Thoughts on Service Playing, Part III: Helpful hints for sight-reading and learning new music

January 31, 2017

David Herman, DMA, MusD, is Trustees Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music and University Organist at the University of Delaware. The author of numerous reviews for The Diapason, he has enjoyed playing hymns in churches of various denominations for more than fifty years. His recent CD includes music by his teacher Jan Bender and by Bender’s teacher, Hugo Distler.

This is the third installment in a series of articles that will offer ideas for enriching service playing. (The first installment, on hymn playing, appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Diapason; the second installment, on transposition, appeared in the January 2017 issue.) These essays had their genesis in a series of articles written for Crescendo, the newsletter of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and are used with permission. This installment tackles the challenge of encountering and learning new music.


I. Sight-reading

The old joke: A visitor to Manhattan asks a policeman, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The cop: “Practice, practice, practice!”

Sight-reading is a skill highly to be prized, but alas—there seems to be no shortcut in acquiring it. Nor is there much devoted to sight-reading skills in the standard organ methods or other books. The solution seems to be the same as that offered by the New York cop! Here are some suggestions and words of encouragement. 

Being a good sight-reader offers many advantages. It is an attribute that helps one secure and retain professional positions. Word gets around—“She can sight-read anything!” It is also helpful in playing through and learning new music. (There can be a downside: good sight-readers sometimes have a challenge in the business of working out details, especially fingering.) Sometimes we develop sight-reading skills in a non-voluntary way. I learned to sight-read some 55 years ago. At the church where I played during my high school years there was a Sunday evening service, the highlight of which (for them, not me) was a lengthy segment when members of the congregation called out hymn numbers to sing. I was expected to play each hymn at sight. Many of us have had such experiences, and we look back on them with belated appreciation, realizing that in such situations our skills at sight-reading were being developed and honed. Here are some suggestions for practicing.

• An opening thought: Practicing sight-reading, at least of music for manuals, does not necessarily require a trip to the church; a piano does just fine. Or, how about on the kitchen table, for developing concentration? (See below.)

• Select music that is not overly difficult to play; let the challenge be in the reading, not in the complexity of the music. Choose music to sight-read that is less difficult than what you would normally select to learn. 

• If sight-reading hymns is too difficult, practice sight-reading just the melody, then the melody with bass. Indeed, because traditional harmony is clearly defined by these outer voices, it is often possible to use only them in congregational singing; the organ registration helps fill in the middle.

• Bach chorale settings are like multivitamins; they provide many benefits. 

• Other possibilities include Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach and manual pieces such as those found in eighteenth-century English voluntaries, Franck’s L’Organiste, and many others.

• More vitamins: Warm up each day with scales on the piano. This benefits playing technique in general and, as a preparation for sight-reading, helps you think and play “in the key.” (Vitamins such as scales also help increase the blood flow in the hands for us older organists.)

• Keep a strict tempo—do not permit hesitations as you move your fingers from note to note. Instead, play slower, using a metronome, if necessary, to ensure steadiness.

• Keep going. Don’t stop to correct wrong notes—that’s not sight-reading, it’s practicing the piece!

• The experienced sight-reader looks slightly ahead, anticipating what is coming while also playing the notes of
the moment.

• Keep the fingers in touch with the keyboard, anticipating the next notes and moving each smoothly but quickly. 

• As with transposition and improvisation, “think in the key”—have the accidentals of the key in mind and anticipate upcoming modulations.

• Finally, as with practice of all kinds, play musically when sight-reading. Don’t settle for just playing notes—think about lines, shape, phrasing, and touch. 


Sight-reading resources 

Anne Marsden Thomas’s The Organist’s Hymnbook (Boosey & Hawkes, £21.95, provides a wealth of hymns for sight-reading, arranged in graded difficulty, beginning with two-part manual settings. (Because these settings maintain traditional hymnbook harmony, they can also be used in congregational accompaniment.) Early sections of most organ method books also contain pieces suitable for sight-reading.

Hymnbooks, of course, provide many appropriate examples. Select hymn tunes with simple harmonies and textures, however—not ones that are rhythmically or chromatically complex or have busy, contrapuntal textures.

Other resources include:

Hall, Jonathan B. “Ten Tips on Sight Reading.” The American Organist,  March 2009, 84–85.

Harris, Paul. Improve your sight-reading (in six volumes). Alfred Music, 1998.

Stewart, Stephie. Ten Tips for Improving Sight Reading. Blog from Sheet Music Plus:….

Nance,  Daryel. How to Practice Sight-Reading at the Keyboard. http://

I offer a suggestion, useful in all aspects of music learning, including sight-reading, improvisation, and new music: use a metronome in your practicing. The primary reason is that music unfolds through time; a metronome helps maintain a steady tempo and prevents you from playing faster than you’re able.

There is an old story about André Previn arranging an audition with the great conductor George Szell. Previn, hoping to be invited to play a piano concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra, went to Szell’s hotel room as instructed. He looked around. “Where is the piano, maestro?” “Ah, we don’t need a piano. You can play it on that,” he said, pointing to a table. Somewhat unnerved, Previn sat down and began to play the piano part of the concerto. And Szell immediately began to criticize Previn’s playing. “Too loud; too soft; not legato enough; the chords are not well voiced.” Finally, Szell stopped him, saying “It’s no use; it is unfortunately clear that you can’t play this piece.” And Previn said, “I don’t understand, maestro; it went fine on my kitchen table this morning.”


II. Learning new music


To play the organ properly, one should have a vision of Eternity.

Charles-Marie Widor


Music, being identical with heaven, isn’t a thing of momentary thrills, or even hourly ones. It’s a condition of eternity.

Gustav Holst


Our profession offers a marvelous variety of activities. Most of us hold positions in churches and synagogues; some of us teach or play recitals. Through all these, I hope we continue to be students—studying new music, expanding our techniques, even learning from our students. Some of us study new music with the assistance of a teacher, while others learn on our own. A third possibility might be informal playing for a colleague: receiving encouragement and constructive feedback from a friend. 

This might sound strange, but when I do this I prefer playing for musicians who are not organists. Other instrumentalists will provide useful comments about lines, the need to breathe (Hurford: “Music must breathe if it is to live.”) and, especially, rhythm. They usually don’t sugarcoat their reactions. I remember, many years ago, trying out my first attempt at early French rhythms on a colleague, who was a clarinetist. “(Expletive deleted!),” he hollered; “Can’t you count?” I must have been going a little too far with my “inequalities.” Instrumentalists, unencumbered by what we organists know about styles, performance practice, and the idiosyncrasies of our instrument, will let you know some essential truths about your playing—especially rhythm and tempo!

Here are some suggestions for learning music. First, whether working alone or with a teacher, those starting out should have access to one or more organ method books (organ “tutors,” as our British colleagues say). Even advanced players return to these for their musical “vitamins”—pedal exercises, manual studies, scales, and more.

There are many excellent method books currently available, and I will mention but a few here (see details in the list of references, below). The Gleason book (Harold Gleason, Method of Organ Playing, eighth edition, 1996) continues to be a standard. I return to it when my feet are not behaving. I appreciate The Organist’s Manual by Roger Davis (1985) and very much admire the book by George Ritchie and George Stauffer, Organ Technique Modern and Early (2000), with its reference to techniques both old and new. A Practical Guide to Playing the Organ by Anne Marsden Thomas (1997), an experienced British pedagogue, is thorough and innovative. Her book even includes useful tips for practicing in a cold church: “Strap one or two hot water bottles to your body with a long scarf.” 

As you work on new music, some of the following may be helpful or thought provoking, as they have been for me. Anne Marsden Thomas writes:

• Concerning exercises: Play them as beautifully as you can. 

Do not confuse touch with phrasing. (Touch is for clarity; phrasing is
for breaths.)

• Accent is an illusion on the organ. (An accent cannot be accomplished by merely pressing harder on the key.)

• Fingering is the means to an end. (Pedaling, too.)

Touch is perhaps the most critical of all the organist’s tools, for it is with touch that we communicate the essentials of music: rhythm, pulse, accents, breath. Touch should not be artificial or draw attention to itself. Rather, it is for the organist what diction is for the singer: in communicating to our listeners, we rely on touch to make the music clear. Peter Hurford offered an imaginative suggestion (recalled from a masterclass many years ago): Communication is accomplished by consonants—touch, articulation, and the space between notes. Emotion is expressed through aspects of legato touch—the vowels. I heartily commend Hurford’s slim but profound volume, Making Music on the Organ—a wonderful title!—published by Oxford University Press (revised edition, 1990, $51.00; 


Additional suggestions

In choosing pieces to learn, first, it is important to like the music you are playing, so select works that you have heard and enjoy, or those written by a composer whose music you like. Second, choose music appropriate to your technical skills. It is more important to play well, of course, than to play an overly difficult piece. For example, many settings in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein are more challenging to play than the eight (“little”) preludes and fugues. (I once knew a teacher of a beginning student who said: “You’re just starting off, so let’s do something in the key of C—it’s the easiest.” So the student was assigned Bach’s Prelude in C Major, but not from the “eight little;” no, he was told to began with BWV 547—the “9/8!”)

Regarding ornaments, do not get bogged down in reading about how to play them. Seldom is there only one “correct” way of playing an embellishment. Ornaments should occur naturally. Work out your interpretation of the ornamented passages, massaging them into place. (Hurford: “Ornaments should marry with the music which they embellish.”) Then try them out on your teacher or a colleague who has a good understanding of the style. An oft-quoted line of Ralph Vaughan Williams, about studying: “I have learnt almost entirely what I have learnt by trying it out on the dog.”

With aspects of interpretation and performance practice, it is here that a teacher can be especially valuable. And, in a variation of this, what about two or more colleagues playing for one another? A group of learners, perhaps facilitated by an American Guild of Organists chapter, could meet together regularly: sharing ideas, techniques, and solutions while cheering each other on. Or, try it on the dog. In any case, play for as many people as possible. Each time we do this, we become more confident and less apprehensive about performance. 

The metronome can be very helpful in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of a practice session. When working out a new piece of music (after writing in solutions to any fingering or pedaling challenges), set the metronome to a comfortably slow tempo, one distinctly slower than the tempo at which you are able to play the notes with accurate pitches and rhythm. You may wish to begin with right hand and pedal, left hand and pedal combinations. While repeating one page or section, gradually increase the tempo one click at a time. This ensures an overall increase in tempo, but accomplished gradually so that comfort and accuracy do not suffer. As time goes by we seem to have less and less time for practicing; fortunately, at the same time we get smarter! This method can go a long way in helping you achieve the best results in the shortest time. 

Finally, quoting Anne Marsden Thomas once more: “Always play the right note.” Now, that might seem too obvious to mention. But the fact is, in playing a note incorrectly more than one time, we are in fact practicing that mistake. In a short time, we’re able to play the wrong note perfectly! It can be very difficult to erase that mistake from our motor memories.

Happy practicing! And play the right notes.



Davis, Roger E. The Organist’s Manual. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985.

Gleason, Harold, ed., and Catharine Crozier Gleason. Method of Organ Playing, eighth edition; Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Hurford, Peter. Making Music on the Organ. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988; revised edition, 1990.

Ritchie, George H. and George B. Stauffer. Organ Technique Modern and Early. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Thomas, Anne Mardsen. A Practical Guide to Playing the Organ. London: Cramer Music, Ltd., 1997. Accompanying volumes contain graded literature.


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