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Common Sightreading Problems

Eric Wiltshire | February 2009

     After directing bands of every level for nearly 20 years, I continue to see many students who are intimated by sightreading. In­stead of appreciating each chance to sightread, they fear it – a fear that usually grows from inexperience and insecurity.
     In years past when sightreading was a regular part of my curriculum, students’ attitudes towards it improved dramatically as did their performance. Through time I developed strategies to overcome sight­reading difficulties that typically occur in band students across the country.
     The following list identifies problems and offers solutions that you can immediately apply to your groups, followed by teaching concepts that can be built into daily rehearsals. Although these strategies are for bands, they will benefit any type of instrumental ensemble.

Thin Texture
     From a student’s perspective there is safety in numbers, such as when the word tutti appears in his part. As the textures of a score become thin, however, these same players may become insecure, especially if a solo passage comes their way.
     Solution 1: Before you begin work on a piece, point out thinly scored passages where texture changes from full band to a few solo instruments are significant. When students can anticipate their playing will be prominent, they are more apt to play well. If you assign solos ahead of time, students will know who is to play them once the passage arrives and not be surprised.
     Solution 2: Include small ensemble groups for all students as part of the band curriculum. This helps young musicians become accustomed to playing with only a few students and hearing the sound of their instrument. Further, each student becomes a stronger player as he learns to rely on himself and not hide behind another musician. The end result is that the band is less likely to be affected by thinly scored textures.
     Solution 3: Devise a warm-up routine with some exercises in which only a few people play at a time. This also helps each student become accustomed to hearing his sound.

Incomplete Instrumentation
Several sightreading problems may develop be­cause of incomplete instrumentation. It is common for the percussion section to sightread through a score, only to arrive at a percussion interlude with the parts not covered, even when there are enough players.
     Wind players need to know whether to play cues for the solos because sometimes solos are cued in more than one part; they need to know who will play the solo. Sometimes solos are not cued in any part, so there is the possibility of holes in the music.
     Solution 1: Incomplete percussion instrumentation results if directors fail to distribute all the parts. Before sight­reading a piece, be sure to look through the entire score and decide which parts are the most important to include. Good principal players often will do this, but directors should take the lead in being certain the right players have the essential parts.
     Solution 2: Assign wind cues where necessary, and be sure the ensemble knows who will be playing each solo.
     Solution 3: During sightreading the winds will have the same difficulties with balance as they do with repertoire, only the problems will be accentuated. Be sure the band members understand the problems and solutions caused by specific instrumentation. Frequent sightreading in class will help them to resolve these problems and play with a good, balanced sound, even during sightreading.

Uncomfortable Key Signatures
     Playing in unfamiliar or uncomfortable keys is a problem because of the potential for wrong notes, especially if students don’t know the scale associated with each key. Uncom­fortable keys are generally the furthest away from the keys of band instruments, which are the flat keys. B-flat instruments simply don’t play well in the key of E. It is harder for them to play in tune in E, the fingerings are often more complex, and the ranges may be a problem.
     Solution 1: Before a rehearsal begins, have students warm-up by singing and fingering through uncomfortable scales. Point out the notes they are most likely to miss: in flat keys it is the fourth note of the scale; in sharp keys it is the seventh note of the scale.
     Solution 2: Use warm-up time to review all the scales so everyone can play them like second nature; only then will the entire band be able to play in awkward keys without a blink.
     Solution 3: Have students sing chor­ales in uncomfortable keys during each warm-up so they become accustomed to playing in tune in every key. You can also have them play chorales in B flat, E flat, F, etc., up or down a half step, which develops their ability to think quickly.

Scalar and Nonscalar Motion
     In general, it is easiest for students to move their fingers in stepwise scalar motion; leaps within a scale pattern are more difficult. Nonscalar patterns are much more difficult because young students do not have well-developed muscle memory. Leaps in atonal music are the most difficult to move to because they are hard to predict and to hear. 
     Solution 1: Point out areas in a new work that don’t include scales and have students sing and finger through them before sightreading. Never as­sume students will notice leaps in music, even if they are good at finding other obvious problems.
     Solution 2: Practice scales in intervals – 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and ascending and descending – during warm-ups.
     Solution 3: Practice leaps between two scales, such as playing B flat and D and alternating between the notes of the scales: go from 1 of B flat to 1 of D; 2 of B flat to 2 of D, and all the way up both scales. More difficult possibilities are easy to imagine.
     Solution 4: Develop exercises that use leaps for warming up all members of the ensemble.

Irregular Phrase Lengths
     Years ago I realized that playing music with ir­regular phrase lengths forced students to count carefully and to trust their counting. Entrances that do not occur where they feel like they should can take some maturity on the part of students to play well.
     Solution 1: Talk to the band about playing irregular phrase lengths and the fact that many entrances in this kind of music will not feel right. It might be a good idea to point out specific instances that include several sections of the band so everyone understands what to expect as they sightread such a piece.
     Solution 2: During sightreading portions of the rehearsal, include examples of music with irregular phrase lengths. Although atonal pieces often have irregular phrases, try to find tonal works with irregular phrases. It is generally more difficult to play irregular phrases in tonal music because the tonality sets up certain expectations for ensemble members, but a composer may not always write what is expected.

Extreme Ranges
     During sightreading the notes at the top and bottom of your strongest players’ ranges will be more difficult to reach. Expect to have a reduced usable range for sightreading.
     Solution 1: Give students the flexibility of playing music an octave higher or lower during sightreading. While this will change the textures and chord voicings of a piece, it is better than having the right notes played with poor tone and faulty intonation or even wrong notes.
     Solution 2: Include ear training in your warm-up and fundamentals practice. Young students often play with a press-the-button-and-go mentality, never an­ti­cipating what will come out of the instrument or whether it is right or wrong. Through ear training, students improve in their ability to predict the sound of a musical line before they play it, so they know what to expect. Singing in class is one of the best ways to develop good ears.
     Solution 3: Tension affects range, so be sure your students are relaxed before they sightread. The result will be a better sound in the extreme ranges. Gary Green, director of bands at the University of Miami, Florida, once helped an ensemble of tension-filled student musicians with these simple words: “Relax; it’s only music!” The effect on the group was amazing. Once students realized they could make a few mistakes, they made fewer mistakes.

Meters with Large Beat Notes
     Meters in which the half note gets the beat, such as 2/2, 3/2, etc., often cause sightreading problems from which recovery is nearly impossible. This is especially the case when these meters are mixed with 4/4 or 6/8 where shorter durations get the beat.
     Solution 1: Before the opening downbeat of a sightreading session, tell the ensemble the note value that gets the beat and relate how you will conduct the work. You don’t necessarily have to conduct 2/2 in two, but you need to decide how you will conduct based on the abilities of your players and the difficulty of the music.
     Solution 2: During rehearsals include music in a variety of meters and be sure students understand each one. There is a difference between 3/2 and 6/4, just as there is a difference between 3/4 and 6/8. The more you train students to understand these differences, the more easily they will be able to sightread them.

Mixed Meters
     Meters that change frequently can confuse the entire ensemble, particularly if the music moves between even- and odd-measure lengths or between simple and compound meters, such as 4/4 to 6/8 or 2/4 to 5/8.
     Solution 1: Be sure that your conducting chops are up to the task. You will not be able to help your players if too much of your focus goes to beating time correctly.
     Solution 2: Before you begin, everyone in the ensemble should know how the different meters relate to one another. If the eighth note prevails, make sure this is something the ensemble knows and understands.
     Solution 3: Point out passages that have a continuous pulse and explain that this pulse will be the metronome for the piece, such as when the trombones have repeated eighth notes throughout a work.

Complex Subdivisions
     After identifying the primary beat, students should also know the primary subdivision. A piece in 4/4 with an abundance of eighth notes has a quarter-note pulse and a subdivision of eighth notes. Some players may have quarter notes and eighth notes while others have eighths and 16ths, which means different subdivision levels may be necessary for different players.
     Solution 1: During rehearsals be sure all of your players understand how to subdivide. If they do, this means they are using some type of counting system to read rhythms instead of learning them by rote or imitating their neighbors.
     Solution 2: Before you begin, point out where subdivision errors are likely to occur. You should tell the band to think ahead: “Woodwinds, you need to start thinking about 16th notes in bar 12 so you are ready for them when you get to bar 13.”
     Solution 3: Review exercises in subdivision on a daily basis. Have students play a scale with four beats per pitch, then play the subdivision. Hand signals are helpful to switch from one subdivision to another. Use one finger to signify quarter notes, two fingers for eighth notes, and four fingers for 16ths. You can include triple subdivisions and even more complex variations. This will increase students’ comfort in switching between subdivisions and give them the tools to sightread and play complex subdivisions.

Extreme Tempos
     Very fast and very slow tempos will cause sightreading problems, depending on the complexity of the music. Fast whole notes are not too hard to play, but slow whole notes can be quite difficult. It is usually fine to use a moderate tempo for a while in the first reading of a piece, but be aware that it may be difficult to change to the correct tempo at a later date once students learn the wrong tempo.
     Solution 1: Your conducting has to be crystal clear in terms of tempo. Don’t create problems with indecisive tempos.
     Solution 2: Tempo should be one criterion by which you assess the difficulty of the music. Reducing the tempo will not necessarily make the music easier to play. Think of such technical areas as articulation, melodic motion (stepwise versus leaps), the key, and meter. Select a tempo that retains the character of the music while giving players a chance to do well.

Tempo Changes
     Changes in tempo come in two varieties. Un­prepared changes are sudden or come from a stop in the music, such as a fermata or caesura. Prepared changes are accelerando or retardando (also ri­tenuto). Prepared changes may also signal a switch from common time to cut time with the underlying pulse remaining the same.
     Solution 1: Know the tempo you want, and then stay with it. Pre­paratory beats should be clear to everyone.
     Solution 2: The entire ensemble should know where each tempo change takes place and the tempos at the beginning and end of the work. I also like to have my students sing through the transition sections.
     Solution 3: Add tempo changes – prepared and unprepared – to your warm-up routine. Use your materials in creative ways and find novel ideas to include as you review basic skills with the ensemble.
A part of teaching music is helping students develop the skills to interpret music without your help. Just as English teachers have students read out loud in class to demonstrate their ability, music teachers need opportunities to show that their students are learning musical concepts, not just pieces.