I gave one of my piano pupils a sight reading test yesterday. It seemed like a good idea and she played it quite well.

What I noticed was that it was headed “homage to Tallis”. I remember this from my own exam-taking days: actually in the exams themselves you’d occasionally get a “homage to Byrd” or “homage to Herbert Howells” (he presumably needs a first name to mark him out from all those other famous Howellses). You’d play them through and they sounded nothing like the composer they’d been written in homage to, both because you were playing mostly wrong notes, but also because sight reading tests are written to be slightly atonal to seperate the sheep from the goats in the exam, so never ever sound like real music you’d want to listen to.

And I wondered, as I gave my piano pupil her allotted thirty seconds to cast her eye over the music, why on earth do the people writing sight reading tests feel that it’s appropriate to do this?

At best these little “homages” are only going to confuse the poor sods taking the exams – they’ll either be wondering who the hell Herbert Howells was, or what “homage” means. In any case, what kind of a shoddy homage is a simple but slightly atonal eight-bar sight reading test? I bet Tallis is up in heaven feeling really pissed off that he gave the world a glorious forty-part motet, and all the world’s given him back is a shitty eight bars which schoolkids mostly can’t play.

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