Sight-reading is a wonderful assessment of musical literacy, but it’s a skill that takes time to learn. This is why I advocate having an organized and methodical plan to give students sight-reading opportunities throughout the year. Over the course of my 26 years of teaching music in Texas, I have found that focusing time on sight-reading each week has really paid off – in the reduction of prep time for our formal concert literature, and more importantly, in improved performance quality that provides a much deeper musical experience for the audience.
There are many reasons why. Sight-reading gives students a greater sense of ensemble awareness, and it fosters accountability since it requires students to demonstrate their skills in the context of a performance. With sight-reading, the students have to process, evaluate, and adjust their performance in real time. Without spoken instructions, they have to aurally agree as an ensemble how to perform a piece. Each musician must figure out whether he or she has the melody or the accompaniment and how loud to play for balance. They need to determine the style of the piece and what the basic pulse or tempo is. And, we often lose sight of a basic fact: many students sign up for band to play tunes. There is an inherent sense of satisfaction and enjoyment in playing a piece all the way through.
Make It a Priority
Incorporating sight-reading into your curriculum also can be done quite easily. Once you decide to make it a priority, you can often modify and refocus what you are already doing so that you emphasize the reading aspect of your lesson. Make it a point to sight-read several times a week. You can allocate as little or as much time as you want, depending on the time of year and what your other rehearsal goals are. Start simple and establish a routine. As you select music to sight-read, keep in mind that it should be less difficult than the music for a formal performance. The students should already have most of the skills needed to successfully read the music. At the start of the year, you can select several pieces of music organized by difficulty that you can quickly pass out and read throughout the year. Having pieces set aside makes working a sight-reading practice session into your rehearsal much more likely.
As you establish your sight-reading routine, you’ll need to vary how much information you give your students. Provide more information at the beginning of the year and less as they advance. In the beginning, it’s helpful to bring attention to the basics of the piece, such as:
- Key signature, time signature, tempo, style
- Who has the melody and the accompaniment
- Any challenging rhythms
- Repeats, endings, codas, etc.
When you start, you’ll need to go slow and you may need to regroup frequently. However, it’s important to establish the idea that you want the students to keep going. If they are not ready to play a whole piece, you can adhere to predetermined destinations, such as playing until rehearsal letter A. Emphasize that each student is responsible for his or her part.
Timeline for the year
If you are ready to create a plan for the year, here is a suggested timeline that includes opportunities to sight-read for every level.
Beginning of the year – October
- Incorporate rhythm exercises – count, clap, play – two to four times per week
- Play unison melodic lines once or twice per week
- Do note identification drills and exercises – you can go down the line and have each student verbally identify the next note in a piece
- Play method book lines
- Go back and play lines you skipped at the beginning of the year. Students should have the skills to sight-read these earlier pages after a few weeks of lessons.
- Use other method books
- Ensure you are including sight-reading pieces with a variety of changing notes and rest patterns
- For high school bands, it’s important for your students to continue sight-reading during marching season. Generally, not much reading occurs after music is memorized, so add sight-reading pieces in between practices for your marching band performances.
November – December
- Read small sections of your winter concert music
- Read holiday tunes or lines in the book
- Add more advanced rhythm lines
- Add more advanced lines in the method book
January – February
- Continue to advance what you were doing earlier in the year
- Read easier solos
- Read longer lines in the method books
February – April
- Continue the examples above
- Introduce the process for any spring sight-reading contests, if applicable
- Go over the rules and procedures
- Read a very easy piece of music the first time
- Students need to focus on learning the process and gaining confidence, not struggling with the notes and rhythms
Until the end of the year
- Have fun! Contests are finished
- Read tunes for your spring concert, pop tunes, or pep tunes for next fall
- Read a tune that you would like to do for competition in the future
- Read the tunes that you are too afraid to play for judges
If your band has never entered a sight-reading performance contest, consider adding it to your curriculum. If you do, start now to learn the contest rules and locate any resources that may be available for the contest. It will be important to pre-assign split parts (clarinet 1/2, trumpet 1/2, etc.) and percussion parts, and to prepare your students for the contest process. This includes information on how they will be evaluated. Whether you enter a contest or not, it may be helpful to video your ensemble sight-reading so they can see and hear how they are progressing.
Having a sight-reading plan will often take the stress out of playing a new piece of music and give your ensemble more confidence. Most importantly, sight-reading will allow your students to spend more time playing their favorite pieces, and that will keep students coming back for band year after year.
For more resources, peruse these sight-reading books for band.