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The Art of Sightreading

Thomas Bough | February 2009

     "Keep going” should be the mantra of any band director interested in scoring high points for sightreading at contests and festivals. In truth, many bands have little or no experience with the skill of playing a piece of music from beginning to end no matter what. Unfor­tunately, most festival judges penalize sightreading scores if an ensemble stops to regroup, so the skill of playing through an entire work without stopping is important.
     Another valuable sightreading skill is playing rhythms accurately. Many students tend to stop every time they miss a note, interrupting the flow of the music and the performance in general. It takes consistent practice to develop the skill of focusing on rhythms while reading.
     The third priority for good sightreading is using the key signature to anticipate notes. Professional players read patterns of notes based on the key signatures in front of them, looking for groups of notes, entire phrases, and the patterns built into those phrases; they seldom read individual notes. Stu­dents can improve their sightreading skill by using this technique of looking for patterns, scales, and phrases in music rather than playing individual notes.

Practicing Sightreading
Directors whose ensembles sightread fluently usually schedule sightreading practice on a regular basis, such as once a week or biweekly through­out the year. Most festivals ask ensembles to sightread one grade level below the music they perform, so it is a good idea to practice with music a full grade level or more below the pieces a group typically plays. This gives students an opportunity to practice new skills and improves their chances for a good experience. For many ensembles having students change their idea about sightreading is a big part of the process. The event becomes something they feel equipped to handle and not something to fear.
     I like to begin each semester by selecting a stack of music to read over the next 12 weeks that includes a variety of levels of difficulty, keys, and time signatures. When reading older scores the horn parts should be in the key of F and not Eb, as was once the practice. If the score indicates solo cornet or clarinet parts, remember that in this case the term solo refers to the division of the part (solo, first, second and third) and not to the number of performers. Of course, be sure to have an adequate number of parts for the ensemble before rehearsals begin.

The Percussion Section
     When sightreading assign parts to the percussionists in advance, giving timpani to a certain student, mallet parts to another, snare to another, and so on. During re­hearsals the percussion section should rotate parts so each student develops skill on all the instruments, but when practicing sight-reading for a festival, assign each player to the instrument he plays the best.
     Two or three students can be re­cruited from the band as librarians and help to distribute the music to read, collect, and refile once the rehearsal is complete, thus reducing the workload for directors. Regular sightreading practice is also a way for directors to expand their knowledge of literature because many fine pieces of music lay unused and unknown in school band libraries across the country.
Suggestions From Students
     After each sightreading practice session, you should discuss the results with students, asking for their thoughts on which elements of reading went well and the ones that need improvement. Young musicians can be remarkably harsh in evaluating their own work and may need help to notice parts of the music that went well.
     The feedback from one session will help prepare for the next reading opportunity. For example, if a sightreading session shows that many students lack skill in playing scales fluently in several keys, then include a few minutes of practice for these keys during rehearsals. If sightreading with precise rhythms is a problem, then invest a few minutes of each rehearsal in clapping or playing rhythms or include drills that subdivide the beat.
     Directors can either prepare scores for sightreading in advance or simply sightread along with the students. Although both choices are valuable, remember that directors need to practice the skill of sightreading just as students do.
     Years ago a parent who chaperoned students to a festival expressed amazement at the process as I guided the group through a sightreading session. He was an executive in the corporate world yet re­marked that there were few moments in his professional life that required such a quick reaction as sightreading a score while being evaluated by judges.

Strive for More
Once an ensemble consistently keeps going, focuses on rhythm, and easily plays in a variety of keys, challenge them to sightread with an even higher level of proficiency. This can include playing with expression, maintaining a high level of dynamic contrast, and observing the stylistic markings in a score while sightreading.
     Many directors emphasize the skill of sightreading by having ensembles sightread as part of their concert performances. Rick Lorenzin, a band director in California, routinely sightreads with students at the end of concerts to help them prepare for upcoming festival performances. After one such the performance, many of the students remarked that sightreading for the festival was much easier than reading on stage as part of a concert for their family and friends.
     Josh Lamar, a band director at Cape Central High School in Cape Girar­deau, Missouri, explains in careful detail what students can expect for the sightreading portion of concert band festivals. He describes how the sightreading room will look, what the judge will say, and describes how the students should act. To make the explanation relevant, he places music in large envelopes on each student’s stand, which the band sightreads based on the contest’s rules.
     Years ago Bill Palen, my band director at Republic High School in Missouri, practiced sightreading in much the same way. He explained the festival’s rules to the ensemble and then had us sightread by following them. We became ac­customed to hearing the instructions, to working under the time frame dictated by the festival, and to reading a composition from beginning to end without stop. When I taught high school in Arizona, I prepared my bands in a similar way.
     Whichever path you select to help your ensemble improve its sightreading, students will learn new music quickly and have more time for higher-order skills, such as playing with improved intonation, phrasing, and interpretation. It is worth the extra effort because as students grow in skill, the overall level of the ensemble increases. Besides, a shiny award plaque may be in order for the band room for a job well done.