Piano Reduction – noun

‘A musical score having the parts condensed or simplified… 

{in two staves???} to render the music playable on the piano by one person.’


Following my last post, I received an overwhelming response from composers emailing me to ask about specific voicings and scenarios that may fall outside of the common SATB voicing. So, I figured I would offer a second post that addresses some of these scenarios.

A Review: Six Rules for Piano Reductions

First, here is a reminder of the six basic rules that I follow when creating a piano reduction:

1. Don’t consider it – do it. 

2. Know what to omit.

3. Keep the melody and the bass parts. 

4. Maintain the vertical harmonies.

5. Always maintain the rhythmic integrity, but…

6. …Know what is idiomatic for the piano.

Non-SATB Scenarios: SSAA, TTBB, etc.

Both TTBB and SSAA scores often create more challenges in making a useful reduction due to the range of pitches determined by the voices of the singers.
Reductions for these voicings can be accomplished in two ways:
  1. Notes split between staves so the pianist can read from a grand staff (treble and bass clefs)
  2. All notes condensed into one stave (bass clef for TTBB, and treble for SSAA)
The former is often a quicker read for most pianists.
The latter is still useful, but may become awkward due to the potential of excessive ledger line usage to accommodate the vocal range.
Either is appropriate, but it’s important to remember that it’s a reduction – not meant for performance. It doesn’t have to be pretty – simply efficient for rehearsal so the pianist can be beneficial and not a hindrance.

For Example: SSAA


Below is an excerpt from my piece, Pine Needles, for SSAA choir. As explained in my last article, the music is laid out in open score format, meaning each voice receives its own stave.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 3.21.47 PM


Based upon our options, a reduction could look like one of the following:


ONE STAVE (Treble Clef)

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 3.21.58 PM

TWO STAVES (Grand Staff)

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 3.20.01 PM

*Note that the following is omitted in both reductions:

  • Slurs for melismas
  • dynamics above the score
  • lyrics – the (good) conductor should always refer to measure numbers)
  • unison notes
  • effects such as glissandi, vocal percussion, etc. Though not included in this score, these occur frequently in new works and should not be included for the pianist.

*Note that the following is maintained in both reductions:

  • articulation
  • dynamics, located in standard position for piano scores
  • tempo indicators

*This secondary set of rules can and should be applied to TB, TTB, etc. scores.


So, which should I create? 


Though it could be argued that matter of preference could determine which to use, I definitely advocate for ONE STAVE in this scenario.

  • It provides exact pitches for the singers, not at octave displacement
  • It is much clearer to read and enables the pianist to focus solely upon the treble clef for quick reading
  • It avoids bass clef ledger lines, which are commonly misread by many, even accomplished, pianists


Final Considerations


In addition to the Six Basic Rules for all piano reductions, and the omissions and maintained elements seen above, take into consideration the following:

  • Range: which version creates excessive ledger lines?
  • Number of voices: the more voices, the more congested the reduction can be
  • Rhythmic makeup: depending on the piece, intricate polyphony may be challenging to present in a useful reduction. A fugue? You bet – easy. Half of the ensemble singing homophony while the other half is singing polyrhythms? That may require some accommodations, octave displacement or a predominance of one rhythm over another.

I’d love to hear from you – composers, pianists, and conductors alike. What are you seeing and finding effective?


With gratitude,

The Pianist


P.S. I’d love to suggest to dictionary.com that their definition might change, omitting the ‘two staves’ qualifier.

“The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations (upbeats) and beats (meter), and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble..”

Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music (Fifth ed.)

There is a textbook popularly circulated among collegiate conducting courses entitled, Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians, by Jerry and Henry Nowak. In general, it’s a great resource for beginning conducting technique and gesture. Although I taught from Koshak’s The Conductor’s Role, 4th ed. as an instructor during my master’s degree program, I frequently mentioned segments of the Nowak text to show both agreeable and contradictory philosophies.

However, the title of the former has been bugging me lately. A lot. From what little musical experience and success I’ve had as a conductor in my 28 years, I think this is a misleading title. Let me explain… 

First, let’s consider the Nowak brothers’ intention behind the title: 


“The path to motivation and inspiration,’ say the brothers Nowak, ‘is through clearly and eloquently conducting the phrases of the music. This approach is distinct from influencing musicians through domination, demonstration of consummate musicianship, telling clever and engaging stories, or employing other purely verbal means. Said another way, we work on being and expressing the musical phrases so clearly that the musicians find themselves naturally creating the phrases with us.” Hence the title Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians.

“Strings Magazine”, August/September 2002, No. 104

Respectable. And I agree…except the title still remains poor. Honoring the authors’ intent, I will attempt to clarify my own intent: I do not mean to sound whiny about mere semantics of a title. Rather, I intend to question the accuracy of this title and its implications and effect when disseminated to thousands of budding conductors every semester…

Let’s look to one of the greats for input:

Leonard Bernstein, conductor and musical wizard.


Surely you’ve heard of this guy. A world-renown, consummate musician who led the musical world with daring performances with risk. He receives much credit for shaping the modern conductor of the 20th century. Lenny was so good, so overflowing with creative genius, so confident, and yet so humble that he did this:

Finally, he makes these important statements regarding what is required to be a conductor par excellence:

“Mendelssohn…founded a tradition of conducting based on the concept of precision…There soon arrived, however, a great dissenter named Richard Wagner, who declared…that any conductor worth his salt should personalize the score he was conducting by coloring it with his own emotions. Mendelssohn fathered the ‘elegant’ school, whereas Wagner inspired the ‘passionate’ school of conducting.
The ideal modern conductor is a synthesis of the two attitudes, and this synthesis is rarely achieved. In fact, it’s practically impossible. Almost any musician can be a conductor, even a pretty good one; but only a rare musician can be a great one.”
-Omnibus: “The Art of Conducting” (1955)


So, it seems to me that Lenny believes that precision, elegance, passion, and personality create the elusive ‘great conductor.’ Clearly, I agree… Hence, “The Art of Conducting” (much better title). 

But how does this stand with the Nowak title? 

My musical IF/THEN statements…

Looking to Bernstein’s quote as truth, here is what I believe about conducting:


  1. Music can have precision. Notes, rhythms, dynamics, instrumentation are precise.
  2. Music can not be elegant, passionate, or have personality without people.


  1. People make precise music have elegance, passion, and personality.
  2. Conductors must inspire and conduct musicians to make music thusly.

I think great conductors conduct both the music and the musicians equally.


So, I leave you with my own personal rules derived from these thoughts:



Conductors must possess excellent musicianship, 

a keen and accurate ear, clear and effective gesture,

and an unflappable knowledge of the score.


Conductors must honor the music and the composer.


Conductors must emote and demonstrate investment.


Conductors must be prepared, organized, punctual, respectful

and expect the same from the ensemble. 


Conductors must make a connection with other musicians 

and evoke a human response to create memorable musical experiences.

…so conduct it all. 


08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA --- Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler's symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA — Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler’s symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

I was playing a choral rehearsal the other day and the conductor made a joke comparing choirs and orchestras that has left me wondering ever since:

Why such a drastic difference between pre-concert performance etiquette of an orchestra and that of a choral ensemble?

We’ve seen it every time – an orchestra’s members casually enter the stage at their own leisure, walking between chairs to their respective section, to their own stand, and freely warm up their instruments and practice excerpts prior to tuning and the concert master and maestra entering the stage.

MONTREAL, QUE.: SEPTEMBER 7, 2011-- Musicians enter the stage during the inauguration ceremony of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra's new concert hall in Place des Arts in downtown Montreal on Wednesday, September 7, 2011. (Dario Ayala/THE GAZETTE)

What if choirs did this?

Imagine each member of the choir making their way to their place on the risers as individuals, each to his or own music stand, immediately commencing with lip trills, body kinesthetics, sighs, excerpts from an aria, clearing phlegm, and other things that singers do before they ever reach the stage. Finally, the tenor section leader draws his trusty tuning fork and the entire choir agrees upon pitch and tunes a chord before the maestra enters the stage…

I was in Salt Lake City for the 2015 ACDA National Convention and I had the privilege of hearing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir perform. It was a euphoric performance full of deep artistry and masterful professionalism. Among other pieces they performed Pärt’s “Adam’s Lament,” a wickedly challenging dose of repertoire. Every vocalist had his or her own stand, and even more striking, actually had their own tuning fork to assist in finding their pitches. Of all choirs I have ever seen perform, they could have certainly made their entrance to the stage similar to the aforementioned description. But alas, they did as all choirs do – processed onto the stage in single-file fashion. They have the street cred and talent to perform such an entry, but they didn’t…

…Why not? What’s the big deal and does it really matter?

I suppose one could argue that carrying instruments is more cumbersome. Vocalists naturally carry their instruments with them wherever they go. Choirs are intended to represent a blend of voices and colors…but isn’t that the same intent of a string section? I have also heard a myriad of other pejorative comments toward either singers AND instrumentalists that could sway the reasoning behind the enormous differences between pre-concert rituals. However, none seem to hold any validity or HISTORY behind why this dichotomy exists between practices.

Frankly, per the choral rationale, the adages expressing first impressions and the audience “hearing first with their eyes” are rather tiresome in today’s age of stimulating concerts. What if we want to see and hear and witness each singer as an individual, a professional, an artistic technician? I saw that in Salt Lake, but would have loved to see and hear those Estonian first sopranos vocalize just as much as I enjoy seeing The Philadelphia Orchestra’s tubist play her long tones to warm up her embouchure (she’s a rockstar). 

I say what seems bizarre or uncouth in choral performance practice today may be tomorrow’s innovative move toward genius.

Maybe, just maybe, you may see a choir in Denver make their way to the stage in ways you wouldn’t expect…

Piano Reduction – noun

‘A musical score having the parts condensed or simplified in two staves, 

to render the music playable on the piano by one person.’


Ha. Hahahaahaaahah. Ha.  ….   Clearly, whoever wrote this definition has never seen most piano reductions.

Today, we explore two major problems around the “reduction” occurring in most choral and orchestral music today:

  1. This definition – particularly the part declaring that a reduction should ‘render the music playable on the piano by one person’ – has been ignored due to pure ignorance or laziness on behalf of the composers and arrangers. 
  2. Pianists either aren’t taught the necessary skills to read open score or multiple clefs, or haven’t invested in learning these skills.

I enrolled in 15 weeks of piano lessons during my sophomore year of college despite having a full plate as a music ed/saxophone/organ major. And yet, that one semester contained some of the most foundational and lasting lessons I have ever learned and found useful in my music career. I studied two skills in particular: jazz voicing (the work of Jimmy Amadie) and score reading (Morris/Ferguson). 

amadiebook2prep exercises in score reading

The latter provided extensive exercises for reading multiple clefs and open score passages. I cannot stress the importance of these studies and the impact on my career as a professional pianist working with conductors, choirs, students, and composers. Through these various experiences, I have seen and played many piano reductions over the past two decades. So, let’s take a closer look at what a reduction is, why we should bother, and what it should look like.

What is a reduction, really?

Again, per the definition, a reduction seeks to condense parts into two staves for use by a single pianist at the keyboard. Some reductions are notated in a separate stave, while others simplify the actual parts to make them readable by a pianist. While the following applies to both orchestral and choral music, let’s use choral music to demonstrate how it is commonly seen IRL. Most choral scores are notated in one of the following formats:

1. Short score: more common form and often used for standard octavo repertoire for church and school. Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 3.22.40 PM

Soprano and Alto parts are placed together with opposing beams in the G-clef;

Tenor and Bass parts are placed together with opposing beams in the F-clef;

PROs: easily read by pianists; vocalists can quickly see relationship to other parts

CONs: vocalists must focus more to read their part alongside a different part

2. Open-score: often seen in choral-orchestral music, collegiate/professional level editions, coro spezzati, or any time when the voicing may exceed four parts for the choir.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 3.22.58 PM

Each individual vocal part receives their own stave

99% of the time the tenor part is placed in the sub octave clef (example above)

PROs: easier to read for vocalists as they have a dedicated stave to their part

CONs: harder to read for pianists (particularly when reading multiple divisi scores (SSAATTBB), and certainly when reading orchestral scores with 13+ parts and multiple clefs and transpositions


WHY bother?

Although short-score tends to be the norm and therefore removes the need for a piano reduction, open-score format often requires clef-reading, transposition, and mental skills to be able to effectively and efficiently play the music from the piano. Much to the surprise of most conductors (see one blogger’s thoughts in Rule #3 of this article), this is not easy.

I recently served as the pianist for the Colorado Symphony Chorus’ production of Aida with the Aspen Music Festival. It’s Verdi – so already fairly complex – but the piano/vocal score is absolutely frustrating. Here’s a snapshot of two pages for an idea:

IMG_4098 IMG_4097

The photo on the left shows two sections of choral parts in open-score (SATB and TTBB), with a piano reduction of the orchestral parts. The photo on the right shows six solo parts (SSTTBB), a choral part (TBTB), and again, an orchestral reduction.

The conductor(s) expect the pianist to play all of it, maintaining the integrity of the orchestral parts while providing support to the vocalists. On one hand, the orchestral reduction is fairly on point. On the other hand, there is no choral reduction to aide quick reading.

You can see from my notes that when I arrive at a section when I don’t have time to think instantaneously to determine the part, clef, and vertical harmony, I quickly jot down my own reduction or simplification of the harmony so my fingers know what to do without focusing on a particular stave. Again, thanks to the Morris/Ferguson book above, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading open-score at sight, but when you have 300+ pages of this, it’s a real challenge.

So, What SHOULD it look like?

First, I re-address the second problem I mention at the top of this article and offer a solution: pianists need to learn the skills to read scores in any format. Learn your transpositions, clefs, how to read open-score, and improve your knowledge of theory and harmony to predict what’s coming and quickly identify chords. Teachers – please include these skills in your lessons.

If you’re a composer or arranger or conductor that is putting music to paper,  here are six basic rules that I humbly submit when considering a piano reduction:

1. Don’t consider it – do it. Music notation is cake nowadays, so just add the extra stave and your pianist will thank you for it.

2. Know what to omit. This requires knowledge about orchestration, both chorally and orchestrally. For orchestral reductions (who does write these, anyway?) identify doubling and core melodies, and make it feasible to play with 10 fingers. For choral reductions, utilize stems to identify parts, words like unison, and articulation and breath marks.

3. Keep the melody and the bass parts. 

4. Maintain the vertical harmonies, but remove those unison notes.

5. Always maintain the rhythmic integrity, but…

6. …Know what is idiomatic for the piano. Some notes shouldn’t be played in that octave on the piano. It sounds terrible. Some passages are too fast for most rehearsal pianos, particularly repeated notes. The keys won’t respond. Make it a tremolo.

With gratitude,

The Pianist