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The Art of Sight-Reading (Part 1)

PLEASE NOTE: Since the original publication of this article in March 2016, Dr. Hall has since published his book “Sight-Reading & Harmony” with overwhelming success. “Sight-Reading & Harmony” has become, since its publication in September 2017, the world’s #1 sight-reading system. Dr. Hall has discovered many new insights in the year-long process of writing “Sight-Reading & Harmony,” which will soon be discussed in this article. As of March 8, 2019, this article will be revised and the content will change to reflect Dr. Hall’s current state of research and development and to remain consistent with what is professed in “Sight-Reading & Harmony.”

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The Art of Sight-Reading (PART 1)

As of this writing I have played piano for 49 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.

Despite having never officially practiced sight-reading exercises, I nevertheless became an excellent sight-reader. In fact, my sight-reading feats in college as an undergraduate became legendary among my peers. 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 I was given. How did I get to be such a great sight-reader?

BY SIMPLY LEARNING 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. Therefore, it stands to reason that learning lots of music by the great masters will naturally make one a better sight-reader. This is why I am against the current trend of students working on three or four pieces a year. Piano students should learn at least 25 pieces a year. It is better to learn twenty pieces at a “5” than three pieces at a “10.” 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 was attracted to, so that by the time I was in college I had already attained a very high level of ability in sight-reading. I probably learned at least 50 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 most teachers consider “beginning” level exercises:

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!

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

(to be revised) 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. 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