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Sightreading: An Essential

The title here says it all. For any musician, the skill of sightreading is absolutely essential. It doesn’t matter if you are primarily a church musician, orchestra player, teacher, or something else – there is sure to come a time when you are handed music you have never seen before and asked to play it with very little, if any, notice.

So how do we get there? I think the principles of learning to sightread are pretty much the same for most instruments. Sightreading is, at the most basic level, excellent eye-brain-hand coordination. The information has to be read, processed in a matter of seconds or fractions of seconds, and put out through the fingers. Ideally, when sightreading you will be able to maintain a metronomic tempo that moves you steadily through the measures with a large percentage of accurate notes (actually, the ideal is 100% accuracy, but after all, we’re sightreading….).

As with anything, starting out right from the beginning can make all the difference in the world. I make a point with all of my students, especially the beginners, to have them sightreading something at every lesson. More often than not, the beginners end up sightreading a small handful of short pieces during each lesson. This plants the seed for the skill very early on and it will naturally grow and mature with the student’s mastery of the instrument as they move through literature. This is definitely the best way to learn or teach it in my experience, so if you have beginning students, get them sightreading right away!

Sometimes, though, sightreading slips through the cracks. This has, unfortunately, happened with some of my students. Additionally, sometimes I take a transfer student who’s previous teacher didn’t work on this and so then I have an intermediate student who is not comfortable with the sightreading process. The good news is, it’s never too late to learn! Intermediate and early advanced pianists have an excellent chance at mastering sightreading even if they haven’t done it from the time they started lessons. Below are a few helps for learning to sightread that I have found immensely helpful both in my own journey as a musician as well as from a teacher’s perspective.

  • Do it often! For older students, I find it helpful to assign a book strictly for this purpose that they can do on their own every day.
  • Start simple! Your student may be able to play Level 10 literature, but is on par with a Level 2 sightreader. Find music with which they can succeed, no matter how easy it feels, and gradually work up the ladder.
  • Practice with variety! Is your student burned out with stumbling through the hymnbook? Try a series of simple etudes for a change (see below for recommendations). Don’t always stick with solo works, either – practice with simple accompaniments for children’s choir or other instrumental soloists.
  • Repeat it! Even though technically speaking you can only sightread something once, if you are not consciously putting effort into learning it, your brain will still process much of the information as new. Use this to your advantage and play the same thing over and again, and each time you will pick up on something else and increase your accuracy, thus combining the benefits of sightreading and structured practice.
  • KTS! This stands for Key signature, Time signature, Scan. These three things are perhaps the most important in any sightreading situation – special thanks to Mr. Pinner of Pinner Studios and Pinner Publications for this wonderful tip!


I have found the Technical Skills book by compiled and edited by Jane Magrath to be an excellent resource in helping students sightread successfully. Check out these wonderful technique building books as a resource for beginning sightreaders.

look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 1-2. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 24 pages. Alfred Music #00-6583. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6583).
look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 3. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6584. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6584).
look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 4. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6585. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6585).


If you found this post helpful, please consider leaving feedback in the comment section below. Also, read other posts on music pedagogy here.

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In Righteous Paths is now in stock!

In Righteous Paths is a collection of sacred solo arrangements for intermediate viola, complete with piano accompaniments. These arrangements were written with the amateur violist in mind, but are also appropriate for those who have reached more advanced levels. Also included is a bonus arrangement of Abide with Me set for violin/viola duet with piano accompaniment. Artistic yet simple, these solos are perfect for church services, sacred recitals, special events, and more.

Titles include: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Shepherd’s Hymn, Blessed Assurance, At the Cross, Day by Day, Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It, Just as I Am, Praise Him! Praise Him!, and Abide with Me.

A spiral book of scores, supplemented with a separate booklet of solo parts is included in purchase.

Piano Accompaniment

Something has surfaced in my teaching quite a bit recently, and this is the subject of training accompanists. Typically, an accompanist is a pianist because the bulk of repertoire is written with piano specific accompaniments, or piano reductions of orchestra accompaniments. With a very few exceptions, this is the case in classically styled sacred music, probably even more so than it is in classical music itself. Then, when we consider the average church, most of them use piano or a keyboard instrument, where other classical chamber groups or orchestras may be lacking. With this in view, it becomes tremendously important for a ministry-minded pianist to learn how to accompany others in all sorts of settings from all types of music, whether it is classical rep, or the more common improvised accompaniment out of a hymnbook, or a choral arrangement, or the accompaniment for another instrumentalist.

There are many things to consider as an accompanist, with the biggest being that the accompanist must support, not dominate. This was always a bit of a challenge for me to grasp when I was first learning, especially when I was handed accompaniment parts for particularly exciting violin solos or vocal pieces. Nevertheless, this is arguably the most important thing for an accompanist to realize, for it is not only crucial in and of itself, but also effects every other part of how they play.

Moving on to the more practical side of things, some quick helps for learning to accompany are:

Count. A no-brainer? Maybe, but while most beginners are continually being hammered with repetitions of “1 2 3 4,” “1+2+3+4+,” “trip-l-et, trip-l-et, trip-l-et,” or the more appealing “straw-ber-ry, straw-ber-ry, straw-ber-ry” or some other such form of counting, more advanced musicians somehow loose track of this most important technique. Find the quarter beat (or other main beat) and stick with it. Tap your foot, nod your head, do anything to keep on track with the person you are accompanying.

Analyze. As the supporting musician, you have a very unique role. The music written to enhance the soloist is usually full of embellishments and ideas that duplicate those found in the solo or choral parts, but are often woven in so as not to draw direct attention. When preparing to accompany, spend some time with the score, and look to see how the accompaniment part and the solo part work together. Look for patterns that repeat between the parts, contrasting note values (maybe the solo has sixteenth notes and the piano is supporting by playing quarters or eighths), parallel vs. contrasting registers, etc. The more you know about what the other person is doing and how it relates to what you are doing, the better your prepared accompaniment will sound.

Listen. (A)  If you can find a recording of the piece you are to accompany, spend some time and listen to it. If your part is a piano reduction or a piece that has had orchestrations added to it, listen for what orchestral instruments are used to enhance the mood and musicality of the piece in its full edition. Envisioning a tuba or a piccolo will make a difference in how you approach relating portions of the work.

Listen. (B) When practicing with the one whom you are to accompany, develop the habit of listening to them, rather than to yourself. This takes work and sometimes a little mind-over-matter technique, but is well worth the effort.

Practice. Here again, this may seem like a no-brainer. You may be surprised, however, by the difference there can be between only ever playing with the soloist and taking time to study your own part between rehearsals.


Here are some of our favorite books for young string soloists, with each arrangement including a beautiful piano accompaniment. These make excellent practice for church pianists in training!

Cover tiny file look inside Come, Christians, Join to Sing Composed by Kristin Campbell. SoundForth #228841. Published by SoundForth (S2.228841).
Cover tiny file look inside Worship the King Easy Hymn Settings for Solo Violin and Piano. Composed by Kristin Campbell. Score and performance/accompaniment CD. Lorenz Publishing Company #30/2600L. Published by Lorenz Publishing Company (LO.30-2600L).


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NEW Release | And Can It Be for String Quartet

We’re excited to make available a fresh string setting for the timeless hymn, “And Can It Be?” In a rousing and triumphant rendition, string quartets can marvel at and rejoice in the matchless love of our God. For ease of coordination, there is an optional third violin part that can double the viola or serve as a substitute when violists are scarce! 

Visit our online store to preview the complete score and to purchase.

NEW Children’s Carol | A Child at Christmas Time

The Christmas season is just around the corner. If you are like us, then you are busily preparing this year’s special music for church events, nursing home ministries, and more. It is special to bring everyone together to sing at Christmas time. What would Christmas be without the sound of children’s voices ringing through our lives? If you have a group of children you are working to prepare for the Christmas season of music ministry, then you will want to check out this new, gentle carol written just for children and that touches the hearts of young and old alike. We are excited to announce the release of A Child at Christmas Time. It is simply set for children’s choir and features an optional child’s solo, as well as optional obbligatos for viola and cello.

Click here to preview and purchase the digital sheet music.

Teaching Metronome Use {in a nutshell}

Using the metronome is a relieving way to make sure that all rhythmic values are placed exactly as they ought to be in their interlocking system. But often we as teachers assume that students know how to use a metronome effectively in their practice, when in reality, they do not understand at all.

There is (almost) nothing that can raise a teacher’s blood pressure faster than having the metronome turned on and the student not staying with it. And it’s not just frustrating for the teacher (I was a student once…).

Teaching students to use a metronome is one of the most rewarding elements of practice to pass on. I like to start them with it early in a lot of cases, and always simply. Scales are an excellent tool for teaching metronome use. Teach your student a basic one octave C scale with just one hand (two hands for students who can handle it –but we’re taking the most basic approach possible). After they are comfortable and confident with the fingerings and notes of the scale, then have them play with the metronome, giving one note per click. 60 BPM is a good speed usually, but if it’s too fast, slow it down. The goal is to have each note played exactly with the click.

Eventually, you can teach the fingerings for a two octave scale, and then add the metronome to that. Now the student will be playing eighth notes and will have two notes per click. Ideally, the metronome will be on your original speed but again, slow it down if necessary.

The ultimate goal with rhythmic attention is to internalize rhythm so that it can be “felt.” Often, the best way to internalize something is to externalize it first. Encourage your student to nod their head with each metronome click. Foot tapping is another way to externalize, or counting out loud. Vocalizing a non-word syllable (da-da-da or something else) is also helpful. Do not encourage externalizing by extra hand motion such as bouncing the wrists, as this distracts from hand and arm technique and is not useful in the long run, and could also cause unnecessary tension.

There are many variations to this sort of practice work, so be creative and tailor these ideas to meet your and your student’s needs. Also, it usually isn’t imperative that a student master metronome work or perfect rhythm in all of their current music at one time. It’s a process, so set reasonable goals that can be achieved relatively easily.


From one of our favorite series for beginners who desire to play in church: check out Keyboard Treasury Vol. 2! This series is excellent, reinforcing technique and developing a taste for artistically arranged sacred music.

Cover tiny file look inside Keyboard Treasury, Vol. 2 A Graded Hymn Anthology elementary piano solos. Composed by Peter Davis. Sacred. SoundForth #110221. Published by SoundForth (S2.110221).


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Teacher’s Resource | Masterwork Practice & Performance

Many times through the course of my years teaching, I have had questions such as:

  • How picky should I be?
  • How many weeks on one piece is too long?
  • Should I expect my beginners to play their pieces to the same degree of perfection as that of an intermediate or advanced student?
  • If I only have time to work on a few techniques or ideas during the lesson, on what should I spend the time and how do I prioritize the material so as to evenly develop their skills?

While there are no perfect answers to these questions, there are tools we can employ to help us find case-by-case solutions. There are solutions to the innumerable student weaknesses a teacher encounters in a week, and some of them can be mind-boggling, especially for young teachers.

Of course, the goal is to be adept at seeing a problem, identifying where exactly it lies, and having ten different perfect solutions lying ready at your fingertips. But you really need this built-in resource long before it will have had time to accumulate from experience. So what is a young teacher to do? Or maybe you have much experience teaching, but have a hard time keeping up each student’s individual needs and weekly progress. (If you have more than 5 students, this is very likely!)

I recently came across this sister-resource to the Masterwork Classics series by Jane Magrath. The Practice & Performance series boasts “A student practice guide that accompanies the Masterwork Classics. Invaluable notes on technique, style and listening activities for every piece in the Masterwork Classics books, plus teacher’s notes and short lesson guides for each piece.”

These are designed to be used as a consumable practice guide with each student having their own, but I have found that owning my own copy instead works well. I can then study up on what they are going to be working on, and be better prepared to teach the material aurally. This way, I am able to break the information down and customize it to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Also, it removes the need to hand a young student a relatively deep practice-guide that they may have a difficult time understanding and applying on their own.


Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Practice & Performance, Level 1-2 Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Practice & Performance. Masterwork. Book. 64 pages. Alfred Music #00-6582. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6582).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Practice & Performance Level 3. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Practice & Performance. Masterwork. Book. 88 pages. Alfred Music #00-167. Published by Alfred Music (AP.167).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Practice & Performance, Level 4 Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Practice & Performance. Masterwork. Book. 80 pages. Alfred Music #00-169. Published by Alfred Music (AP.169).


If you found this post helpful, please consider leaving feedback in the comment section below. Also, read previous articles on music pedagogy here.


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A musician’s posture is one of the most important physical aspects of their playing. It affects every part of an instrumentalists ability to relax (hopefully preventing injuries), articulate, breath, and play effectively. It can also have an influence on the musician’s longevity as an active musician.

Here is a tried and true exercise to insure good posture in yourself and your students. This has been proven effective for vocalists, as well!

Stand straight and stretch your arms up toward the ceiling. Then wiggle your fingertips – this is really important because it helps reduce unnecessary tension in the arms. Slowly begin to lower the arms straight out to the sides, and make sure the elbows do not bend. Keep wiggling the fingers!  Continue bringing your arms down until they are hanging at your sides. Your shoulders should now be in the “perfect posture” position.

This method works really well in helping teach young children and is far more effective than merely saying “stand/sit up straight,” or “put your shoulders back,” or other common directives.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving feedback in the comment section below. Also, read other posts on music pedagogy here.

Check out our favorite book for elementary violin students. This makes a wonderful start prior to launching into the Suzuki books.

Cover tiny file look inside Essential Elements for Strings – Book 1 with EEi Essential Elements. Instructional, Methods and Play Along. Softcover Media Online. 48 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.868049).


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Composers. That word sounds a little technical, if you ask me. Maybe it just feels technical. Or maybe it isn’t really technical at all. Maybe it’s just too historical for musicians like us who would rather sit with a violin under our chins or a keyboard under our fingers than with our noses in a history book.

Whatever the case, the subject of music composers is an important one for anyone who wishes to play music, not to mention those who are in teaching positions. But really, how do you teach about this, and does it really affect our playing?

Let me answer the second question first. Yes, it does really affect our playing, in more ways than one. I’m not talking about merely having random facts stored in our brain like some kind of mental timeline stocked with stickers from over the centuries highlighting important events and dates, but about really knowing and understanding more about the people behind the music we play.

Did you know that Bach had twenty children? That’s an encouraging fact when you are practicing amid the noise of 3 other instruments and other unnamed chaos. Or that, in spite of the fact that most people today use much of his music for keyboard and strings, Bach’s primary instrument was organ. It is also interesting to note that the Baroque era of music ended the same year as Bach’s death (no, everyone didn’t awaken sounding like Mozart the day after Bach’s funeral, but that is the recognized date marking the change in music styles).

Speaking of Mozart, did you know that he began composing at the age of 5 years, having already become proficient at both violin and piano? Or that he was interested in chords at the piano at the age of 3 years when watching his 7 year-old sister, Nannerl, study piano with their father?

Nannerl wrote the following after Wolfgang’s death at the age of 35 years:

“He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good… In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier… He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time… At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.”*

How about Beethoven? He is one of the few (if not the only) composers who spanned two eras: he composed repertoire in both the Classical era as well as the Romantic era. Time would fail to speak of Debussy’s extraordinary abilities that were recognized in his youth though criticized for the unusual innovations they led him to produce, or of how Haydn married a woman who disliked music and used his manuscripts for hair rollers, or of Vivaldi’s fire red hair and work with orphans, or of how Beethoven and Haydn met and on Haydn’s advice, Beethoven moved to Vienna for the remainder of his life, or of Haydn’s creative genius in the composition of the Farewell Symphony…

The point is, we ought to become acquainted with these people as we endeavor to play their music. They were real. As we learn more about them, they will cease to be in our minds and the minds of our students as known yet unknown geniuses of the past for whom we have no personal appreciation. And better still, when we teach their music to our students, we can talk about them with the warmth and appreciation we have for other great historical figures who have impacted us for good under the sovereign hand of God.


For more ideas on teaching about eras and composers of music, read here


Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics Level 8. By perf. Scott Price. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Classics. Masterwork. Book; CD. 56 pages. Alfred Music #00-16741. Published by Alfred Music (AP.16741).

*Excerpt taken from

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