Students are often required to sightread as part of an audition for a district, regional, or all-state orchestra. Although players can control how well their solo pieces and scales are prepared, the sightreading component of the audition is less predictable. When asked about an upcoming audition, students may mention that they are nervous about sightreading and do not know how to practice the skill. Sightreading can be a critical factor when adjudicators are choosing between two students of seemingly equal ability. Students should practice reading rhythms, pitches, and dynamics while maintaining attention to detail and accuracy.
Start by having students write their own rhythmic patterns with certain specifications. For example, students can write a four-measure phrase in common time using only half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. Rests can be included. To work on compound meter, write a four-measure phrase in 68 using dotted-quarter notes, eighth, and sixteenth notes. Two sample rhythms are shown below.
Although there are many excellent textbooks full of practice rhythms, students understand rhythmic components better if they write out their own exercises. Student composition also fosters individualism and creativity. Once students have composed their rhythmic patterns, have everyone in the class practice reading the rhythms together. Start by tapping or clapping and then play the rhythms using open strings. Practice the rhythms while playing a one-octave scale to combine the idea of reading notes and rhythms at the same time,
Practice reading the student-written rhythms with different tempo indications. This is a great opportunity to drill students on the meanings of Largo, Andante, Moderato, Allegro, and Presto. Identify metronome markings that correspond to each tempo indication. Have students pinpoint a basic quarter note=60 pulse by using a clock as a reference. Discuss and practice the bow strokes that might be applied to each tempo indication. For example, a Presto excerpt will require less bow and shorter bow strokes than a passage marked Andante.
Next take a simple melody that everyone knows and rewrite the rhythms to make them unexpected. In the following example, the first eight measures of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” are rewritten to include syncopated patterns and dotted rhythms. Practice the familiar melody in different tempos and
To review key signatures, read the sample melody in each of the major and minor keys. Then have students play the melody all in first position, all in second position, and all in third position. Other options would be to play the melody using only the first or second finger or to transpose it up one octave for practice reading in higher positions. Continue to alter the rhythms and tempo indications of the melody.
Once students are confident playing the melody in every key, give them a copy of the music that includes occasional wrong notes and unusual accidentals to see if they identify all of the pitches and play without hesitations.
Dynamics and Articulations
Dynamics and articulations are often the hardest details to include when reading music for the first time. Students should start by adding dynamics to the rhythmic patterns they composed. Encourage them to include a wide range of dynamics, from ppp to fff. Include crescendos, diminuendos, accents, dashes, and dots. Have the group play through each phrase seeing how many details they can include. Then take easy melodies and add dynamic and articulation marks.
In the example below, the player is asked to differentiate between accents, dashes and dots, perform a tremolo bow stroke, breathe at the end of the first phrase, and shift to third position to execute the trill in measure seven.
Although students will often be presented with sightreading excerpts that contain bowings, they may have to make bowing decisions on the spot. As a general rule, down beats and long strings of separate eighth or sixteenth notes should begin with a down bow. Pickups are usually played with an up-bow. Students can refine their bowing choices by practicing simple melodies with different slur patterns, all separate bows (as it comes), or opposite bowing. Some students will need a list of bowing rules, while others will instinctively find the natural bowing for a passage.
Students should take their time when presented with a sightreading excerpt in an audition. As tempting as it is begin playing right away to get the audition over with, remind them to take a few seconds to scan the excerpt. Have students practice looking at different musical examples and ask them to point out important features. A sample list of elements they should note are:
1. What is the time signature? What is the tempo marking?
2. Are there any unusual rhythms? What is the shortest note value in the excerpt?
3. What is the key signature? Are there any accidentals? Will I need to shift out of first position?
4. Are there bowings in the part? If not, is there a logical way to bow the passage?
5. What is the dynamic? Are there crescendos, accents, or other articulations?
Students should feel free to ask the adjudicator for clarification if they are confused or if there is no tempo marking in the score.
The best way to improve sightreading skills is to practice them regularly. Play simple melodies with altered rhythms, pitches, and dynamics to improve coordination and flexibility. Wohlfahrt and Kreutzer etudes contain the left-hand patterns that string players use the most, so playing through these etudes in different positions and rhythmic patterns strengthens a student’s ability to immediately recognize the most common musical patterns. String players will also greatly benefit from reading chamber music. Dedicate time every week for students to divide into small groups and sightread chamber music.
With practice, students won’t be as afraid to sightread in audition situations. Although sightreading perfectly is difficult, remind students that they can read more than just the notes and that attention to detail will be rewarded by adjudicators.