Teaching Sight Reading Throughout the Year

Teaching Sight Reading Throughout the Year

Sight reading can be stressful and intimidating. Often, we spend too little time on it to see meaningful results. With a plan in place and a mindset dedicated to developing sight-reading skills year-round, you can improve your ensemble’s musical literacy and build the confidence of the individual musicians.

Here are a few tips and techniques you can use to improve sight reading year-round, as well as some pointers specific to the day of your sight-reading evaluation.

Long-Term Performance Preparation

Preparing and rehearsing for a music performance is much different than reading a piece of music at sight. We tend to spend most of our time and energy creating a series of musical performances throughout the year. Some of these performances will require weeks and months to prepare. Typically, new performance skills will be needed, and these skills will require several repetitions to acquire. Pieces are rehearsed at a much slower tempo to facilitate learning, and the complexity of the music necessitates that small chunks of music be learned and pieced together for the entire performance. Finally, these performances will require a generally higher level of polish and refinement.

How Sight Reading Is Different

Reading music is much different. Generally, the musician already has the skills needed for successful performance. The music is easier and less technically demanding and as a result, can be read at performance tempo and performed with minimal explanation and no rehearsal. While sight reading may not demonstrate the highest level of polish and refinement, there are still some expectations of minimum performance quality.

Benefits of Sight Reading

Why should you take time away from performance preparation to work on sight reading? Developing student literacy is just one of many reasons.  Sight reading develops a greater sense of ensemble awareness. It allows students to practice and refine their listening skills in the actual musical context that we want them to be fluent in. It fosters musical accountability in that it requires that students be musicians.

Sight reading requires students to process all the information that is given on the page. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the students are responsible for processing, evaluating and adjusting their performance in real time. Without spoken instructions they have to aurally agree as an ensemble by asking and responding to questions like:

  • Do I have the melody or am I accompaniment?
  • How loud do I play for balance?
  • What is the style of the piece?
  • What/where is the basic pulse/tempo?

There are also big picture reasons to incorporate sight reading into your curriculum. Sight reading lends itself to formative assessment, allows directors to refine their curriculum, and offers students instant feedback. Using sight reading as the basis for a lesson plan helps directors create lessons based on the students’ needs and current skill levels.

Plus sight reading can be fun.

We often lose sight of the fact that many kids sign up for band to play tunes. There is an inherent sense of satisfaction and enjoyment in playing all the way through a piece.

Sight reading a piece, all the way though, can make your pacing seem faster and can foster enhanced student enjoyment. Time flies when you play a new tune all the way through, and that same feeling rarely occurs when practicing how to start a concert F for 30 minutes.

What Should You Sight Read?

The choice of what to read shouldn’t be difficult. You probably already have many resources that you can use as sight-reading material. Start with a rhythm line. Move to any unison line in a method book. Use sight reading to introduce any exercise that will become a part of your daily drill or warm-up. Sight read a duet.

When the students are ready, select an easy piece of music. As they develop, use a contest or festival tune from a previous year. Students always enjoy reading a new pep tune or a pop title where they already have a general familiarity with the music. As you work to take their skills to the next level, always try to meet the students where they are and give them what they need for success.

Guiding Students as They Sight Read

Try to establish a routine for sight reading. Vary how much information you give the students. Give them more information at the beginning and less as they advance and gain confidence. Always try to bring their attention to the basic elements of the piece – the key signature, time signature, tempo, style, etc. Point out who has the melody as well as who has the accompaniment. Go over any challenging rhythms and the roadmap for the piece – repeats, endings, DS, DC, Coda, etc.

Keep in mind that this is a learning process – go slow so that students can process and react. It’s okay if you need to regroup frequently but try to establish the idea that you have to keep going and that everyone is responsible for their own part. For this to be successful, you should try to provide enough framework that most students can find their way through the piece.

Tips for Sight-Reading Competition

If sight reading is part of an annual festival or contest that you participate in, incorporating sight reading into your curriculum throughout the year will make that evaluation less stressful. Another way to reduce stress to make sure that you know the rules and format. Be comfortable in your knowledge of what you can or can’t say and can or can’t do during the contest. Research the contest website to locate and familiarize yourself with all available resources. Once you have done your homework, start to prepare your students for the process. Practice the process so you and your students will feel comfortable on the day of the contest.

Sight reading can be a very beneficial part of your music curriculum. It is a great way for students to experience and refine their musical skills and concepts. Best of all, sight reading often will give students the confidence to incorporate their ensemble skills into your musical performances.

Asa Burk is the associate director of bands at Argyle High School in Argyle, Texas, and an active clinician and adjudicator. He has been named “Teacher of the Year” three times, first at Huffines Middle School in 2001, then at Cross Timbers Middle School in 2012, and at Argyle High School in 2018. His bands have consistently received UIL Sweepstakes Awards and many Best in Class designations at local and national festivals and were state finalists in the TMEA Honor Band selection process in 2004 and 2008. In 2011, his Cross Timbers MS Honors Band was a featured performer at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago. In 2014 the Argyle High School Band was the UIL 4A Marching Band State Champion.

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