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Erik Joseph Campano has taken this post and added musical theater pianist skills at his excellent blog, The Orchestra Pit — Musical Theater Piano Central.

Please reread my post, then follow the link at the end for Erik’s astute additions!

English: The Oberek from Lowicz - The Lublin P...

English: The Oberek from Lowicz – The Lublin Polish Song and Dance Ensemble, choreography by Staś Kmieć – Mr. Kmiec’s ensemble: author Stas’ Kmiec’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you read a score at the piano, what are your eyes doing?

I’ve never attempted to put this into words before!

Piano scores

While teaching a piano lesson recently, my student was having problems negotiating the syncopation between the hands in “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin.  It isn’t that easy, especially if you’re new to these requirements.

She would begin the piece well.  But when playing the tune the 2nd time, she made it through 1/2 a bar, omitted a bass note, and skipped a note in the right hand. 

As I was analyzing what happened in order to help her, I found myself needing to play the phrase in question.  I was sure my student was missing the bass note because she hadn’t seen it, and I needed to figure out what to tell her.  When would she need to move her eyes down the page?

This is what I discovered:

  • Taking in all the notes may be impossible unless you move your eyes around the page.
  • Merely looking ahead is not enough.  In that case, your eyes remain on the same level.  (For example, you will be taking in everything at, say, 2 inches from the top of the page, but not at 2-1/2 inches as well.)
  • Looking from right hand to left hand notation vertically (directly up and down the page) will get you stuck.
  • I found that my eyes were moving in a zig-zag pattern, more or less, like this:  \/\/\/\/\/.  When you have a long note or an easy passage in one hand, you need to be looking at the music for the other hand; then as soon as you’ve seen that music, look at the music for the opposite hand.

Piano/vocal or instrumental scores

When collaborating with a singer or instrumentalist, we should be looking at the solo part.  Glancing at the piano part is all that is necessary if we have practiced enough.


Choral music may or may not have a piano reduction.  When it doesn’t, your eyes will be busy!  In a rehearsal today, I looked ahead for entrances in a 6-part piece.  When we rehearsed a faster piece later, I listened for parts that needed help and played those.  Solid chords on strong beats are helpful, especially during harmonic transitions between key levels.

If the parts are really spread out on the page, it is usually important to keep the bass line going.  The soprano part, which is easiest to hear, probably doesn’t need much help.  Inner parts are more difficult for the singers to hear, so concentrate on playing those.

The more parts there are, the more your eyes need to be actively scanning the page.  Once you’ve seen the notes, you can play them.  It takes a little time and some work to arrive at that point, but it is possible.

Don’t feel like you have to play all the notes.  If you can, great.  If not, focus on what matters most.  More notes will fall into place if you have a plan.

Playing what is needed is much more important to the success of a rehearsal than playing everything:

  • Entrances for each part.
  • Difficult intervals.
  • Changes of key.
  • Tempo changes.
  • Instrumental interludes.
  • Pitches in advance following solo passages, compositional sections, etc.
  • More percussive, slightly louder playing when a part needs help getting back on track.

When there are instrumental parts added (as an obbligato, for instance), play those parts plus the bass line (of the piano part, if there is one; of the chorus otherwise) once the singers are fairly secure.

Every piece is different.  Every rehearsal is different.  What you play will change, too.  Stay alert, listen, and scan the page all the time.  Looking through a score quickly before you play anything can save you at page turns, repeats, key and tempo changes.

Good luck!

(Did I leave anything out?)

Erik has responded to my question here:  How to Move Your Eyes When Accompanying Musical Theater

How do you read scores?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


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