As a young teacher I was upset that the top group, THE TOP GROUP, PEOPLE, didn’t receive the coveted “Unanimous Superior” as a result of our sight-reading…

My first year at Amador I took the bands to CMEA Bay Section Large Group Festival (something I’ve done every year since 2003). We got a “Superior” rating from the concert judges but received an “Excellent” rating in Sight-Reading. As a young teacher I was upset that the top group, THE TOP GROUP, PEOPLE, didn’t receive the coveted “Unanimous Superior”.

There are a few things to unpack in the mindset of my 28-year old self, but I’ll focus on the idea that we didn’t receive the rating I felt we deserved. Nope. Wrong.

We didn’t EARN it.

It took me awhile to realize that sight-reading wasn’t the thing you did a week before the festival to get ready for assessment. After that first year my sight-reading “curriculum” used to go something like this:

  1. Find formulaic Grade 3 piece in library, hand out clumsily at start of class
  2. Talk through piece while students supposedly listened absorbing my knowledge
  3. Play through piece
  4. Return piece to library
  5. Repeat process 3-4 times before festival

And you know what, following these steps actually got us a “Superior” rating at festival. The kids are well trained and were able to transfer enough skills to the sight-reading venue even with this minimal, and truthfully shoddy, preparation.

And as with so many things in my teaching practice there was a point (see Step 2 above) where I wondered if my students were actually getting anything out of this process. I posited the answer was “no” and decided to do things differently.

So I embarked on a journey of establishing, through trial and error, a curriculum for sight-reading that felt more pedagogically sound. And one that wasn’t focused on the sole outcome being a “Superior” at festival.

I’ll spare you the lengthy trial and error stuff and cut to the strategies I employ now with tried and true success. As a disclaimer, these are steps that I utilize with my high school groups. If you are a middle school teacher please read through that lens and modify as you feel appropriate.

SIGHT READING STRATEGIES IN A SOMEWHAT PARTICULAR ORDER

  • Create leveled sight-reading folders with the likely available music you have in your library that may never need to see the light of day on a concert stage
  • When sight-reading, the students get the folders from their storage bins and pull out the piece from the folders. Clean and simple process
  • Pull out specific strands to focus on in a sight-reading session, build strands sequentially
  • Give students ample opportunity to discuss with a partner how things went in the sight-reading session, specific to the strand being introduced. In education speak this is the standard “Think-Pair-Share” strategy

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My typical sequencing of strands is listed below. If you want to go DEEP, continue reading. If you’ve got enough, feel free to get out of the pool now.

 

You’ve been warned…

In the application of the steps below, I will focus on one area and then sight-read the piece focusing on achievement through just that one strand.

As the strands build in complexity and responsibility the students are asked to continue to track how they do on the earlier strands we’ve covered.

THE STEPS

  1. Architecture: students are introduced to a review of navigating form (repeats, DC al coda, DS al coda).
    • STRATEGY: tactile. Have students track not just with their eyes but with their fingers the architecture of the piece.
    • Number of rehearsals: 1, ongoing as review
  2. Rhythm: students have been developing vocabulary through separate use of an in-class app that we use to strengthen sight-reading rhythms and our counting system. Applying now in the context of sight-reading:
    • STRATEGY: have students sight-count a passage of the piece. Use metronome to help establish pulse center while they read.
    • STRATEGY: have students use rhythm tapping (two fingers tap the rhythm on the other hand) to sight-count a passage of the piece. May be combined with the counting. Use metronome to help establish pulse center while they read.
    • STRATEGY: have students sizzle (percussion does rhythm tapping) to sight-count a passage. May be combined with rhythm tapping. Use metronome to help establish pulse center while they read.
    • Number of rehearsals: 4-6, ongoing as review
  3. Note naming: students will sing spell the note names of a particular passage of the piece we are sight-reading.
    • STRATEGY: Start with a lyrical section of a piece so the students have time to actually think about the names of the notes. This may be harder than it seems for your students. Persevere! They will get better at this.
      • Initially don’t focus on the students singing the correct pitches. If they can, great. This is not necessarily the outcome of this strategy.
    • STRATEGY: Combine with finger patterning while they sing.
      • Non-pitched percussion repeat the rhythm tapping to participate
    • Number of rehearsals: 2-3, ongoing as review
  4. Terms: students will discuss all of the terms in the piece. A unit of terminology separate from the sight-reading curriculum has already been covered.
    • STRATEGY: pull out only terms in a sight-reading piece. Have a music dictionary on hand for a class discovery of any unknown terms. Don’t just tell the students the answer.
      • Or use a phone/tablet with a terms detective at the ready!
    • Whenever the students encounter a term while sight-reading they don’t know I ask them to look up. But the definition of a musical term isn’t “Look up.” So let’s not teach that as the default defintion for any of our terminology.
    • Number of rehearsals: 1-2, ongoing as review
  5. Dynamics: students will observe visually all of the dynamics on the page through discussion with a partner. Encourage tactile discovery so they are touching the music as dynamic information is shown.
    • STRATEGY: Create a human mixing board. Students sing their parts. Observe the following rules:
      • p-pp dynamics = sitting
      • mp-mf dynamics = hovering just above their seats
      • f-ff dynamics = standing
      • crescendo and diminuendo = transitioning to and from the above positions
    • Number of rehearsals: 1-2, ongoing review
    • WARNING: this is chaotic, noisy, awkward and fun.
  6. Balance: One of the hardest objectives, and the reason why it is so late in the process, is having the students sight-read with a sense of awareness about balance. How can they predict balance when they haven’t read the piece? My students have been staring at band music for years. Do you remember scanning a new piece and knowing right away “Cool I have the melody at 18!” or…”ugh, I only have the boring accompaniment for 68 measures” Our kids know more intuitively about balance than they (or we) think they do. You just have to help them connect the dots.
    • STRATEGY: discuss block dynamics (when a composer marks everyone in the ensemble at the same volume level). Help them to understand how to interpret those dynamics based on their perception of priority and balance paradigm (pyramid of sound as one example)
    • STRATEGY: Ask students to access prior knowledge of how melody, counter-melody, and accompaniment looks on their music. Call out a set of measures in the piece and ask students to stand if they think they have the melody.
      • The first time I did this all the way through a sight-reading piece the students were right about every phrase except one. I was amazed at what they saw to be true without hearing the piece.
    • Number of rehearsals: 2-3, ongoing review

A closing thought on application of the above…

When I am reading a piece for sight-reading development I will not necessarily work the ENTIRE piece using these strategies. And later in the process you can pre-plan your sight-reading score utilizing multiple strategies in one session. Get creative with the process. I say often discovery is messy…let your students in on the discovery and get messy with them.

Thank you for reading to the end. This was my longest post but I had a lot to share on the topic!

Sight reading for me and my students has become a much richer experience. More dimensional and less dry in presentation and ultimately more specific and measurable in outcome. We continue to do well at festival in sight-reading, but really the rating is a mere snapshot of a deep commitment to the process of building literate musicians.

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One thought on “Sight-Reading Beyond The Superior

  1. Fantastic, Jon. I really enjoy your posts and this one reminds me that this is a valuable exercise even if you are not going to festival where there is sight reading. I will be pulling out my old sight reading folders (yes, I used to do this too, but not in as great detail as you) and filling them up for the start of the next year. Thank you for your insights. It’s helps me re-balance my focus!

    Like

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