Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vocal Open-Score Reading and You

Bookstores have plenty in the piano 'self-help' section on sight-reading, but literature on vocal open-score reading and score preparation is practically nonexistent. offers one book with clef reading exercises, one book out of print since 1971 and another book published in 1906. Granted, there isn't a huge audience clamoring to find out more about score reading - it is a specialized skill, even among pianists. Many rehearsal pianists are introduced to the experience with little guidance beyond 'play what you can' and 'it gets easier with practice'. Those practice hours may be a touch more productive with some suggestions.

Score Reading For Dummies
Score reading simultaneously demands advanced piano ability, multiple stave reading ability, tenor clef transposition as well as other mind-numbing skills. Pianists can learn how with slow practice, music analysis and skill isolation techniques. Or they can learn via the diving board (which is most pianist's experience). Those motivated to practice skills one at a time should try the following:
  • Isolate broader eye-motion work by reading same-clef scores like SSA/SSAA
  • Focus on tenor clef transposition with two-clef, two-stave scores such as TB/ST
  • In preparation for SATB, begin with SAB scores, then move to scores with the tenor clef such as SAT/TBB
  • Throughout practice, continuously reinforce the sight-reading technique of reading one or two chords ahead (which naturally gets more difficult when reading multiple staves)
A couple of online sources that may be interesting: a score analysis method and the article, Pedagogical Tools for Preparing and Performing Open Scores. Realistically speaking, however, these skills are rarely broken down to this degree. Which is why you should grab a pencil.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Score Preparers
Pianists may find quicker results by cultivating the skill of score preparation, which involves using a set of markings that guide the eye. Experimenting with different markings helps find the ones that are most effective. Things to try:
  • Identify unison areas with the word 'uni' or lightly slash through pitches that double another line, leaving only one stave with the pitches that are heard
  • Write in chords (c min, C7 or ii, V, vi, etc) over or underneath
  • Use arrows to identify phrase directional movement, to call attention to a pitch or to reinforce pitch movement
  • Write numbers that identify intervals (8, 5, tritone) in between staves
  • Group pitches played in one hand with U-shaped hooks - groupings are usually according to keyboard geography or rhythmic activity
  • Use brackets to quickly signify groups of repeated intervals or chords
  • Identify voice crossings between staves with a large circle
Brackets, arrows, circles, numbers, letters - they can all be assigned certain meanings. What is meaningful is peculiar to each pianist, so it is most effective to experiment. The score probably will look cluttered at first, but the need to mark the score will decrease with experience.

Unleash the Score-Reader Within
A good resource for practice choral scores is, an online public domain library for choral music (all legal and all free). Their scores are organized by different categories: popular choral scores, voicing or by composer. There is also another source of choral music organized by composers A-L and composers M-Z. In preparation for sight-reading circumstances, a good practice method is play a new score with only two minutes of visual prep time (no trying out on the keyboard). You may play a scale in the key signature, but spend the rest of the time looking through the piece and marking it as necessary. After two minutes, slowly read through the piece with a metronome - do not correct mistakes, do not stop. This reinforces good reading habits which are helpful in rehearsals.

The Beginning Score Reader's Survival Guide
For those with little experience, it helps to begin with the correct mindset. In a vocal rehearsal, the pianist's goal in open-score reading is not to play every note; the goal is to facilitate part-learning. So when a pianist is first starting out, sparse-but-correct part playing is just fine (for example, playing the soprano-bass parts often help outline the harmonic progression). Other thoughts: always work to catch up and continue when 'reading through' a piece - conductors will rarely stop if you get lost. Simplify as much as possible: for example, rapidly moving parts (like running-16th note phrases in Handel's Messiah) can be simplified by playing just the harmonic movements i.e., play the pitches falling on the beginning of 'big beats' 1-2-3-4. Keep the focus on playing what will help the singers stay on track harmonically and rhythmically (in other words, curb the impulse to try to read everything on the page). Be smart - chops are not the most important asset in a rehearsal pianist.