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The Art of Sight-Reading (Part 1)

In this penetrating article, Dr. Hall states his opinions and solutions to the currently hot topic of sight-reading.

THE WELL-ROUNDED PIANIST -- Instruction!

SIGHT-READING & HARMONY (BOOK) -- 220 Pages!

The Art of Sight-Reading

As of this writing I have played piano for 46 years, having begun piano lessons one month before my seventh birthday. Since I have studied piano for a long time and have taught piano for a long time (now for over 30 years), I have noticed big changes in the field of piano teaching and pedagogy. One of these changes is a new emphasis on the art or skill of sight-reading. When I was a piano student in the 1970s I recall that there were virtually no sight-reading books or manuals, or at least none of my teachers (a total of four from ages 7 to 17) ever assigned me sight-reading exercises; however, today there seems to be an unprecedented emphasis on sight-reading and a plethora of books and manuals. Over the past 10 years or so I have noticed that sight-reading has been so heavily emphasized by organizations like ABRSM, RCM, and TRINITY that many students — as well as many younger, less experienced teachers — seem to value this skill as much or more than the actual performance of music. This is wrong.

As valuable a skill sight-reading is, it still pales in importance to one’s ability to make music out of music that no longer fits the “sight-reading” category. After all, one can only sight-read a piece or passage one time after which it is no longer correctly called “sight-reading.” That is, if one reads a passage the first time, it is sight-reading; however, upon the second, third, fourth, or fifth times the passage is read it is correctly called “reading” rather than “sight-reading.” For this reason, in order to improve skill in “sight-reading” one MUST first improve skill in “music reading” in general. The art or skill of music reading today is at perhaps the lowest level I have ever experienced. Despite the plethora of books and manuals and heavy emphasis on sight-reading by all the leading organizations, virtually all students who I have witnessed have sadly dismal abilities in the art or skill of sight-reading. I have students working out of the ABRSM sight-reading books and I can attest that these sight-reading examples are nothing more than terrible snippets of bad music, which never does any good for improving one’s sight-reading skills. Please continue reading this article to find out why these ABRSM examples are so poor and virtually worthless for improving sight-reading and what kind of music students really SHOULD be spending their time on! 

Almost nobody is better prepared than me to talk about sight-reading, since my sight-reading has always been in the top 1% of pianists. My sight-reading feats in college were legendary. I remember accompanying my large university choir (of about 100 singers) in my sophomore and junior years in which the choir director would often throw music at me and have me sight-read it in front of 100 fellow students. My sight-reading at this time (at ages 19-20) was so good that I could read virtually any work he gave to me. There were other piano majors in the choir who thought it was tasteless and rude for the choir director to make an accompanist sight-read something in front of 100 people, but the fact that I did it almost flawlessly pissed these piano majors off even more. I was not liked by many other piano majors because I could sight-read often better than they could play something with three weeks’ practice. But the whole irony of this is that I NEVER formally practiced sight-reading like is emphasized today. I never worked out of sight-reading books and was never tested on sight-reading. In fact, I was never tested at all, since I never enrolled in programs or curricula as most students do today. When I was a piano student there was no ABRSM, no RCM, no TRINITY, and no anything else. There were perhaps a few music teachers organization programs, but I did not enroll in any of them. Then how did I get to be such a great sight-reader?

BY SIMPLY LEARNING LOTS AND LOTS OF MUSIC!!

One does not become a speed-reader by reading manuals on how to become a better speed reader. Rather, one becomes a better speed-reader by simply reading a lot of books. Read 100 novels a year (about two per week) and one will automatically increase one’s reading ability and speed without even trying. One does not become a marathon runner by reading books on how to become a marathon runner. Rather, one becomes a marathon runner by running a consistently high number of miles per week. It stands to reason then, that one does not become a better piano sight-reader by playing four-bar snippets of badly composed music. Rather, one becomes a better sight-reader by actually learning lots of real music by the great masters. In my case, I learned many of the Bach Two-Part Inventions by the time I was 10 as well as most of Scott Joplin’s rags by the time I was 15. Of course, I did not perform these works flawlessly (as I was certainly no prodigy); however, between the ages of 10-17 I was constantly learning new Joplin rags or Bach Inventions, or other music that I had the sheets to, so that by the time I was in college I had already attained a very high level of ability in sight-reading. I look at students now and think how it is even possible to become proficient at sight-reading being that the average student today learns only around five pieces a year. I probably learned at least 100 pieces a year in my formative years. I literally ate up piano music! 

It is not only the volume of music that has a positive affect on one’s sight-reading, but perhaps just as important is the type of music one reads and plays. Without even realizing it in my formative years, the music I loved to work on so much — particularly, Bach Inventions and Joplin Rags — happens to be what I refer to as “vertical” music in that it is founded upon independent lines that stack up vertically to form new chords and harmonies (that are at least implied by two notes). The Bach Inventions are actually less “vertical” or “chordal” than the Joplin Rags, but nevertheless, Bach’s Inventions usually stack up to vertical harmonies at the eighth-note level. That is, for each new eighth-note in the right hand there is also a new eighth-note in the left hand, or at least most of the Inventions work this way. Ever since Johann Fux codified and explained “species counterpoint” in his highly influential Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), one note against one note (1:1), also known as “first species counterpoint,” had become the most popular and most effective teaching method throughout the 1700s and 1800s. Carl Czerny (1791-1857), arguably the finest and most influential piano pedagogue of all time (who learned from Beethoven and taught Liszt), routinely used first species exercises (usually in the key of C major) as the starting point to learning to read music at the piano. For example, Czerny’s Op. 453 collection (Part 1) begins with half note against half note in each hand, which he then gradually makes a little more difficult by adding notes creating examples of second, third, and fourth species counterpoint. Such is the tried and true method for learning to read music at the piano. CLICK HERE and scroll down a bit to read about Johann Fux and "Species Counterpoint!

Here are the first two pages of Czerny's Op. 453, which could rightly be classified as "Grade 1," however, this is Grade 1 in the 1830s. Compare these first two pages with some of those pathetic "Grade 1" sight-reading examples of ABRSM and others and you will discover how the piano levels and grades have regressed over the last 200 years!

Virtually all of the contemporary examples of sight-reading in programs such as the ABRSM and RCM and others are completely void of examples of first species counterpoint, when in fact, it should really be the other way around. It is a shame that most of the piano methods and programs today avoid and neglect first species counterpoint, presumably out of the belief that Czerny-like examples are “old-fashioned” and thus are better replaced with more modern and trendy sounding examples. This is in my opinion the biggest blunder in modern piano pedagogy. Most piano methods are so dumbed down now that it is beyond pathetic. For example, have a look at the best-selling Faber series and see how many pieces you find that use first-species counterpoint! The answer: NONE! It is no wonder then why over the past 25-30 years students’ sight-reading abilities have sunk to such dismal levels. With the dumbing-down and “pop-musicization” of piano methods books, first species counterpoint has been almost totally abandoned. The bottom line is:    

Becoming proficient at reading first species counterpoint at the piano in a variety of keys, both major and minor, and after this, second through fifth species counterpoint as well as four-part harmonizations, is by far the best type of music for improving sight-reading! 

Not only does the ABRSM and other sight-reading systems almost totally ignore first species counterpoint examples, but they do something else that is never found in examples by Fux, Czerny, Beethoven, and others of the “old school,” which is bombarding students with a dozen different time signatures, slurs, staccatos and other articulations, dynamics, and strange tempo words. It is absolutely daunting to examine some of the ABRSM sight-reading examples for the lower levels. Students have enough difficulty reading notes, but then to expect them to read and understand a strange Italian tempo word, insert a crescendo, play staccato, and add a ritardando at the end is ludicrous. Peruse through Czerny’s lower-level first species teaching pieces and you will see none of this extraneous garbage. To put it simply, students need to learn how to read notes before they are expected to do anything else. And the only tried and true method to reading notes proficiently with both hands each on their own clefs or lines is, I will say it again, first species counterpoint.

Consider these two poorly composed examples in ABRSM's "Grade 2" sight-reading book (from 2009) and compare them with the first two pages of Czerny's Op. 453 shown above (from around the 1830s), which can rightfully be called "Grade 1." This shows just how much piano teaching has not improved and in fact regressed over the past 200 years. From my experience as a teacher, virtually no Grade 2 student can play these examples well even with practice, since they are expected to observe and understand the foreign tempo words, observe the extreme dynamic contrasts, observe the decrescendos, as well as the staccatos and slurs. This is like expecting a child who has not learned his times tables to do algebra. The Czerny Op. 453 example above is the musical equivalent of having a solid foundation in one's times tables before moving on to higher math. Most students who have never played first species examples and who are used to playing inferior examples by the popular systems such as ABRSM are totally shocked and thrown off-guard when trying to read the first page of Czerny's Op. 453. This is because a strong foundation in first species counterpoint has never been laid for them. 

I realize I am hitting this point very hard and you may be tired of hearing the same thing over and over, but until the contemporary pedagogical establishment reforms its methods and systems to a renewed emphasis on species counterpoint, students’ sight-reading abilities and music reading skills in general will never improve. With each new and trendy piano method the comes out there are just as many students whose sight-reading skills will never be nurtured and ultimately fail. I am willing to bet my life savings that a typical piano student in 1830, or even 1930, had far superior sight-reading skills than the typical piano student today. And this can easily be explained with yesteryear’s emphasis of teaching piano students to read species counterpoint at the piano. In my opinion, the focus of beginners up to around Grade 3 should be largely devoted to mastering the reading of first species counterpoint. Then, once this foundation is laid, it becomes relatively easy to add notes horizontally (second, third, and fourth species) and vertically (creating three and four-part harmonies).

The ultimate pinnacle in sight-reading and music reading in general is Bach’s four-part chorales. Show me a pianist who can sight-read at least a dozen four-part chorales by Bach well, with all the correct notes, good fingerings, good pedaling, and a cantabile touch, and I will show you a pianist who has attained “master” status in the art of sight-reading. But this is all easier said than done! The most logical and efficient way to pave the path to this goal is by the learning and mastering of just the two outer voices, soprano and bass, of Bach’s less difficult chorales, which I categorize as Grades 1-2 although will be a challenge for many students today who have attained ABRSM, RCM, or TRINITY grades even as high as 8 (because "Grade 8" nowadays would really only be considered around "Grade 4" 100 years ago, which of course has been the result of the gradual dumbing-down of piano method books over the past 30 years).

where can students and teachers find good material for sight-reading?

I am currently planning a comprehensive sight-reading manual in which I extract the soprano and bass lines from Bach’s lesser difficult four-part chorales. Students will learn to read first species examples in a variety of keys, major and minor, which is the best way to prepare them for the learning of “real music” by the great masters, many of whom based their systems on the rules used by Bach in his chorales. I promise that it will be the best sight-reading manual in the history of piano and will make students want to shred up and destroy all those inferior sight-reading books by the most popular contemporary systems. Students who saturate themselves in these beautiful examples of perfect counterpoint will be laying the strongest foundation imaginable for reading and sight-reading music at the piano. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Why rely on inferior four-bar snippets for sight-reading (like the ABRSM examples shown above), when one can use the finest melodies and bass lines ever combined in the history of music by none other than J.S. Bach? Below are a few examples from my sight-reading manual in progress. Notice that there are no intimidating Italian tempo words, no fancy rhythms and confusing syncopations, no cumbersome articulation marks or slurs, no dynamic indications, and absolutely nothing extraneous. By focusing solely on notes (most of which are played legato) and fingerings, students learn to read note against note much more efficiently, and thus, their sight-reading skills as well as ability to play in a singing or cantabile fashion (which Bach emphasized above all else) improve dramatically!

Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.) -- March, 2016