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Pedagogical tools for preparing and performing open scores.

One of the most difficult tasks undertaken by pianists is playing open scores. The prerequisites for successfully rendering a score include a reliable grasp of keyboard geography, command of tonality and harmonic structures, and a solid piano technique. Perhaps, most importantly, the pianist needs to be able to maintain a consistent pulse regardless of the demands of finding notes. These required elements typically preclude teaching score reading in the early stages of piano instruction.

There is no need to wait until the college years to expose pianists to open scores. Many of our mainstream, traditional piano students will find opportunities to accompany ensembles at their schools or churches by the time they are in junior high or high school. A little help from the teacher can result in a highly successful musical experience. Unfortunately, it seems to be the "norm" that most musicians first encounter open scores during the years of college study in a keyboard skills class. If the student is a piano major, she might suddenly find herself in the role of choral accompanist--with little or no experience. This very often is a terrifying situation, where the learning process might be primarily described as "learning from one's mistakes," a highly meaningful, but very painful way, to learn.

If playing open scores is difficult for pianists with years of training, it is even more so for the instrumental or vocal music major who does not engage in piano study until his freshman year in college. Most keyboard skills classes require all instrumental and vocal majors to demonstrate at least minimal score-reading skills as part of their piano proficiency examinations. Potentially negative experiences can be avoided if students are taught some "tricks of the trade," either as part of their pre-college training or in collegiate keyboard skills classes.

Ken Johansen presented some excellent strategies for open-score preparation in his article published in Piano and Keyboard. (1) He suggested that it often is beneficial to work in small sections when preparing a score. He further recommended reading through each passage silently and utilizing inner hearing processes to gain a sense of the overall sound of a passage, pointing out that this process may be aided if there is a recording of the score available for listening. He also said the pianist may benefit from singing or playing individual parts, especially when there are transposing parts or those that use transposing clefs. While his suggestions are indeed valid, particularly for the highly trained pianist, below are some even more concrete tools for helping less experienced students successfully process and perform open scores.


At the risk of asserting the obvious, the first key to successfully playing open scores is to get the music as far ahead of time as possible. Instances where scores really must be read at sight are few and far between. With a little planning on the part of the ensemble conductor and the rehearsal pianist, most scores can be in the possession of the pianist well in advance of the rehearsal. In cases where students are not given the score with adequate time for preparation, the instructor may need to confer with the ensemble director to clarify expectations regarding preparation time; the health or mental well-being of the pianist should be a paramount consideration.

One tool both my students and I have found particularly valuable when preparing open scores, involves a strategy I refer to as "anchoring." This process, helpful for pianists at all levels of playing experience, involves developing and employing a system of graphic, visual cues. It is fairly simple to teach using a four-voice chorale texture, which can serve as a preliminary step to the more complex application of open-score reading. The anchoring process is a tool to aid the player in understanding how one chord moves to the next. The player marks those notes that do not change from one chord to another with some type of symbol (perhaps a circle or "x"). The next step in the anchoring process is focusing the eye toward these notes. This may be accomplished through marking directional arrows on the score and perhaps indicating the type of interval involved. I encourage my students, especially those who do not play piano as their primary instrument, to use a straight line for stepwise motion and a curved line to show disjunct motion. In the case of a jump, I ask them to notate a number to indicate the type of interval involved.


As is the case with Rebecca Payne Shockley's techniques of mapping music, (2) it is important to encourage each player to develop his own system of written cues in the score. Some pianists, for example, may find it more useful to mark the anchor note of the first chord, while others might prefer to mark an "x" through the anchor note as it appears in the subsequent chord.


As can be seen from these examples, the score can become easily cluttered. Thus, it is important to help students decide which marks will be most useful to them in their learning process. Of course, the long-range objective of this process is to encourage intervallic reading. The need to mark the score in the manner described above should decrease naturally with time and experience. Once students are comfortable applying this system of visual cuing to four-part chorale textures, they can effectively apply it to an open score.

Working with four-voiced chorale textures also is a helpful preparatory step to establish the eye movements needed to read open scores. Any type of chord-based music reading essentially involves tracking the eye in a zigzagging manner across the page: the chord is scanned from the bottom to the top (Some players prefer to scan in the opposite direction.), and then the eye rapidly tracks to the bottom of the next chord and repeats the process.


For beginning piano students, this is one of the most challenging aspects of playing. It might be helpful to cut out a piece of paper or cardboard to fashion a vertical box that fits over only one chord at a time. Using this technique, the player reads, verbalizes and plays the chord, while the teacher already has moved the cardboard to the next chord. This encourages the player to read at least one chord ahead of where she currently is playing. Depending on the student's learning style, a teacher might ask a student to play the chord while naming the next chord in the chorale. Eventually, the teacher also might want to move the cardboard box two chords ahead of where the student actually is playing.

While not the best way to introduce damper pedaling techniques, four-voiced chorales are highly appropriate for reinforcing or testing established pedaling techniques. It is typically easy to hear if there is "blurring" or a break when moving from one chord to the next in this context. Use of appropriate pedal techniques is absolutely necessary in score playing.

Once a student is comfortable preparing and performing four-voiced chorale textures using the strategies described above, he or she is ready to work with open scores. I typically use a three-part choral score (SSA or SAB) to introduce students to reading this new format. At the very beginning of study, I avoid scores containing tenor lines due to the complications it adds to the reading process, which will be discussed below. After students are comfortable with three-part scores, I introduce four-part choral scores, string quartets and, finally, band and/or orchestral scores. Students can apply all the techniques learned from playing four-voice chorales, especially the visual cuing strategies, in each of these new contexts. The "anchoring" and other visual cuing strategies still will apply; however, unlike the chorales the student previously has studied, now markings will be made primarily between the staves. It also may be helpful to develop a generic symbol (I personally use a star.) to graphically direct the eye to follow moving lines or parts, especially when the eye needs to move rapidly from one stave to another. I also encourage students to focus on how the melody and harmony interrelate, particularly in homophonic textures. It is highly informative and practical to label prominent chords, particularly at the beginning and ends of phrases and on longer note durations. These chord notations help the pianist grasp the score's overall structure and also can come to the rescue during actual performance. It is not necessary, and will only clutter the score, to label every chord, since the player will not have time to conceptualize the name of each and every chord during actual performance. It is much more beneficial to concentrate primarily upon visual tracking and hand shapes/movements. Figure 4 shows how chord labeling and visual cuing processes might be applied to an open score.


During the initial phases of score preparation, the score can be cut down to emphasize the most structurally important parts. For example, after labeling chords at phrase beginnings, endings and on longer note durations as described above, a player might want to play the piece in its simplified chord progression form. One also might find it useful to play various combinations of voices or instruments. Start simply and add one part at a time. For example, in a vocal score, the soprano might be played first and then the bass added on the second reading. Alto and tenor could then be added, in that order. Again, when familiarizing oneself with the notes, a process of visual cuing is extremely helpful, especially for those players who are not principally pianists.

Actually performing the score once it has been prepared introduces a daunting reality. Maintaining a consistent pulse is paramount--the pianist cannot stop to fix mistakes or slow down when the going gets tough. Most pianists skilled in the art of rendering scores readily will admit that learning how to "cheat" is indispensable. Once again, the importance of preparing the score ahead of time becomes evident. Having several prominent chords labeled has saved me more than once during a choir rehearsal. If the pianist becomes momentarily disoriented as to where the notes lie on the keys, he can "cheat" by playing the previously identified and labeled structural chord using correct rhythmic timing and duration without unduly disrupting the flow of the score performance. The pianist needs to plan ways to maintain the pulse when the "going gets tough." In many scores, particularly band and orchestral scores, the range of the notated parts far exceeds that of the pianist's hand. In these cases, one must strive to preserve the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic integrity of the score by any means necessary. Notes may need to be omitted; choices must be made; ingenuity is required. The "tricks" a pianist can devise are almost endless. For example, can the contrabassoon part be played up an octave? Might the sostenuto pedal be employed to play a pedal point so the left hand does not have to sustain it? Could the French horn line be omitted for a few measures without disturbing the score's overall harmony and rhythmic flow? Could a chord be played in an alternate, more comfortable inversion in the left hand to give the same harmonic impression, even if the notes don't exactly match those on the printed score? The pianist needs to identify the more troublesome spots in the score and develop coping strategies ahead of time. Some special considerations that apply to various types of scores are discussed in more detail below.


Choral Scores

There are some important considerations that apply specifically to choral scores. First, the player must remember that the tenor part is sung, and therefore, played, one octave below where it is notated. The tenor part, while notated in the treble clef, often actually sounds below middle "C." This is very visually confusing, especially in instances of cross-voicing, where the tenor sounds above the alto part. Examine the score for any instances of cross-voicing ahead of time, mark them clearly on the score, perhaps with a highlighter reserved just for cross-voicings, and plan a strategy to cope with them, particularly with regard to fingering. Also, look for any octave doublings or unisons, circling or otherwise marking them between the staves.


In cases where the score range is too great for the hand to play, this notation can help the player make decisions about which part(s) may be omitted. When moving from one beat to the next, noting which pitches are "anchors" and which change from one beat to the next is immensely helpful.

One of the most troublesome aspects of playing choral open scores is hand use. At times, it makes sense to play the soprano and alto voices with the right hand, the tenor and bass with the left hand. At other times, it makes much more sense to take the soprano, alto and tenor with the right hand and reserve the left hand for the bass. How does one make the judgment call? I give my students several factors to consider. The first is purely keyboard geography given the hand-span. Sometimes, it is obvious the right hand will have to pick up the tenor because the tenor and bass are more than an octave apart (tenths are fairly common), in other cases, the rhythm will determine how the notes are divided between the hands. If the soprano and alto are moving in parallel rhythms, while the tenor and bass have a different rhythm, it makes sense to play soprano and alto voices with the right hand and tenor and bass with the left. At any rate, hand distribution usually will not remain static throughout an entire choral score, and hand shifts should be planned for and clearly marked on the score.

Band/Orchestral Scores

All the aforementioned score-reading strategies are useful when playing instrumental scores. However, players encounter an additional, highly troublesome issue when playing band and orchestral scores: how does one handle transposing instruments?

Teaching this concept to innumerable undergraduate music majors, I have found that transposition is the source of much confusion and angst. Transposing a melody written for piano from one pitch level to another is straightforward enough, conceptually. The confusion results when students try to transpose other instruments, rendering them as they would sound at the piano. Students who play transposing instruments often make the mistake of using the same process as when transposing for their instrument in orchestra rehearsal. These students often are taught the formula: X instrument sounds X when reading "C." For example, a B-flat clarinet sounds "B-flat" when reading "C." Another way to say the same rule is that when reading a notated "C," a transposing instrument sounds its name. Unfortunately, when students attempt to apply this process in reverse, as is called for when reading transposing parts at the piano, their thinking can become a bit muddled. Because reading transposing instruments often proves troublesome for students, I give students many different opportunities to read single-line transposing instruments before presenting them with full band or orchestral scores. I provide all my students with the following list of tips:

* "Concert pitch" is the term used to mean the sounding pitch of an instrument.

* Most transposing instruments sound lower than the notated pitch. (Exception: If the name of the instrument includes the word "soprano," the instrument will sound higher than the notated pitch.) For example, when reading a notated "C," a B-flat trumpet produces a "B-flat." Therefore, a B-flat trumpet sounds a major second below where it is notated; read the part down a major second.

* Bass instruments are non-transposing except for the double bass, which sounds an octave below where notated, and other rare instances.

* In German, "B" actually means B-flat and "H" means B-natural. Therefore, "Klarinette in B" is actually a B-flat clarinet.

I recommend using the following process to render transposing instrumental parts to concert pitch:

* To find the interval of transposition, play middle "C" on the keyboard. Then locate the note name of the transposing instrument (B-flat, E-flat, F and so forth) in its first position below middle "C" (or above middle "C" in the rare instance of a soprano instrument). Determine the interval between "C" and the transposing instrument's name (down major second, down major sixth and so forth). The result is the interval of transposition. Transpose the instrumental part that distance down (or up if it is a soprano instrument).

* Use the key signature of a concert-pitched (non-transposing) instrument from the same score.

* If there is no concert-pitched instrument in the score, add the key signature of the transposing instrument to that of the instrumental part to ascertain the key signature. For example, the given notated B-flat cornet part has a key signature of one sharp. To find the key to transpose to, add the two flats of the key of B-flat (the name of the instrument): [??] + [??] [flat] = [flat]. The two flats cancel out the one given sharp, leaving one flat remaining--the resulting key, the one we need to play in, is F.


* If there are accidentals, determine how they affect a note in the original key; for example, does it move the note tip or down a half step? Move the note accordingly in the new key.

* It can be helpful to read the part in another clef to Facilitate the transposition. For example, the E-flat transposition (down a major sixth) easily can be accomplished by reading the part as if written in bass clef up one octave. Of course, one still needs to apply the correct key signature. In this example, the given notated key is two sharps. Thus, we need to add three flats (the key of the instrument), which results in one remaining flat--the key we need to play in is F.


Once students clearly grasp the concept of playing transposing instruments at the piano, I usually present them with various groupings from band or orchestral scores. For example, I might give them the flute, B-flat clarinet, E-flat saxophone and bassoon lines pulled from a full score. I also would give them various brass groupings. I am sure to give students experience playing typical string groupings, typically violin, viola, cello and double bass (pulled from a larger orchestral score) and the frequently encountered string quartet grouping of two violins, a viola and a cello. The alto clef encountered when reading the viola part poses a challenge. However, chord labeling, anchoring and other visual cues apply equally well in this context.

Some symphonic scores fall into fairly natural groupings. For example, in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, there are three groupings present: woodwinds, brass and strings.


Thus, this work is a logical pedagogical choice for playing different groupings within an orchestral score. When playing a full orchestral or band score, distributing the notes between the hands and making choices regarding fingering can be challenging. Moreover, the range of these scores almost always exceeds that of the pianist's hand. Thus, if the entire score needs to be played at once, perhaps to get an overall impression of its sound, notes clearly will have to be omitted or redistributed. For example, wide-ranging chords can be rearranged as triads to fit within the span of the left hand.

Score playing is one of the most challenging applications encountered at the piano. However, even given the widespread availability of music sequencing software, it remains a vital skill for all musicians, even those who are not primarily pianists. Particularly in the case of new or lesser-known works, where recordings are not readily available, playing a score at the piano is usually the most efficient way to gain an overall impression of a choral or instrumental piece. Even those musicians who are not professional accompanists will likely find use for this skill in their studios or ensemble rehearsals.


(1.) Johansen, Ken. "Are You Keeping Score?" Piano arid Keyboard, No. 205. (July/August 2000): 43-48.

(2.) Shockley, Rebecca Payne. Mapping Music, 2nd Edition. (Middleton, WI, AR Editions, 2001.)

Brenda Wristen is assistant professor of piano pedagogy and keyboard skills at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is an active teacher, performer, clinician, adjudicator and researcher focusing on biomechanics and prevention of piano-related injuries.
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Author:Wristen, Brenda
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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