Keeping it Simple: Reduction Techniques in Sight-reading
The fundamental requirement in sight-reading is to play in tempo and keep going. As we discussed in our previous blog, the ability to keep going, come what may, is dependent on three factors: a strong sense of pulse, an acceptance that mistakes will happen, and especially a willingness and ability to reduce or simplify the music when necessary. I say willingness because many students seem to feel honor-bound to try and play all the notes. But it is not cheating to leave out notes when we sight-read; on the contrary, it’s a sign of good musicianship.
As for the ability, that is something that must be practiced before we can call upon it in times of need. We can’t expect to simplify difficult passages on the spot if we don’t first have a few techniques up our sleeves. Fortunately, we have ample opportunity to practice simplifying: reducing, outlining, and blocking in our daily repertoire practice. I would not hesitate to call this the single-most important practice method for pianists: it helps us to feel hand positions, to think harmonically, to hear the longer melodic line, to memorize more effectively, to know what is structural and what is ornamental, and therefore to make interpretive decisions.
Chord blocking is probably the most familiar kind of reduction technique. Reducing an arpeggiated or broken chord to a block chord makes the mind chunk notes together, helps the eyes to read ahead, and allows the hands to feel voice-leading better. In the simple little piece below, playing all the notes of each measure together at the same time makes us read in one-bar units rather than note by note. As we hold each chord for 4 beats (reductions should always be played in tempo), our eyes look ahead and begin to decode the next measure. As we move from bar to bar, we feel the contrary motion in the voice-leading and the corresponding fingering of the two hands. In this kind of reduction, non-chord tones such as those in bar 7 are best left out. Most students quickly intuit which notes don’t belong.
In the lesson, the teacher can play the piece as written in the upper register of the piano while the student plays the reduction. At home, the student should play the reduction first, imagining the intervening rhythms, then play the piece as written.
Pieces of a more melodic nature such as the Hook Minuet below can be simplified using an outlining technique. A good way to start teaching students outlining is to have them play only the notes on the downbeats while the teacher plays all the notes on another piano. This forces them to count, look ahead, and simplify all at the same time. The next step is to play the left hand as written and only the notes in the right hand that coincide with the left hand. “Only play the notes that come together” is an injunction I frequently make in my sight-reading class, and it usually produces a good outline. When the students finally play the piece as written, they do so with a new sense of the structural skeleton underneath the surface detail.
In pieces with 4 beats to the bar, like the Reinagle Promenade below, playing only the notes on beats 1 and 3 usually works well. But sometimes the notes that come together rhythmically don’t belong together harmonically. In this example, it is the second note of each group of 4 8th notes that is the main harmonic note, not the first. As students learn about consonance and dissonance, they can start to make more accurate outlines, as shown below the example. Incidentally, writing down outlines like this is a very useful way to study and memorize a piece. Students can go back and forth between playing the outline from the original, and the original from the outline.
Outlining and Blocking combined:
Many reductions will use both chord blocking and melodic outlining, and the rhythm of the reduction will change according to the harmonic rhythm of the piece. Try making a simple outline in half notes and quarter notes of this movement from a Sonatina by Thomas Attwood. When you take the repeats, play the right hand as written while still blocking the left. Finally, play it a third time with all the notes, being aware of the reduction underneath. You’ll probably find that your eyes are reading ahead of where you are playing. That is an ability that all fluent sight-readers possess, and one that we will discuss further in a future blog.
As always, the pieces are available in the linked pdf.