doodle may choose to introduce into a 4-part harmony which might be improved upon, such as premature modulations (before the tonic tonality is firmly established) or any dissonant minor 2nds which it may set up between adjacent voices.
A very good place to practice sight reading on two staves is with the first two Volumes of The Liturgical Organist, edited and arranged (during the 1940's) by Rev. Carlo Rossini who was serving then as organist and choirmaster of St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh. This series of books, an anthology of music by various composers, consists of 7 Volumes with Volume 1 comprising easy pieces and Volume 2 rated easy-medium. The remaining Volumes are rated medium with Volume 6 containing longer compositions. THE MUSIC IN VOLUMES 1 AND 2 ARE IMPORTANT FOR THE EMERGING ORGANIST TO HAVE. These are short, tuneful, in fairly long note values, and are immediately useful for shorter situations and time requirements. Each section focuses on a specific key (major, then relative minor) and can be easily repeated -- or, the organist can turn to the next piece as they flow well and are arranged that way (by key). None of them are sourced, and some seem to be transcriptions even when not labeled as such (the only information given for each selection is a composer, key, and tempo marking). While a very large cross section of composers is represented in these 7 Volumes the music contains a lot of accidentals which gives it a particular feel -- a chromaticism which tends to reinforce that attribute of organists to continually stretch what they can do tonally by stepping outside the comfort zone of the diatonic scale -- something which also makes these little pieces good models for improvisation.
The 30 Short and Easy Preludes (in all major and minor keys for Organ manualiter or harmonium) Op. 48 by Joseph Renner, jun. might also be consulted for additional sight reading material on 2 staves. Renner, a lesser known German composer whose career straddled the late 19th and early 20th centuries, served as organist at the Cathedral of Regensburg and developed a compositional style based on that of his teacher Joseph Rheinberger and the Munich School. While these pieces, if learned, would have a number of useful applications, each piece from this collection occupies only one page and mostly proceeds in longer note values, thus suiting them for sight reading practice.
Another useful resource that can be recommended for learning to sight read on 2 staves in all the keys is the 100 Interludes for Organ by June Nixon. This is a collection of short works from one-half to 2 pages long written in 3- and 4-part harmony entirely playable without pedal and with optional pedal indications for the closing cadences. Dom Gregory Murray also wrote a useful collection of 100 Interludes for organ which are short, tuneful, beautiful pieces for hands only which are not only useful in the liturgy but make good sight reading material. The Kevin Mayhew publishing company in England has issued a collection called 148 Interludes for Organ which includes material by Dom Gregory Murray as well as by Andrew Moore and the rather better known Noel Rawsthorne. While each piece is printed on 2 staves and can be played entirely on the manuals if no pedalboard is available (or if the new organist isn't comfortable yet with playing the pedals in public) there are clear indications as to when pedals can be used for the bass line.
When it comes time to add an obligatory pedal part to our sight reading exercise and we're still looking for music on 2 staves, something like the 2 Volumes of Organ Preludes by Dr. Joseph Surzynski, Op. 8, Op. 12 can be tried. Surzynski was a Polish composer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who served as organist/choirmaster at the Cathedral of Poznan. The 10 pieces in each of these volumes (20 preludes altogether) are written in 4-part harmony which the composer expands, at times, to 5, 6, or 7 voices. A little practice with this type of transitional music in which the lowest note on the bass staff is to be separated out and assigned to the pedals, as with sight reading 4-part hymns, helps prepare the way for the eyes to read a seprate pedal line from a 3rd staff.
When we're ready to begin this process of sight reading easier contrapuntal organ music from 3 staves one place to begin is with the 50 Four-Part Little Fugues, Vols. I and II, by Johann Ernst Rembt. Rembt, a little known composer, lived in Bach's homeland (Thuringia, in central Germany) but in the generation following J.S. Bach, and wrote many small pieces for organ, some of them in fugal style. The majority of the little fugues in this collection occupy just one page and have subjects which, for the most part, are short and proceed in longer note values. Answers, typically in the dominant along with counterpoints which do not develop into countersubjects, are often tonal. After a conventional 4-part exposition followed by a few measures of development or perhaps some imitations in related keys each piece closes with a perfect cadence. These little fugues which are more properly termed "fughettas" are interesting because of their miniature length, voice-leading, and the fact that if learned they make brief but useful music to conclude a worship service or fraternal ceremony. They also sound harder to play than they really are.
The obscure and underrated British composer Caleb Simper was a prodigious writer of choral music, anthems, and organ music. Of his organ works which have survived, his Voluntaries for Organ, Books 1-12, each Book containing 17 Voluntaries, were written for the village organist of limited skill. During the Victorian period in England collections of Voluntaries like these suitable for the Anglican worship service were written by many British composers. The thing that sets Simper's Voluntaries apart is that they're on the short side but still have good musical substance and, for those who would like to use them right away, they can be quickly learned. These are pieces with a pedal part but many of them can be played with hands only, many of them also fit on one page, and, by being written on only 2 staves, they're not terribly hard to sight read. Simper's Voluntaries also lean heavily on the homophonic side and contain some of the chromaticism characteristic of this era, both characteristics of which did not tend to make them fashionable or enduring in the generations which followed. They nevertheless remain tuneful, well-crafted, harmonious, and make for some very useful sight reading material. One might try working from Books 1-3 first, then, if desired, the other books.
Once the student is more proficient in sight reading from two staves and feels ready to take on 3 staves with an independent pedal part some teachers prescribe Marcel Dupre's Seventy-Nine Chorales Op. 28. These pieces are written on the same melodies as the 79 old chorales most often used by J.S. Bach in his chorale preludes. They were written for the purpose of familiarizing new organists with these same melodies in the earlier stages of their work to help prepare them for study of the Bach chorale preludes which, due to their contrapuntal complexity, are more difficult and harder to learn. None of "the 79" occupy more than 2 pages each, many of them occupy only one page, and all of them, save for 2, are written on 3 staves. Dupre has also included fingering, hand division, and pedaling indications for every piece in this collection. These are suitable for practicing sight reading at the organ when a shorter, more simplified passage on 3 staves is desired.
A few more words about "the 79": In this set Dupre includes some instruction about his memorization procedures [See blog, Practicing And Memorizing, Part I]. Whether or not the new organist chooses to adopt Dupre's or some other system for memorization, this is a very handy set for church musicians to have because they're all based on chorale tunes which can be applied to various occasions. These pieces are not too difficult and not too long, thus well suited to the work-a-day organist who's always short on this kind of music that can be learned fast and applied to a weekly worship service. Dupre also gives the order of difficulty, so the easier ones can be selected at first. They would make a nice introduction to trio-playing or legato technique needed when performing the Romantic and Modern repertoire.
As for preparation for playing the Bach chorale preludes however the organ works of other Baroque composers, particularly Johann Pachelbel, are perhaps better suited to that particular purpose for advanced sight readers than Dupre's "79." Young J.S. Bach studied many of Pachelbel's scores, and the latter's many Chorale Preludes and Fugues on the Magnificat notated on 2 staves are still well suited to the needs of church musicians down to this day. While none of his organ music is particularly easy to sight read, Pachelbel, who was from the generation before J.S. Bach and taught Organ to the latter's older brother Johann Christoph Bach, was an important composer of organ music whose works merit study in their own right.
This list of possible material for sight-reading practice at the organ is by no means complete, but hopefully it will provide a useful starting point for the new organist.
(con't in Part II)