Vidas: Let’s start Episode 107 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Brice, and here is how it sounds:
“When I learn a piece of music depending on its difficulty I can learn it in several hours, or several days, several weeks or 1 to 2 months. Don't mind taking a lot of time to learn to music, but I'd like it so that I can get myself up to the level where I read simple pieces of music down to less than an hour if not 30 to 20 minutes to learn. Or be able to just sight read such a easy piece.”
Basically, this question is about the level of fluency in sight-reading, yes Ausra?
Ausra: Yes, or learning music faster.
Vidas: So we probably have to advise people to just keep practicing sight-reading, right?
Ausra: Yes, I think that would be the easiest way to reach the level you want to be at.
Vidas: Of course, Brice is concerned about the time it takes to do this, right? The amount of practice.
Vidas: Apparently, the level of skill is getting better--but too slowly for Brice.
Ausra: Well, it would be excellent in such a case to find a church position, if he doesn’t have one. That way, you would just be forced to do it.
Vidas: Every week.
Ausra: Yes, every week…
Vidas: Maybe several times a week.
Ausra: Maybe several services a week, and new repertoire all the time--prelude, postlude, offering, hymns...And this would make things easier after a while. Of course, you would suffer at first; you would have to play a lot, but eventually it would get easier.
Vidas: I struggled with sight-reading for a very long time. I remember my first piece was, I think, “Jesu meine Freude” from Orgelbüchlein. In the 10th grade, my teacher gave it to me, to choose from any chorale; and I chose this piece. And I couldn’t sight-read even the hands part fluently enough at a slow tempo. I was struggling at the level that I even didn’t understand how the piece is put together. What about you?
Ausra: Well yes, I basically was a good sight-reader from a very early age; but the thing is that after playing music the second time, it wouldn’t get much better than sight-reading it! So I had my struggles, too. But I remember when I worked at a Christian Scientist church while I was studying in Michigan--well, it was a nice job, actually, to have. But I remember each week, the reader who would lead service that Sunday would call me and leave the hymn numbers on my answering machine, in order for me to be able to learn them for Sunday. And first of all, yes I would do that: I would play them, prepare them in advance, be worried that everything would go well; but after maybe playing for like half a year in that church, I would never play those hymns in advance--I would never prepare them in advance. I would just show up on Sunday and play for the service. Because I didn’t need to do it.
Vidas: You were good enough?
Ausra: Yes, yes.
Vidas: Mhm. For me, I think, the struggle continued even until late years in America, I think. But yes, this position that we both shared--Grace Lutheran Church, but even earlier in Michigan, I worked in Ypsilanti Missouri Synod Lutheran Church there; and I also had to provide a lot of hymns, preludes, postludes, communion music, offertories, regularly, sometimes several times a week, even for funerals. So gradually, I found out that really, I’m getting better at this. I hated to spend too much time with learning the music, so I really sightread everything. So after maybe 2 months of doing this intensely, I suddenly realized a breakthrough.
Ausra: Yes. And of course, your theoretical background--of understanding the theory of music--is also very important in order to be able to learn music fast or sight-read well. Because knowing all those clefs and key signatures--that’s what makes you to sight-read music easily.
Vidas: Basically, your brain has to connect the dots for you--
Ausra: Sure, sure.
Vidas: To know the meaning behind the notes.
Ausra: That’s right. Because usually, you know, if you read a piece of music in C Major, it’s easier than to read, for example, music in D♭ Major.
Ausra: The more key accidentals you get, the harder it is. And of course, it’s easy to sight-read, let’s say, a hymn, because it might have like, a few secondary dominants; but that’s almost the hardest theoretical thing you can get in a hymn. But if you are learning a piece of music from such a composer as Max Reger, for example, which has such chromatic harmony…
Vidas: Or Louis Vierne.
Ausra: Yes. So, it adds much more difficulty.
Vidas: I think people should not rush into very advanced pieces too early.
Ausra: Yes; and you know, I think if you want to sight-read music fast and well, and be able to learn music fast enough, you need to pick up easy repertoire for beginners.
Ausra: There are some very good examples of music that sounds good, but it’s not as hard to learn, for beginners. Like, for example, Frescobaldi’s “Fiori Musicali”. That’s a wonderful collection for church musicians. Or you know, if you want Romantic music, pick up Cesar Franck’s “L’Organiste”. That’s an excellent collection.
Vidas: Or Alexandre Guilmant wrote Practical Organist and Liturgical Organist. Those collections also have short pieces based sometimes on chants, sometimes not on chants; but they’re suited for church playing. And they’re beautiful pieces, but not too difficult.
Vidas: And sometimes they are with pedal, sometimes without; you can have optional pedal lines, like for harmonium, without any pedals; but you can add pedals, playing the bass with your feet.
Ausra: Yes. So if you don’t have much time to prepare your music, pick up easy music for beginners; and then together with that, at the same time, you can learn (slower) harder pieces.
Vidas: Another thing to consider is to start improvising. Right? It does help, too.
Ausra: Well, yes, it does help, too, but it will not make you a better sight-reader.
Vidas: Why not?
Ausra: Because when you improvise, you don’t have a music score in front of you. And I think if you just improvise, eventually you might not be able to play from the sheet music at all. That’s my opinion.
Vidas: Here I agree with you, but I also have another perspective on this. If you improvise freely from your imagination, then yes, the skill of reading music is something different. But if you are thinking in terms of harmony and counterpoint, like the piece is really written out in your mind, then it helps, eventually.
Ausra: Well, I see your point; but improvisation like this, as you described it, will take you even more time than learning music from the score.
Vidas: So guys, choose whatever works for you. We’re only sharing our perspectives and experiences, right?
Vidas: Wonderful. And of course, apply our tips in your practice, if you like them. That makes all the difference. And please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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