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Perspectives on Sightreading

Brian Anderson and Lawrence Stoffel | November 2011

   We presented two veteran teachers with the following scenario: “If you were going to take the next school year and focus on making students the best sightreaders they could be, how would you go about it? Does improvement come through reading and reading, or are there other overlooked aspects?” Here are their responses.

Master Rhythm
By Brian Anderson

   Sightreading skills are one of the most important things we can teach our students. There are horror stories about students who show up to their final concert in May and play the music that was in their folder on the first day of school. That is an absolute travesty. The problem is that with all the performance demands we have, sightreading seems to be something that falls through the cracks fairly quickly. When a concert or a halftime show is looming, sightreading is one of the first things that gets pushed to the back burner.
   If I’m working to make my students the best sightreaders that they could be, I would read a minimum of three days a week in a five-day week. If you did ten minutes of sightreading three times a week or five minutes each day, the improvement by the end of the year would be substantial. One overlooked strategy for those pressed for rehearsal time could be to read through a section of a piece each day rather than the entire piece.
   Sightreading time can also be used to do some rehearsing. If a section of a piece didn’t turn out as well as hoped, taking a few minutes to run it again can be beneficial. Just because you’re sightreading doesn’t mean you can’t go back, make corrections, and try again. I think that will benefit students as well; the next time they run into something similar in a piece of music, hopefully they will transfer previously learned concepts and perform the piece correctly.

Rhythm Matters
   Students will never be able to sightread accurately unless they have a strong background in rhythmic fundamentals. I have a program that has multiple rhythms, each on a different slide. I have a projector I can control from my computer that I use to show them on a screen. We can do all kinds of things with them, including isolating one rhythm, working on a series of rhythms, and moving from one to the next as if they were reading an actual piece of music. There is so much software available that a director could easily find something that would help teach rhythms quickly and accurately. The advantage of putting rhythms on a screen is that you do not need any other materials.
   We get into all variations of 16th-note patterns, including those found in 3/8, 5/8, and 7/8. We practice all the simple and compound rhythms. When we come to a rhythm pattern that the students cannot play perfectly, we stop and teach it and do it over and over. This includes counting it, speaking it, clapping it, and then playing it. It’s a matter of mastering not just rhythms but also time signatures.
   When students are competent rhythm readers, I would probably move on to etudes and other exercises from method books and then get into some actual concert literature. When reading literature, the grade of music to start with depends on the particular ensemble. With my younger students, and especially those with less experience, I would start with something easier than what they were used to so students have some initial success. The word “sightreading” frightens many younger students. Students who do well at it immediately may develop an attitude that sightreading isn’t so intimidating.
   With more advanced students, maybe you start with the level they are at for the challenge purpose. Groups that are anxious for a challenge might try something a grade or two above their level, but if you have inexperienced students, you never know how something this difficult might discourage them. The teacher should know which option to use with which students.

Sightreading Routines
   I have a routine I use when passing out something new. Students start by checking key signature, time signature, and tempo marking. We clap the tempo or use a metronome to get a feel for it. When these are ingrained, we go through the music to look for measures that may cause difficulty, perhaps because of a tricky rhythm. I might have students speak the rhythms of these parts. We also do a lot of singing and might sing through part of a new piece.
   I also instruct students to search for sections that are the same, so they are able to make the transfer. I am sometimes surprised by how quickly we can get through all this; it usually takes five minutes or less. We do pass things out without going through these steps. Usually when I pass things out for sightreading, it’ll be a few songs at a time, so we might take time on the first but not the others.

   It is best if you can have the music passed out before rehearsal time, ideally in students’ folders rather than on stands. Anything you can do to keep the transfer of music separate from instructional time is going to be beneficial.
   Keeping track of music becomes difficult when students are absent. It can break up momentum if you pass out music on Monday and on Tuesday a couple students say they don’t have it. The other problem is students who are absent when you collect parts. You might not get their part back until long after the piece has been refiled. You either need to be very diligent, or you need a very diligent, trustworthy, dependable student assistant, which is what I would suggest.
   I do not believe I would ever simply load dozens of pieces into the band folders and treat everything equally. While we might have a few pieces to sightread or to teach certain concepts, we also have a core concert repertoire for the year, and those are the pieces I think highlight our strengths and hide our weaknesses. To just have a whole lot of music in the folders defeats some of that purpose, and students are going to end up losing their parts, which gets to be an expensive problem.
   The end goal of sightreading is to take all previously learned concepts and use them to improve individual student skills. We want to help students so they won’t panic, stop playing, or completely give up when they are faced with something difficult.


Aim for Artistry
By Lawrence Stoffel

   In some ways sightreading is a misleading term. We are reading music, just as reading a newspaper or book. Nobody would say he is sightreading an article; when reading text, we expect to have immediate comprehension. We should think about sightreading in similar terms. Our students are reading a composition. With this goal in mind, sightreading is not just getting through the piece, but trying to make beautiful music the very first time. After years of listening to auditions by potential music majors, I find that four concepts important to the artistic side of music making in general and sightreading in particular are usually underemphasized.

Articulations and Bowings
   Articulations are often overlooked when sightreading, so articulation exercises should be included in daily routines. There are two aspects to articulations; the first is technical. Wind players, when they see a marcato accent, should understand physically what they need to do with their body and their instrument to produce that marcato. The same applies to string players and bowing instructions. While such knowledge is essential, it is more impotant to know the intended musical effect of the articulation. Composers write such markings for expressive reasons, and students should remember that articulations and bowings are more than just technical instructions.

   Dynamics are also frequently ignored. When sightreading there is a tendency to worry about the pitches and rhythms, overlooking both sudden and gradual changes in dynamics. The importance of playing dynamics while sightreading is something that should have the same emphasis as note reading.

   Articulations and dynamics naturally set up the third concept, which is phrasing. Most of the time articulation and dynamics will give clues about phrases, so even when reading for the first time, there can still be an expectation that students play with shape and direction. When reading a newspaper or book we naturally phrase, taking heed of punctuation marks and paragraph structure. We see all the visual cues that a good author incorporates into written material and naturally come to understand the sentiment, the meaning of the sentences of the paragraphs. We should expect the same from our students in terms of phrasing. With phrase markings, dynamics, and articulations, it should be possible, even at the most rudimentary level, to identify where the phrase begins, where it likely ends, and where the peak might be.
   Phrasing is probably the one skill for which students will need the most simple music. A high school band may be able to perform grade 5 literature, but if students are unaccustomed to looking for phrases, they may have to back up to grade 1 music when sightreading. Over a period of time students will be able to handle more difficult music. Students’ ability to sightread with intelligent phrasing can take years to develop, just as it takes years to develop good intonation. There is no silver bullet; it takes diligent work.

   The last of the four concepts is style. There should be an expectation that students grasp the style of a composition while sightreading. If I were to pick up a Lewis Carroll book and a John Grisham book, I would expect two entirely different writing styles. The same applies with comparing a New York Times front page story to one in the National Enquirer.
   Learning musical style requires quite a bit of listening. Because there is much more original orchestral music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, string players gain far more familiarity with music from these eras than band students. Regular listening gives band students the opportunity to learn about the lightness of style, symmetrical phrase structures, the call-and-response phrasing, slow harmonic progressions, simple harmonies, and homophonic textures typical of the Classical period. These are attributes students should know, so when I identify a sightreading piece as Classical, they understand the style.
   Bob Margolis wrote a delightful composition called The Two-Minute Symphony. The work is a clever, humorous look at the devices that we associate with Classical style. For band students who have little, if any, exposure to Classical music, that grade 1 composition might be the most appropriate introduction to Classical style. Directors looking for original Classical works for band might also consider works by French composers Hyacinthe and Louis-Emmanuel Jadin, François Gossec, or Charles Simon Catel, all of whom wrote band music in the Classical style in the 1790s.
   A good band work in Baroque style is William Latham’s Three Chorale Preludes. Latham uses standard concert band instrumentation, but everything else is authentic to Baroque style: melodic sequences, long, irregular phrases, imitation, and monothematic construction.
   When preparing for contests, it can be easy to focus too intently on the technique categories on adjudication forms. Students may erroneously think that technique is what matters most. However, technique provides players with the tools necessary to get to the real objective of music, which is the artistic and expressive aspect. No one is drawn to music because it is technically accurate; we are drawn to it because of its expressive and communicative qualities, and these attributes should not be neglected when sightreading.
   Of course, sightreading is more than reading new music every day, it is also practicing the skills needed to make expressive music. It is beneficial to address each of these skills daily. Students should work on rhythm-reading and scale exercises every day. Rhythm exercises should include clapping and counting, playing rhythms on a single pitch, and ultimately playing rhythms on changing pitches. The greatest benefit of scales is training the mind to the point that the finger patterns are automatic. When students are proficient in playing scales they should work on variations, such as alternating thirds, so when these patterns appear in music students are competent.
   It is critically important for students in instrumental ensembles to sing regularly, whether working on a routine warm-up, singing a chorale, or rehearsing a concert piece. The voice is our first and most natural instrument, and singing makes it possible to make music without worrying about all the mechanical difficulties of instruments. Singing makes for better sightreading.      

Recommended Books
   How to Design and Teach a Successful School String Orchestra Program by Jacquelyn Dillon-Krass and Casimer B. Kriechbaum Jr. (Kjos) has a short section on sightreading in school orchestra programs.
   Instrumental Music Pedagogy by Daniel L. Kohut (Stipes Publishing) has a few pages dedicated to sightreading. It’s succinct but complete. It describes sightreading as a collection of skills and concepts, but points out that that’s not the end game; the aim is to have a musical reading.
   The Dynamic Orchestra by Elizabeth A. H. Green (Prentice Hall) is useful to professional conductors and teachers alike. A part of the book discusses how professionals sightread and why they sightread so well. It gives insight to how teachers can incorporate for students the way professionals think.