Practicing Sight Reading Year-Round with Your Band
By Asa Burk
Sight reading is a wonderful assessment of musical literacy, but it can take time for students to learn this skill. This is why I advocate for 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. First, the amount of preparation time for our formal concert literature has been reduced. Secondly, our performance quality has improved, providing a much deeper musical experience for the audience.
There are many reasons why this has occurred. 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. Additionally, we often lose sight of the fact that many students 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 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.
Incorporating sight reading into your curriculum also can be done quite easily. Once you decide to make sight reading a priority, you can oftentimes 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 will give you a greater likelihood of working a sight reading practice session into your rehearsal.
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 of group.
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 the 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/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 hasn’t previously entered a sight reading performance contest, you can 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 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.
Overall, having a sight reading plan often will 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’ll hopefully keep students coming back for band year after year.
For more resources, view these sight reading books for band.
About the author:
Asa Burk is the Associate Director of Bands at Argyle High School. Over his 26-year career he has taught at middle school, junior high, and high school. His bands have been selected to perform at the Midwest Clinic, as well as advanced to the state level of the honor band process.
J. W. Pepper is a NAfME corporate member.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.