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The Art of Sight-Reading (Part 2)

In Part 2 of "The Art of Sight-Reading" article, Dr. Hall offers musical examples in which pianists can assess how they rate in the area of sight-reading and music reading. Two- and four-part chorales by J.S. Bach serve as the ultimate "litmus test" for the testing of sight-reading.

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sight-reading: Putting theory into practice

The examples towards the bottom of this page present: 1) an extracted soprano and bass line from a four-part Bach chorale; 2) a complete four-part Bach chorale. I have chosen the first chorale because of its perfection in two-voice counterpoint, general smoothness of independent lines (i.e. “conjunct” rather than “disjunct motion”), and its overall beauty. I have chosen the second chorale because of its shortness (it is one of the shortest out of nearly 400 chorales) and exceptional beauty (despite its shortness, it is one of the most beautiful out of all Bach’s chorales). Pianists who would like to test their sight-reading or music reading abilities can hardly find better examples than this, since they demonstrate all the points I emphasize in Part 1 of “The Art of Sight-Reading.”

Now, scroll down to Examples 1 and 2. If you can play Example 1 hands separately from beginning to end each at a slow but steady tempo with the indicated fingering and with no note errors, then your reading is at Grade 1-2. If you can do all the same with hands together, then your reading is at Grade 3. If you can play Example 2 hands separately from beginning to end at a slow but steady tempo with no note errors, then your reading is at Grade 3. If you can do all the same with hands together, then your reading is at Grade 4. In general, most two-part chorales are at about Grade 3 (such as Example 1), while the shorter and/or less difficult Bach four-part chorales are at about Grade 4 (such as Example 2), while the longer and/or more difficult four-part chorales range from Grade 5 to about 8. 

Bear in mind that the above descriptions correspond to BachScholar’s grading system, which is more thorough than most contemporary systems and method books today. For example, can a “Grade 3” or “Level 3” method book be found today that has two-part counterpoint examples similar to Example 1? The answer is, of course, “no.” Can a Grade 4, 5, or 6 method book be found today that has four-part hymns or chorales similar to Example 2? The answer is, of course, “no.” Most students today working out of a popular Grade 3 or Level 3 method book by, say, Alfred or Faber, would never be able to play Example 1 even with a few week’s practice. Likewise, most students working today out of a popular Grade 4-6 method book are at a total loss when confronted with a relatively simple four-part chorale like Example 2. I once witnessed a student, who was supposedly “Grade 10” in the TRINITY system, not able to play a relatively simple four-part chorale well (similar to the chorale in Example 2), even with a week’s practice. We have a glaring problem on our hands if a student achieves an advanced standing (Grade 8 or above) in one of the popular contemporary systems like ABRSM, RCM, or TRINITY yet cannot sight-read a relatively simple chorale like Example 2 perfectly. Such students need remedial work in sight-reading.

Nothing improves music reading and sight-reading skills more than two- and four-part chorales by J.S. Bach. Imagine how rock solid one’s sight-reading would become by working through and practicing over 100 two- and four-part chorales like the ones featured here! (Nearly 400 such chorales are currently in progress!) Now, here are some rules and guidelines to follow when practicing and sight-reading Bach chorales:

How to practice examples 1 and 2

  1. Whenever playing hands separate or together, the most important thing to strive for is attaining a smooth, singing tone played mostly legato. Bach placed a high emphasis on “cantabile” or “singing style” playing, and since chorales are vocal music it stands to reason that a smooth, legato touch is the most important aspect of their performance.
  2. Try to follow the suggested fingerings in Example 1 as closely as possible. Great pains have been taken to work out the most efficient fingering, which should work for most pianists with an average-sized hand. The only pianists who should deviate from the suggested fingerings are those with unusually large hands and long fingers, in which case different fingerings may work better. Fingerings have been omitted from Example 2 because those who are advanced enough to play the notes and chords (i.e., Grade 4) should be advanced enough to figure out reasonable fingerings.
  3. Do not play fast, but always with a slow and steady quarter-note motion.
  4. Do not “fumble” around and “guess” notes making mistakes along the way. A note is either right or wrong, and wrong notes are not permitted. Playing wrong notes is usually the result of poor reading skills. Even when playing through the very first time (sight-reading), one should avoid wrong notes at all costs.
  5. As a general rule, add slight ritardandos (i.e., slow down) about a beat or two before each fermata, which marks the end of a phrase. It is never appropriate to play Bach’s chorales metronomically and to “plow through” the fermatas. Please observe all fermatas and phrase endings!
  6. Listen for and be attentive to slight differences in dynamic shadings. Even though Bach did not indicate dynamics in his chorales, the pianist should strive to attain slightly louder and slightly softer gradations of tone that correspond with the melodic lines. As a general rule, the pianist should decrescendo (i.e., get softer) before most fermatas or phrase endings. This is very important and often overlooked by pianists.
  7. With the exception of fermata cadence points, most two-part chorales require no damper pedal and are, in fact, ruined with the use of pedal. However, due to the presence of full chords in four-part chorales, the use of the damper pedal is almost always a necessity. Four-part chorales should be practiced often with no pedal at all, to which liberal amounts of pedal should be added once all the notes and fingerings are secure.
  8. Never play mechanically. Bach’s chorales are among the most beautiful and perfect of all music ever composed in the history of music and deserve to be played with care and reverence. There is no reason to play Bach’s chorales, two- or four-voiced, with any less feeling than one would a Chopin Nocturne or work by Debussy. For example, playing the correct notes and good fingerings in Example 2 is about a “Grade 4” achievement; however, making meaningful music out of it with good voicing, ritardandos, and pedaling raise the bar to at least “Grade 6” or more. 

example 1

example 2

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