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The Art of Sight-Reading (Part 1)

(Newly written and revised, May 2019) — In this article, Dr. Hall clarifies the often misunderstood art of sight-reading. The first half of the article discusses sight-reading in general, while the second half of the article (about midway down the page) summarizes the world’s #1 sight-reading system, “Sight-Reading & Harmony” (SR&H) developed by Dr. Hall and founded upon the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach. In addition, Dr. Hall is a contributor and consultant to Piano Marvel. You are invited to take advantage of his personal promo code for a 20% membership discount!

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RECENT UPDATES (May 9, 2019): Before starting the article, I would like to add some recent updates. Prominent pianist and teacher, Josh Wright, recently discovered my book Sight-Reading & Harmony and took the time to make an informative video review of the book. Please watch this video if you have not already. Thank you, Dr. Wright, for taking the time to do this and for speaking so highly of my book!

  • Ebooks: To get the instant download ebook of Sight-Reading & Harmony with the discount Josh mentions, GO TO THIS PAGE and enter the promo code FJW upon checkout. This discount code applies to ALL ebooks on this page!

  • Hardcopies: If you would like hardcopies of Sight-Reading & Harmony, you may order it two ways: AMAZON.COM or SUBITO MUSIC CORPORATION. We do not sell the hardcopy on this website, so please order from our distributor (who ships worldwide) either on their Amazon store or from their online store if you would like the hardcopy in any quantity. (They have wholesale and educational discounts for qualified dealers and institutions!)

  • Sample SR&H Exams with Piano Marvel’s SASR: Josh mentions in the video that Sight-Reading & Harmony has been uploaded to Piano Marvel’s “Standard Assessment of Sight-Reading” (SASR) app. Actually, just to make a minor correction here, I am currently working with Piano Marvel in the preparation of 40 sample exams (4 for each grade, Grades 1-10), which will accompany my upcoming book, 24 Sample Exams for Sight-Reading & Harmony, due to be released sometime in the Summer of 2019. CLICK HERE to get a head start using Piano Marvel’s impressive SASR app, which you may soon be able to use for practicing sample exams from this forthcoming book!

INTRODUCTION

Sight-reading is perhaps the area in which students and teachers express the most concern and, students especially, confess the most weakness. In my 35 years of teaching piano, I have rarely witnessed exceptional sight-readers and have been told time and time again by students that sight-reading is their worst area. If we were to poll a room full of 1000 pianists in which they rank their own abilities in technique, theory, musicianship, and sight-reading, it is sight-reading that would most likely get the lowest score. It does not have to be this way. Developing the ability to read music in a confident and fluid fashion can be learned by all pianists if they are willing to put in the time and effort. There exists a simple solution to the poor sight-reading epidemic, a solution so breathtakingly simple that it sounds too good to be true:  read and learn more music and spend less time memorizing. In addition to this simple yet profound solution, sight-reading may also be improved by using the world’s #1 sight-reading system for keyboard that I have developed, Sight-Reading & Harmony, which is discussed and summarized further down on this page.

I have always been an excellent sight-reader. I remember being an excellent sight-reader in high school and the best sight-reader of all my peers in college and university studies. How did I develop my better than average sight-reading skills? I began piano lessons in 1970 at the age of seven. When I look back at my piano lessons and the material studied in these early years, not once do I ever remember practicing “sight-reading” as a separate discipline. There were virtually no method books or systems on sight-reading and my teachers never even mentioned the word. If I recall correctly, constantly reading new music and learning new pieces, in addition to practicing standard technical exercises like scales and arpeggios, was really all I did. I assumed everyone was a good sight-reader like I was. Oh, the innocence of youth!

I know now through many years of teaching and experience that there is no short-cut or magic bullet for becoming a proficient sight-reader. It just all boils down to reading and learning more music. Anyone can do it at any age. Recently, I having been teaching a lady in her early 80s (via Skype from Florida to Idaho) who began piano with me at age 77. In just a few years of hard work starting as a base beginner, this elderly lady at age 80 was able to read and play all 44 examples of “Bach’s Common Cadences” SR&H. Her sight-reading improved dramatically as a result of diligently practicing the examples in SR&H. I was no prodigy and I did not enter competitions up until my college years. I simply took piano lessons because of the love of music and the joy of being able to learn new music whenever I desired. I studied with four teachers from 1970 up until I entered universities studies as a piano major. What they assigned me to learn was never enough. I simply devoured music in my free time. I must have practiced or read through the entire Scott Joplin Rag book (the one with the big maple leaf on the cover) several times over by the age of 17 and the Bach Two-Part Inventions were under my belt by the age of 15. I was technically gifted in these years, but by no means was I ever a prodigy. I did not enter competitions or partake in testing programs. All I cared about was reading and learning more music. As a college piano major at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I frequently accompanied singers and instrumentalists which does wonders for sight-reading.

READ & LEARN MORE MUSIC!

Now, with over 35 years of teaching experience, I have discovered that — in addition to using Sight-Reading & Harmony (discussed below) — the music that is most useful and effective for developing solid sight-reading skills is the vast number of pedagogical works from the 19th century by the famous and not-so-famous composers of this era (Czerny, Gurlitt, Burgmüller, Köhler, Heller, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, etc). These highly inspired and prolific romantic-era composers wrote especially well for beginning through upper intermediate level piano students. You will not hear Gurlitt or Burgmüller in the great concert halls of the world by the leading concert pianists; however, not-so-famous composers like these are greatly underrated in the consistently high-quality, short and effective pedagogical works they produced. Sight-reading material should, ideally, be at least two or three grades lower than one can perform, one or two pages long at the most, and should consist of a variety of different time signatures, rhythms, and musical details. Since the average level of much of this music tends to be around Grades 3-5, this is the perfect level to read for the average piano student. By the way, my absolute favorite collection of pieces for intermediate level students, and for sight-reading in general, is Burgmüller’s Twenty-Five Easy and Progressive Studies, Op. 100. In my opinion, all 25 pieces in this collection should be mandatory for all pianists.

Pianists who wish to improve sight-reading should learn not just one or two, or even a few, of the vast number of pedagogical works from the 19th century, but rather, devour these complete opuses with fervor. Learning many short pieces in a short amount of time is superior to spending an entire year on, say, only three works as many students do in preparation for exams. It is better to not take exams and to have read through and learned, at least cursorily, fifty pieces a year, than it is to spend an entire year trying to perfect three pieces. This is why I am against competitions and exams. Usually the more competitions and exams pianists partake in, the worse pianists’ sight-reading and more limited pianists’ repertoire become. This is because they are so focused on perfecting and memorizing only a small handful of works over a relatively long period of time. However, if this long period of time were filled with reading and learning hefty handfuls of new music, sight-reading would automatically improve dramatically. In other words, over the course of a year it is better to learn fifty pieces at a “5” not memorized and perhaps even not at full speed than it is to learn three pieces at a “9” or “10” perfectly memorized and up to speed.

Below is a partial list of some of the works I highly recommend for developing sight-reading. Ideally, a new piece should be read through and learned with the music in a day or two. Pianists need to force themselves to read the music and not memorize. Pieces should consist of one or two pages, or perhaps three at the most (or just one or two lines for beginners) and should be at least two or three grades below one’s approximate performance grade. Fast tempo indications like “Allegro” or “Vivace” do not need to be observed, as it is best to play everything slower around “Andante.” Upper intermediate level students (i.e., Grades 4-6) should use the damper pedal whenever it is needed. Expression and dynamics are important; however, extremely loud dynamics may be tailored down (to mf or mp) to avoid pounding. If a student is a total beginner (i.e. Grade 1) and is learning to read music, the student is not at the point of “sight-reading” yet, but rather the focus should be on playing notes and note identification in the treble and bass clef. Traditional flash cards and flash card apps are excellent for this beginning stage.   

Suggested Literature for Sight-Reading at the Piano:

SIGHT-READING & HARMONY — BOOKS & SYSTEM

I developed Sight-Reading & Harmony (SR&H) over the course of about two years and the first book (the “complete edition,” 220 pages with spiral binding) published in 2017 took a full year to write. It was a labor of love. I mention in SR&H that the best sight-reader I ever encountered, a private piano student of mine, played hymns in church every week for several years. When I compared his sight-reading with that of the average student who does not play church hymns regularly, I was quite literally shocked. This student was no prodigy or virtuoso, yet his sight-reading was far better than the average sight-reading abilities of pianists technically more gifted and more advanced than he. This came as no surprise to me, since I discovered many years prior through my own experience as a church pianist and organist that standard three- and four-part church hymns do wonders for sight-reading.

I discovered, as many as ten years before conceiving Sight-Reading & Harmony, that church hymns cultivate and develop superior sight-reading skills more completely than any other style. The reason for this is the “vertical” nature of the music, in that one must see and play four notes at a time — that is, complete harmonies — all within the timeframe of one second or less. Unfortunately, virtually all contemporary method books have all but abandoned the teaching of four-part harmonies, which was commonplace in 19th-century piano pedagogy, in favor of simple and pleasing homophonic-style pieces (i.e., popular melodies with chordal accompaniments). I believe this is one of the main reasons we are suffering such a huge sight-reading epidemic today. In order to develop a solid system of sight-reading, I concluded that it had to be founded upon ancient, time-tested traditions and it had to employ the gold standard and absolute pinnacle of four-part writing — the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach. After all, Bach’s chorales are virtually identical to most standard church hymns, however considerably more advanced and complex. This is what led to the motto of SR&H:  If you can sight-read Bach’s four-part chorales well, then you can sight-read anything.   

It is rare to find pianists who can read Bach chorales well or play them in a musical fashion. It is all too common that pianists can play four-octave scales and arpeggios and whip off a dozen Hanon exercises all at impressive speeds, yet they can neither sight-read a basic Bach chorale nor play it musically after a week of practice. Reading and interpreting hymns and chorales is a completely different skill than the typical exercises and types of repertoire on which most pianists spend most of their energy. One can have the fastest scales and arpeggios in the world, but this does not guarantee that one can even play one bar of a Bach chorale well. Surprisingly, none of the 400+ Bach chorales contain even one scale or arpeggio. Modern piano pedagogy is so focused on single-note “horizontal” skills like scales, arpeggios, and Hanon exercises and obsessed with velocity, that “vertical” and “polyphonic” skills required for hymns and chorales are usually overlooked and neglected. I actually witnessed a transfer student once whip off the complete Part 1 of Hanon (20 exercises) from memory, yet she could not even play a basic 8-bar Bach chorale well after a week of practice. She was unable to play and connect two voices in one hand, since Hanon and scales do not teach this vital technique. This is a sad situation.

I am thoroughly convinced that the reading and playing of Bach chorales cultivates a complete pianist more than any other style. Moreover, there is no better preparation for playing fugues of J.S. Bach (like those in The Well-Tempered Clavier) than four-part chorales. After all, most of Bach’s fugues are really nothing more than three- or four-part chorale texture with passing tones. Bach employed identical compositional rules in his fugues as he did in his chorales. The better one can play four-part chorales, the better one can play fugues. Four-octave scales and arpeggios and Hanon exercises played at breakneck speeds do absolutely nothing in preparation for the playing of fugues. Imagine how much better pianists would be, both as sight-readers and total musicians, if they replaced all those hours spent on Hanon and scales with the practicing of church hymns and Bach chorales! Here are some recommended sources for hymns and chorales:

Suggested Hymn & Chorale Resources for the Pianist:

Since the reading and interpreting of Bach chorales is advanced, in developing Sight-Reading & Harmony I sought a way to systematize Bach’s four-part chorales in a progressive fashion which could be accessible to beginners through concert-level artists. This led to my unique and effective “5-Tier System of Four-Part Hymns & Chorales.” Here is a bullet-point summary of the system:    

  • The ultimate litmus test of music reading skills are the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach — If you can sight-read Bach chorales well, you can sight-read anything.  The best sight-readers are usually those who have experience playing church hymns. This is because in order to play hymns one must see and play complete four-part harmonies within a timeframe of one second or less, thus taking in more notes and complete chords instantaneously. Bach’s four-part chorales are virtually identical to most standard church hymns, however considerably more advanced and complex, which naturally makes them the “ultimate litmus test” for sight-reading.

  • The material in SR&H is virtually void of tempo words, fancy rhythms and syncopations, dynamic indications, articulation marks, and other musical instructions. This is a good thing, since it causes students to focus solely on the one element that has prevented them from becoming proficient in sight-reading in the first place: being able to quickly identify and play notes and chords. Most sight-reading manuals today contain far too many details. For example, I am totally befuddled looking at the sight-reading examples in one of the books from the popular testing program, ABRSM. Examples like theirs bombard students with confusing tempo words (like “Moderato preciso”), difficult syncopations, excessive phrase lines and slurs, articulation marks, contrasting dynamics, and other nuances. If one is unable to play the notes, hands together, then what is the point of all these extraneous musical indications? One can only do so much at once. If one cannot play the notes, then how can one possibly employ an accent with a staccato, observe a three-note slur, and top it off with a decrescendo and a ritardando and do this all at Moderato preciso? This is demanding far too much and is, quite simply, impossible for 99% of students. In order to maximize the learning of reading notes and chords, SR&H does not include fancy rhythms and syncopations, dynamics, expression and articulation marks, and other musical nuances. This is the way an effective sight-reading system should be, since the more extraneous minutiae a sight-reading system employs the less effective the system becomes.

  • SR&H systematizes the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach in a progressive fashion, which improves the reading and comprehending of vertical harmonies. SR&H is founded upon a five-tier system of progressive difficulties that cultivates and develops solid music reading skills at the keyboard employing excerpts from Bach’s four-part chorales. It is called the “5-Tier System of Four-Part Hymns & Chorales.” Each tier or level represents two “grades” in that hands alone represents the lower grade while hands together represents the higher grade. For example, Grade 1 is represented by simplified chorale melodies and bass lines played hands alone while Grade 2 is represented by these same lines played hands together. Likewise, Grade 7 is represented by the soprano-alto and tenor-bass lines played hands alone while Grade 8 is represented by these same lines played hands together. The complete edition of SR&H consists of 150 pages of sight-reading excerpts, in which each page presents five tiers of the same chorale excerpt.

  • 10 grades lead up to the playing of Bach chorales in their original forms and the mastering of reading complex SATB textures. Since the playing of Bach’s four-part chorales is so complex and advanced and today’s students usually have so little practice and experience with them (unless they have experience playing church hymns), a total of ten “grades” is required to reach the end goal of playing chorales with nothing added or taken away. This detail oriented style requires a detail oriented approach, summarized by the five tiers outlined below.

  • Grades 1-2 (Tier 1) builds a solid foundation in note reading using the time-tested and age-old techniques of first and second species counterpoint with two parts, soprano and bass. Piano methods of the 18th and 19th centuries almost always began with basic “one note against one note” exercises (1:1), known since the time of theorist and pedagogue Johann Fux (1660-1741) as “first species counterpoint.” Hymns and chorales are founded upon species counterpoint, in that the soprano (melody) and bass lines — the two outer voices of the SATB (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) texture — tend to function as one unit. The better one can extract at sight the soprano and bass lines from a hymn or chorale, the more solid music reading foundation one will achieve. The Grades 1-2 lines in SR&H simplify the soprano and bass lines from the original chorale by omitting the eighth notes and passing tones as well as occasionally reducing the quarter notes to half notes. This results in examples of first and second species counterpoint (1:1 and 1:2) using beautiful melodies from the 1500-1700s combined with Bach’s superior techniques of voice leading. In other words, beginners get “the best of the best” note reading exercises that use sharps and flats as opposed to the often drier and more academic sounding white-key-only examples of species counterpoint common in 19th-century methods (i.e., Czerny, Köhler, Gurlitt, etc.). Developing the ability to read one note against one note and two notes against one note is the only sure-fire way to develop a solid foundation in sight-reading because it is the first step to being able to read music in a “vertical” fashion. Typical homophonic pieces used by contemporary methods (i.e., a popular melody with chordal accompaniment), as mass appealing and pleasing as they are, unfortunately do not teach this vital technique of reading vertical harmonies on every changing beat.

    Below shows an example of Tier 1, which is page 15 (of 150). It is the first four-bar phrase of the beautiful Easter chorale, Christ lag in Todesbanden. As seen here, each page lists the key of the chorale excerpt as well as the name, BWV number of the chorale, and information about the origins of the melody. Surprisingly, Bach rarely composed his own melodies in the chorales, but rather, borrowed pre-existent melodies, such as this one, which had existed a full 200 years before Bach harmonized it: rhythms and

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  • Grades 3-4 (Tier 2) continues the foundation learned in Grades 1-2 with the addition of eighth notes creating more florid soprano and bass lines. Tier 2 (Grades 3-4) adds the eighth notes and passing tones back in, thus reproducing the soprano and bass lines from the original chorale with nothing added or taken away. Playing the soprano and bass lines of a Bach chorale in a musical fashion and being able to sight-read these two outer voices well lays the strongest foundation for horizontal and vertical note reading. For example, the following example shows Tier 2 of Christ lag in Todesbanden, in which the right hand plays the exact soprano line and the left hand plays the exact bass line — that is, the two outer voices — from Tier 5 (Grades 9-10):

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  • Grades 5-6 (Tier 3) develops the reading of three parts by the addition of one more part, which is typically an added alto voice. The most efficient way for students to learn the reading of three parts is by omitting all passing tones and eighth notes. Hence, Grades 5-6 presents the chorale excerpt with quarter notes and no eighth notes as well as with the tenor but sometimes the alto omitted. This results in complete or semi-complete three-part harmonies, which is the intermediary step between the reading of two and four parts. In Grade 6, most of the time the right hand plays two parts (soprano and alto or tenor) while the left hand plays the third part (bass). Occasionally, the left hand plays the alto or tenor (indicated with an up-stem in the bass clef) if the part goes low enough. Not only is Tier 3 excellent for learning the reading of three parts, but also, it is ideal for learning how to play two parts with one hand as well as learning the connecting of voices with good fingering and finger substitutions when necessary. Fingering is not indicated in this tier, since everyone’s hand and fingers are different, and, by this upper intermediate level students are encouraged to become more independent by determining their own fingerings by trial and error. The following example shows Tier 3 of Christ lag in Todesbanden, which consists of three parts with only quarter notes and no passing tones:

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  • Grades 7-8 (Tier 4) develops the reading of four parts by the addition of one more part, which is typically an added tenor voice. The most efficient way to learn the reading and playing of four-part harmonies is by omitting the eighth notes and passing tones. Hence, Tier 4 is essentially identical to Tier 5 but with no eighth notes. This hardly affects some chorales; however, other chorales with frequent eighth notes and passing tones become significantly less difficult by the omission of eighth notes. This is the style of most church hymns, in that quarter notes are usually the most frequent note value, with eighth notes occurring only sparingly. Unfortunately, most contemporary method books have all but abandoned traditional four-part hymns and chorales like the Grade 8 examples in SR&H. Composers and pedagogues of the 19th century, however, were well aware of the great value of hymns and chorales. Hence, many of the pedagogical opuses of the 19th century, like those listed above, included at least one four-part hymn or chorale, like in Schumann’s Op. 68 (which is not by Schumann, but actually by Bach) or Gurlitt’s Op. 101 or 140 collections. The following example shows Tier 4 of Christ lag in Todesbanden, which is essentially identical to Tier 3 except with the addition of one more part in the tenor, thus resulting in perfect four-part harmonies with no quarter notes or passing tones. The more skilled one becomes in reading four-part textures like this, the more one realizes that it is easiest to take the tenor with the right hand for all chords up to the first fermata, then take two notes per hand up until the end. Tenor notes are often best taken with the right hand, as shown here:

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  • Grades 9-10 (Tier 5) presents Bach’s original chorale excerpts with nothing added or taken away. After being able to play Grade 8 excerpts fluently, then it becomes relatively easy to learn Tier 5 (Grades 9-10), which presents Bach’s four-part chorale excerpts with nothing added or taken away. Reading Bach’s original chorales and interpreting them with a pleasant tone, legato touch, balanced voicing, careful pedaling, and tasteful ritardandi at the ends of phrases (when appropriate) represents the pinnacle of artistry at the piano. This can certainly not be said about scales, arpeggios, or Hanon exercises even played at world record speeds. All pianists should aspire to sight-read and interpret in a musical fashion Bach’s four-part chorales, which can be attained by practicing the 150 excerpts in the complete edition of SR&H. Show me a pianist who can sight-read Bach’s chorales well, and I will show you a master sight-reader. SR&H teaches students in a step-by-step fashion, from the total beginner to the concert artist, how to read Bach’s chorales. The following example shows Tier 5 of Christ lag in Todesbanden, which finally presents Bach’s chorale excerpt with nothing added or taken away. Now that you see Bach’s original, look back at Tiers 1-4 and see how they progress from easy to difficult. It is an amazing and fascinating transformation!

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  • The “Master of Harmony” course of study prepares for college level four-part writing and analysis. To become a complete and educated sight-reader one should, ideally, not merely be able to identify and read the notes and rhythms on a page, but also, be able to recognize the names and function of chords. The faster and more readily the pianist can identify and name the chords being played, the faster and more efficient a sight-reader the pianist will become. In the middle of each page of the sight-reading excerpts (in Part 4) lies a chart that contains the names of each of the chords in Tier 4 (Grades 7-8), which can be used by the student to assist with chord identification. The chords are categorized as “Primary” and “Secondary” followed by the “Cadences” used in the excerpt. SR&H does not teach traditional figured bass and advanced Roman numeral analysis, since this easily leads to over-analysis. To avoid the pitfalls of over-analysis, which in the end is counterproductive, the “Master of Harmony” course of study requires chord naming only along with Roman numeral identification at cadences. The main objective of the “Master of Harmony” component is to teach students to always be attentive and conscious of the chords and harmonies being played and to provide a solid foundation in preparation for further studies at the university level. The following example shows the chord chart for Tier 4 of the Christ lag in Todesbanden excerpt. It is like a “cheat sheet” that assists students in the naming and identification of all chords encountered in Tier 4:      

Thank you for reading this article!

CLICK HERE TO GO TO “PART 2”!

Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.) -- revised, May 2019