Sight-Reading Tips

Sight-Reading Tips

by Dennis Granlie

“I was just visiting Tuesday with a first-year teacher who has never attended a Montana festival. In preparation to explain the sight-reading process to her, I put together some suggestions for teaching and practicing sight reading. I thought I would share some of them with you with the hope that it may be of some help to others.

You will have two minutes to study the score, and three minutes to communicate with the band. Please don’t start by saying, “Okay, we’re in 4/4 time…”

  • Use a system. The “STARS” system shown in Standards of Excellence is a good way to start. Teach the kids to check for “STARS:” Sharps or flats in the key, Time signature and tempo, Accidentals, Rhythms (especially unusual ones–tell them to say the first few measures of rhythm in their heads), and Signs such as repeats, D.C., dynamics, etc. Teach them to be systematic in going through their music to check for “STARS.” Make it their responsibility so you don’t have to waste time at festival talking about those things.
  • Look at more than notes. Does the title give hints to the style? Can you point out form that may help (ex. The A melody returns at letter K, or the A melody is the rondo theme)? Is that 8th or 16th note run part of a familiar scale?
  • Tell who has the melody (and accompaniment) in each section of the music and tell the rest of the band to listen for them. Point out places where only a single section might have the melody and tell the rest of the band to listen for them. Make a “no solo” rule. That is, even if it says “solo” on the part, everyone in the section plays it. That saves having to answer the question during the three-minute study time.
  • Point out “tricky” spots–an unusual transition, key change, whether or not there is a break after a fermata, DC or DS, hemeola, etc.
  • Ask the kids what they’ve noticed. Why not use all those eyes, instead of just yours? You don’t need to take all three minutes to talk, but admonish them not to ask only pertinent questions or point out only unusual things in the music that it might benefit the rest of the band to know about.
  • Expect the band to play musically, even when sight-reading. Sight reading is heavily reliant upon the ability to read and interpret rhythms. You can play a wrong note or five, but the band will keep going. If the rhythm doesn’t stay together, you’ll crash. The lesson there obviously is to do daily rhythm exercises using a consistent system, either syllables or numbers, to help the kids internalize. Practicing rhythms with a background pulse is probably best. A duple-meter instrumental rock or Latin tune works well, and the kids think it’s “cool.”

Don’t wait until festival to go through the process (it’s outlined on the back of the sight-reading form). Sight reading will go smoother if you provide extra folders and can create a sight-reading folder. You or a student can put several pieces in the sight-reading folder to keep it separate from the regular music. That saves quite a bit of time in rehearsals because you’re not handing music in and out. If you have more than one band, you can include music for all levels in the folders and all bands then use the same folder. If you have some multi-movement suites, just play a movement a day. Sight read some chorales as well. The notes are easy, (but sometimes the keys are tricky) and you can concentrate on sound quality. Equally important, the kids get a chance to think about something besides notes and realize it’s fun to be expressive while sight reading.

In a conversation Friday, I was reminded of another tip that may help with sight reading: try to equate the new piece with something the band has already played. I remember having to sight read “Hounds of Spring” at a Canadian festival. It’s in 6/8 with lots of 16th runs and dotted 8th-16th rhythms. Fortunately, we had performed a Claude Smith piece earlier that year and I was able to tell the kids the new piece’s basic rhythm patterns were just like the 1st movement of the Smith. Not only did they pick up on the rhythms, they also played with the same light style they had on the Smith piece.