Sight-Reading Music Practice
Now is the perfect time to work on sight-reading skills. Students can use their moments at home to strengthen their ability to quickly tackle different rhythms and melodies along with incorporating musical expression.
In the videos and summaries below, walk through steps that will help in each of these areas with Joseph Snyder, Music Publications Manager for Wingert-Jones Publications. Snyder has 17 years of teaching experience and has arranged for many bands and theatrical productions. He is an active trombone and piano player who has performed with numerous professional musicians including Pete Townshend, Debbie Gibson, The Monkees, Alexa Ray Joel, Tituss Burgess, and Paul Williams.
Enjoy these videos and summaries, view sight-reading resources below, and if you have any additional sight-reading ideas, please share them in the comments. These lessons on trombone sight-reading are applicable to any instrument.
How to Sight-Read: The Rhythm
While we could spend lot of time talking about how rhythms work—teaching you how to read rhythms, subdivisions, which notes get what value, and so on—we’re going to assume that you already have that kind of training and knowledge. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to learn rhythms so that you recognize them as you read music. This is very important: you should be able to read rhythms in the same way that you would read words on a page. When you open a book, you shouldn’t be sounding out the words; instead, you should recognize the words in order to read fluently.
One way to achieve rhythmic fluency is to practice patterns. Consult any major method book for rhythmic exercises, then practice those exercises until you fully understand each of the patterns without having to sit and count them out. Practice rhythms by clapping through them, singing them, or playing them on your instrument. As you start to get comfortable with easier patterns, you can move on to syncopated rhythms. Keep in mind that, even when you’re practicing alone, you’re never just “playing notes.” Always strive to play or sing the most beautiful sound that you possibly can.
A second method for learning how to recognize and internalize rhythms is to listen. This strategy works with any piece of music: you can use a selection from your current concert literature, a solo you’re working on, or even a full orchestral or concert band score. Find a recording online, listen, follow along, and pay attention to how the rhythms are played. This is an especially effective technique for learning more complex rhythms, such as 6/8, 7/8, or 5/8 meters. You’ll both internalize the way these rhythms are played and learn other valuable musical skills, including ensemble playing, tone, and phrasing.
Once you’ve practiced your rhythms and patterns and done your listening, it’s time to apply what you’ve learned by sight-reading an unfamiliar piece of music! We’re demonstrating with excerpt number 20 from The First Sight-Reading Book for Bandby Jerry West. Starting with the first seven measures, we’ll take a look at the roadmap: where we start, where we end, and all the twists and turns along the way. With a pencil in hand, scan through each measure and look for any elements that you don’t recognize right away, then label the downbeats where necessary. Once all the rhythms are clear, establish a tempo and clap or play the rhythm.
Sight-reading is a skill like any other. With daily practice, you can develop your sight-reading ability and use it in your everyday playing.
How to Sight-Read: The Melody
Here, we’ll focus on how you can improve your ability to sight-read melodies. These tips and practice strategies will help you to gain mastery of your instrument, so that you can play the notes in a piece of music on command with very little or no rehearsal time.
Melodies are constructed with three basic elements: scales, chords or arpeggios, and intervals. So, it’s very important that all three of these fundamentals are part of your daily practice routine. It is impossible to be too prepared! Learn as many major, minor, chromatic, whole tone, and pentatonic scales as you can along with chords and intervals.
When you practice fundamentals, sing them, too. Make sure that you can sing what you play and play what you sing! It’s important that you are able to both play and sing because you must have complete ownership over the music. To play the notes, you first have to hear and internalize how they sound. Then, consider: where does each note fall on the instrument? What fingering or position will you need to use? Brass players: how do you have to set your lips, and how does the air flow? Woodwind players: what kind of embouchure are you using? Are the corners of your mouth firming up or loosening down? To have command over the notes you’re playing, each of these elements needs to already be in your toolbox. Otherwise, you’re guessing—and when you’re sight-reading, you only have one chance to play correctly. So, make sure you’re able to internalize and know how you will produce each note.
Next, as we did with rhythm, we’ll put these fundamentals to practical use by sight-reading a piece of music we haven’t seen before. We’re demonstrating with four measures at letter D in exercise number six from The Sight-Reading Book for Better Bands. First, we want to look at the beginning and end of the excerpt and search for any twists and turns that may come up in between. There is one flat in the key signature, and there are no accidentals (sharps or flats not in the key signature). We’re also going to look for intervals: where there are small and large leaps. If you’ve practiced chords, scales, and intervals in the key of F major, there won’t be anything here that you don’t know how to play.
To summarize, it’s very important to practice—which includes both playing and singing as many scales as you can learn along with chords, arpeggios, and intervals in as many keys as possible. Prepare as much as you can and remember: whenever you pick up your instrument, focus on making every single note the most beautiful sound you’ve ever played.
How to Sight-Read: Telling the Musical Story
Once you’ve become comfortable with sight-reading rhythms and melodies, it’s time to learn how to go about telling the entire musical story. To be a complete musician, playing notes and rhythms alone isn’t enough: you have to be able to put the entire package together, complete with emotion and expression.
Think about how the actors in movies, musicals, and plays deliver their lines: they put expression and volume into their words, change the timbre of their voices, and vary their range, pitch, inflections, and phrasing. To sight-read at the highest possible level, you need to be able to put all of those elements into your playing.
When it comes to learning musicality, there is no better way than to listen—there are no great musicians who are not avid music listeners. Listen to great artists on your instrument to get a sense of their sound, listen to ensemble recordings…listen, listen, listen, and absorb! Go online to find scores, follow along with a recording, and soak in all the musicianship. It’s also very important that you are able to convey musicianship through your playing, which means that you must know your instrument well enough to play the same exercise loudly and softly and make it sound equally good at both volumes. Can you play staccato as well as legato? These are examples of the kind of control and mastery you have to have over your instrument in order to effectively play whatever any given piece of music is asking for.
Whether you’re warming up, playing your exercises, or playing your concert band literature, it’s very important that you mix things up. When you open a method book to practice, don’t just play exercises one way: mix up the tempo, dynamics, and so on to make sure you can play everything any way that’s asked of you. That way, you’ll learn to put expression into your playing right away.
Now, we’re going to apply the musical elements we’ve practiced—dynamics, articulations, and so on—by playing through excerpt number 34 from The Sight-Reading Book for Better Bands by Jerry West. Remember that this is sight-reading: this is not a piece of music that you’re going to prepare every week for a couple of months for a concert. This is a piece of music that you have to be able to play well after one or, at best, two rehearsals.
Starting off, we’ll look at the key signature and see that there is one flat. We’re in the key of F, so we have B flats. We’re in 4/4 time, and the tempo is moderato—a moderate tempo. To be an effective sight-reader, you need to learn and understand musical terminology: moderato, sempre legato, dolce, presto, vivo, different articulations, and so on. The keys to learning all of these elements are practice, repetition, and listening.
For this sight-reading session, we’ll go from the beginning of the excerpt to measure 29. Scan the roadmap, we see that the time signature changes from 4/4 to 3/4 at letter B, then goes back to 4/4. Don’t hesitate to mark this down—mark the music as much as you need to! Remember, you need to get this right the first time.
The first dynamic marking is pianissimo: very, very soft. Right before letter C, we have a change in dynamics—there’s a crescendo to fortissimo, which is very, very loud—and then we go back into 4/4 time. So, mark those changes so that you’re not caught off guard.
At letter D, we go back down to mezzo piano, or medium soft, so we bring down the volume. There are no accidentals in this excerpt, but if you do encounter a piece of music with any notes that shouldn’t be there according to the key signature and you need to put in a position or fingering, go right ahead and write it in.
Next, look at the rhythms. You don’t want to spend time counting rhythms while playing, so if there are any patterns that you don’t recognize right away, mark the downbeats. For example, in this piece, we have an eighth note played on the upbeat two measures before letter D. You may want to mark the downbeat eighth rest so that it jumps out at you, and you don’t play on the downbeat.
Once you’ve scanned through a piece of music and ensured that you understand all the elements, you should have an idea in your head of how it should sound. Just like you think before you speak, the only way to play musically is to know the way you want the music to sound.
To summarize, developing the musical skills that allow you to put expression into your playing right away—and own a piece of music as if you’ve been playing it for months—requires you to have a strong sense of what great music sounds like. You should know what it means to play with excellent phrasing and tone quality, and the only way to develop that musical sense is to be a very avid listener of all kinds of music.
Know your terminology, including tempo, dynamics, articulations, and expression, and make sure that you are proficient enough on your instrument to play any piece of music at any volume with any articulation, at any tempo, and with any kind of expression. When you’re practicing, practice all of your material in as many different ways as you possibly can.
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