The Man Who Could Sight-Read Anything On the Piano

Piano Lessons / piano history / The Man Who Could Sight-Read Anything On the Piano

I’m Robert Estrin. This is LivingPianos.com. Today I’m going to tell you about the man who could sight-read anything on the piano. Now that seems like a bold claim, so let me back up a bit and give you some perspective on this.

My father, Morton Estrin, would sight read anything, anytime, with anyone. For example, I remember once we were visiting my uncle Harvey Estrin. Harvey was a top-line studio musician in New York City, a woodwind man who played on many film scores, commercials, the ABC orchestra, and much more. His wife, Trudy Kane, was the principal flutist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. We had a social visit, and Trudy handed my father the score of a piece he’d never even heard before. I believe it was the Reinecke Flute Sonata for flute and piano. Indeed, my father and Trudy played this together, and it was a beautiful performance – right at sight! I was amazed at the cohesiveness of the performance, and that he could sight read with that level of musicianship.

However, there are always limits, aren’t there?

I actually majored in both piano and French horn at the Manhattan School of Music. I played French horn from the time I was in fourth grade. My father was kind enough to accompany me whenever I’d ask him. As a matter of fact, I probably pushed that a little harder than I should have in retrospect, because he was very busy between his performing and teaching, but he was so gracious about it.

If any of you pianists out there have ever accompanied concertos, you probably know that many of them are incredibly awkward. For example, the Strauss Second Horn Concerto has so much going on in the orchestral writing, that if you look at the score, the piano reduction is filled with little notes in the orchestra part that you can’t possibly play on the piano. There aren’t enough fingers in the hands!

Sometimes there are other problems. A good example of this is, the Telemann Horn Concerto. Telemann is credited with composing more music than any other composer who ever lived, so this is a rather obscure work, except maybe to French hornists! My father was kind enough to accompany me on this. In fact, I still have the music to that piece, and in looking at the score, I can see that he wrote in fingering. So, he practiced this piece. The orchestra part has repeated 16th notes in the right hand. Repeated notes on the strings is easy. The bow goes back and forth. On the piano, it’s not so easy. You can see why my father wrote in fingerings for this.

The man who could sight-read anything is the great pianist John Ogdon.

John Ogden won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition the same year Vladimir Ashkenazy won it. They tied for first place. John Ogdon had an illustrious career. His recordings of the Brahms Concertos, his Liszt recordings (and more) reveal spectacular playing! I was fortunate enough to study with him during my time at Indiana University

It came to our attention, all of us who studied with him at Indiana University, that he could sight-read anything. So, we would come into lessons and put scores in front of him. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t read! But, I wondered if maybe he knew the pieces.

One day he invited me to his home and he told me to bring my horn; he’d accompany me.

I couldn’t believe it! I brought a stack of music. And just for fun, I brought that Telemann Concerto with that impossible piano part. What I haven’t told you yet is that as hard as the repeated 16th notes in the right hand are, underneath those were eighth notes in the right hand. So every other note, you’ve got a note underneath it in the tenor line, and that’s just the right hand! My father didn’t even bother trying to play those other notes. And he had practiced to the point of writing in fingerings just to be able to negotiate the repeated notes!

I put the score in front of John Ogdon. He said, “I’ve never seen this.” And I said, “Well, it goes kind of fast.” He sailed into it even faster than I played it and nailed it perfectly. He didn’t leave out any notes! If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears, I would tell anyone that this is absolutely impossible. But yet, John Ogdon could read anything.

That is my story about John Ogden’s incredible sight-reading ability. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this story – and there’s lots more videos coming your way. Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Store.

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