Sight reading: when you’re fakin’ it

The other night, I was practicing with a choir for their Sunday Mass. We went through the stuff I’m doing with them, and after we finished that, the director had me play the accompaniments for their Christmas Eve stuff, though I’m not playing their Christmas Masses.

There was one little problem: I hadn’t actually seen any of the sheet music for Christmas Eve. I would just have to play it as best I could off the bat.

And I did OK, getting through a speedy setting of “Jubilate Deo” and a choral setting of “Mary, Did You Know” that was different from the only version I’d ever played. That having been said, the last piece was one that, uh, you can’t sight-read.

Yeah, I was a bit overmatched by this, though I was able to get through the rest. I walk by faith, of course, but as a musician, I also walk by sight reading.

Here’s how I do it:

1. If it looks like a very complex score, start simple. Since a lot of the stuff organists play is refrain/verse, start by playing a basic left-hand part and just the melody in the right hand. Then you can keep adding the more you play through it. With most hymns and a good chunk of choral pieces, you probably can play the whole shebang within a few verses. And if you run into problems, fall back to the simplest version you can.

2. Look ahead. This can be tricky, but you need to know where you’re going before you head into it, generally speaking, especially if your hands need to jump somewhere. If you don’t have a chance to skim the whole thing before the practice (and I didn’t), I basically had my eyes darting between the measure I was playing and one or two measures ahead. The problem is that, of course, you can lose your place, even if you’re being careful.

3. Guitar chords are your friend; use them. Ever used a fake book? They’re those things they use especially at piano bars, where you’re given guitar chords, the written-out melody and lyrics. Basically, I play an octave of whatever chord is called for, then fill out the rest of the chord in the right hand with the melody. (It often sounds muddled if you play the full chord in the left hand.) Anyway, let’s say the accompaniment is still bedeviling you. Many choral pieces are written for keyboard (not just organ) and include guitar chords. Use those to get started until you can ease into the regular accompaniment.

One of the most important aspects of being a church musician is being able to adapt, quickly, to changing circumstances. Choir directors can change things, a pastor can make a request, or who knows what else can cause a problem. So the better you can sight-read, the better off you are as a church musician.

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