Sep. 9, 2015

Sight Reading, Part I

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 study 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 simple 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 a survival skill that we need to acquire if we're wanting to get anywhere with our organ playing.

Being able to sight reading organ music opens doors (photo).  It's a great and necessary tool for churning through new music and a ton of repertoire 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 detour around it.  It must be dealt with.  It must be FACED in a full frontal assault, head-on, with a ferocious courage, discipline, and determination to tame it, develop it, keep it maintained, and not let it scare us when the occasion arises (and sooner or later, it will) to show our strength with it.  It's simply a matter of familiarity.  The more we do it, the less scary it becomes.

The easier we can sight read music, the easier we can learn it.  If we can sight read a hymn or medium difficult 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 sounds at first too daunting and virtually beyond the average person's musical capabilities but should not be found intimidating.  It takes no musical talent whatsoever to learn to sight read (or transpose) music.  Read that again.

Sight reading is a separate skill and simply a matter of training the brain.  You see symbols, press keys.  It's as simple as that, just like typing.  Musical talent takes no part in it, just like it takes no writing talent to be able to type, same difference.  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.  It also seems that 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 every day, for a few minutes, one or two pages.  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.  The fact is, it's not possible to sight read everything, even for Bach.  There's the story that when 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.  So there's no magic bullet that will allow us to sight read everything in a fast tempo without any mistakes.

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 be the boss.  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 only 1 beat at a time.  Good reading always involves looking a little ahead, past where the hands happen to be occupied at the moment.

1.  Go slow -- enough that you have a chance of playing it perfectly the 1st time.

2.  Don't stop -- tell yourself you can't go back and fix mistakes.

3.  Use theory -- recognize harmony and harmonic progressions, which is a huge part of "educated guessing."

4.  Look ahead -- the further ahead you can get, the more processing time you have.

5.  Make music -- dynamics, phrasing, timing, character, passion, these are all parts of the music.  Don't let sight reading turn you into a soulless typewriter.

The music chosen should be simple and far below one's playing level.  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].

In the beginning, it's a good suggestion to work in J.S. Bach's 2-Part Inventions, sight read one voice of one Invention every day, right hand the first day, and then left hand the second day.  Work on this 2 days, then move 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.  If we 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 our music, our repertoire or hymns.  Later on, the remaining 15 3-Part Inventions (called "Symphonias") of Bach 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, but this is for when the sight reader has arrived at a more advanced stage.

When you want to get started sight reading 4 parts on 2 staves where it helps if the duration of note values are 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 ( 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.

Other good source material for sight reading 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 (  Again, this is choral music, not organ music, which the author has arranged for the organ.

For those students who want their learning of this skill to be more 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 9 months 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 sight reading material once the student gains more experience working with easier music to sight read, such as Teitsma's psalm harmonizations or Beck's hymn intonations.  Many earlier editions of hymnals which can sometimes be found in used book stores for nominal cost have a very flexible backing that, when opened, allows the book to sit very well on the rack.  Once again, this is 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 oen 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 student should first practice these hymns 3 ways:  1) as written, with both hands on the same manual, all 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.

For more advanced sight readers the 4 voice settings of the Lutheran Chorales by J.S. Bach may be tried for sight reading exercise.  These are a bit more complicated than playing hymns in 4 parts from the hymn book because the voice lines are advanced, more independent, and often seen to cross (bass with tenor, tenor with alto, and soprano with alto).  This, once again, is choral music, not organ music, which Bach has arranged to be playable at the organ, but still there are some things about this music that can have us wondering why Bach wrote it like he did -- such as isolated passages where we might find all 4 lines moving in similar motion, consecutive 5ths and octaves, and 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 settings as soon as they enter their course of instruction, considering them 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 for sight reading purposes or general study is J.S. Bach 413 Chorales, edited by Christopher Czarnecki.  The 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, should have this book at his side whether he uses it for sight reading practice or not.

One of the best of the older resources for sight reading practice on 2 staves are the 7 volumes of The Liturgical Organist edited and arranged by Carlo Rossini.  Volume 1 contains easy pieces, Volume 2 is rated easy-medium, Volumes 3, 4, 5, and 7 are rated medium, and Volume 6 contains longer compositions.  If we can already sight read hymns in 4 parts fairly easily, then we can probably sight read much of what it in these books and insert pedals where we will.  Many organists find Volumes 3 and 4 to be incredibly useful material, not just for sight reading practice but also in their work.  Since these numbers are mostly 3 minutes or less in length and consist of mostly romantic era pieces, especially short excerpts, they are particular useful for shorter situations or when the time requirement may be variable.  The sections, each of which focuses on a specific key (major, then relative minor), 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 are apparently 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 number of composers are represented in these volumes, the music contains a lot of accidentals which give the music a particular feel -- a chromaticism which tends to reinforce that practice attribute of organists to continually stretch what they can do by stepping outside the comfort zone of the diatonic scale -- which also makes it a good resource for improvisational work. 

When moving to 3 staves it's generally agreed that the chorale preludes of J.S. Bach and Buxtehude are a bit difficult for beginners.  It's usually better to put them off until the student first works in something a little more simplified such as the choral preludes of Johann Pachelbel which are still beautiful, not quite as hard to learn, and can be used in many places in the liturgy.  They also make excellent models for study for practicing our own improvisations on hymn tunes.  Pachelbel was an important composer of organ music, all of which is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free on the internet and kept in a 3-ring binder.

From there, when looking for sight reading material on 3 staves which would take our skill to one level higher, we could consider something like 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 Bach in his chorale preludes; they were written to make the student familiar with these same melodies in the earlier stages of his work to better prepare him/her for study of the Bach chorales.  The purpose of this collection is purely educational where each one prepares the way for study of the many technical difficulties that will confront them when coming to the Bach choral preludes.  None of them 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.  This is an excellent source for practicing sight reading at the organ when a shorter, more simplified passage on 3 staves is desired.

(con't in Part II)