Score Reading at the Piano – A Graduated Method with Suggested Resources 

Have you ever seen a conductor sit at the piano and play fluently off an open score?  It’s impressive, for sure, but wouldn’t it be invaluable for your own studying purposes to be able to do that too?

I remember being 22 years old and my teacher, Dr. Harlan Parker at the Peabody Conservatory, gave each member the graduate conducting studio a copy of Erich Leinsdorf’s “The Composer’s Advocate.”  After reading the first ten pages, I knew I wasn’t cutting it – Leinsdorf said, and I’m paraphrasing:

A conductor should start every day with playing Bach’s Art of the Fugue in the four original clefs

I put Leinsdorf’s book down, went to the Friedheim Library and checked out a copy of the Bach (pre-IMSLP days), I went to the piano and remember failing miserably at reading the soprano and alto-clef lines, let alone all four lines at once.

I think Leinsdorf and Szell are 100% accurate, that a conductor who aspires for the highest levels of understanding should work towards realizing the score at the piano.   The question is how do we get there? 

This ability is not a talent bestowed to a chosen few, it’s a learned skill, and it takes a heck of a lot of practice.  So, I offer you this graduated approach to getting there:


You must be able to play two independent lines simultaneously.  Bach two-part inventions are fundamental for building this skill.  Begin with hands separately, and use a metronome.  Start slowly, play musically and only accept accuracy.  When working with only one hand, sing the other part on solfege or note names.  Szell recommended playing the left hand part in the right hand and vice versa, so you begin to see that vertical placement in the score is not always associated with registral location.

Work on your ability to play chorales/hymns.  512atiixkpl-_ac_ul320_sr240320_The Bach/Riemenschneider 371 harmonized chorales are excellent daily practice, but you can also read out of a church hymnal.  The best part about the Bach is that you feel perfect 4-part voice leading in your fingers, and that movement will eventually become instinctive in your hands.  Here too, you should practice, not just read.  Try omitting a voice in the fingers and replace it with singing on solfege or note names.

‘C’ clef reading 019321475x

The next step is building your ability to read clefs other than the treble and bass clefs.  I would strongly recommend purchasing the Morris & Ferguson Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading.  Read the introduction, noting the instructions that,

“Each exercise should be learnt.  If it is merely read through once, of course the entire content of the book will be exhausted before any real meaning has been extracted from it.”

Work to gain fluency in each clef – the best way I know is to say the note names as you play them, always using a metronome.  These clefs are essential to your growth and ability to navigate transposing instruments:

  • Soprano clef – A transpositions
  • Alto clef – viola, alto trombone and D transpositions
  • Tenor clef – cello, bassoon, tenor trombone and Bb transpositions
  • Bass clef – E/Eb transpositions
  • Mezzo soprano clef – F transpositions
  • Baritone clef – G transpositions

If you’re actually going to tackle what I’m proposing, I’ll be upfront and tell you that it will take maybe 12-18 months of doing these exercises (45-60 minutes daily) until you’re feeling somewhat proficient.

Consider partnering with a friend/colleague who wants to do this same thing – these are some of my fondest memories (Garrett and Oliver).  Ideally you can play on two pianos, but you could play on one piano with four hands (not as fun).  Take The Art of the Fugue and divide it with a friend.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Adjacent parts: student 1 on S/A, student 2 on T/B
  2. Non-adjacent parts: student 1 on S/T, student 2 on A/B
  3. At every system break or page turn, change parts
  4. Play one part, sing the other (on solfege or note names)


4-clef reading

Reading four clefs at once is extremely rewarding and there’s lots of repertoire available.  Some possibilities are SATB choral music, string quartets and 4-clef works.

You can also start tackling symphonies at the piano with friends.  One person can take the string parts and the other can play winds/brasses (Haydn/Mozart symphonies work well here).

The bigger the symphony, obviously, the more complex this becomes.   During our conducting lessons at Eastman, when we weren’t conducting our brilliant teacher, Neil Varon, had us at a piano.  One student covered the wind parts, another covered the brass and we had a string quartet in the room to play their own parts.  This is challenging, but it’s the most ideal for the conducting students.

Further practice

I was introduced to two more score-reading methods by a wonderful instructor at Eastman named Dr. Bruce Frank.  He pulled excerpts from the Melcher & Warch “Music for Score Reading,” 312gbkpnrvl-_sx258_bo1204203200_which, like the Morris & Ferguson, gives a graduated method, but includes more orchestral repertoire and teaches the student how to best reduce lines for the piano.  If you purchase one book from this article, it should be this one…

The other method is by Heinrich Creuzburg, called  Partiturspiel (Score Playing), and it is published in four volumes by Schott.  It’s not available in the US, but you can purchase it through

Final Thoughts

Not all conductors are pianists and not all repertoire lends itself to score reading…these are true statements.  If this isn’t a skill you think would be helpful to you, OK.  I’ll certainly agree with you that score reading at the keyboard isn’t a necessary skill to lead an ensemble.   However, I firmly believe that developing this skill is a serious upgrade in the conductor’s toolkit.  I also think it’s worth acknowledging that some of the best conductors we know of from Brahms to Bernstein, Levine and MTT…they could/can score read at the keyboard.

What makes score-reading at the keyboard so important?  It allows the conductor to be able to produce polyphonic sounds on his or her own.

Fortunately, technology can be very useful to you.  A dear friend told me that they were deepening their score study by multi-tracking  every line into GarageBand.  To be fair, he is an excellent pianist (Oliver Hagen), and could do this quite efficiently.  Without strong keyboard skills, you can multitrack yourself singing or playing your instrument on all of the different parts and listen to the composite for reference.  I’ve used this method for inputting full scores with a MIDI keyboard and a click track and can attest that it is awesome.  It takes a long time to input one line at a time… which takes me back to my first point, that the score-reading skill is a major upgrade for the conductor…simply inputting 2 parts at once will cut your time in half. 

No matter your level of keyboard proficiency, one can always improve.  Work slowly,  carefully, and consistently in your practice and you’ll be on your way!