Helping Your Students to Sight Read Better

by Ronald E. Kearns

Date Posted: September 12, 2018

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Photo by Debby Hudson

One of the things I was most proud of during my thirty years of teaching is that participating in festivals with my bands, orchestras and jazz ensembles for twenty-eight years on the high school level, we never got less than a Superior rating. There are many reasons for this success but the most important is that I helped my students to overcome the fear of sight reading and helped them develop good reading skills.

I've done several articles about how to prepare students to be successful sight reading but this article is designed to help teachers learn the most efficient way to present the sight reading piece in the sight reading room. Before I address these strategies, let me share with you how I introduce the sight reading concept to students.

First, I explain to them that every time they pick up an eReader, a newspaper or a book they're sight reading. They don't know the content but they know the words. If they don't know a word they can figure it out in context. Not knowing one word won't stop them from reading, they just move on reading the words they do comprehend. In music, they may not know the musical line they're playing but they know note values and rhythms. The idea is to go from the familiar to unfamiliar without panicking or stopping. If you don't know how to count a measure you at least know how many beats to wait before moving to the next measure. I tell them that trying to go back to correct a mistake is like trying to climb back into an airplane after falling out!

"The idea is to go from the familiar to unfamiliar without panicking or stopping." - Ron Kearns

It helps if you have your students sight read once a week. That way they overcome the fear factor through becoming comfortable with the process. The “mystique” of sight reading is replaced with familiarity. This gives you things to reference once you go into the sight reading room. Example: “Remember last week when we were sight reading Chorale #15, it had a pattern similar to the one here at rehearsal letter B.” You have established a frame of reference and the students will actively begin to problem solve. So, now let's look at how to use your time wisely in the sight reading room.

Look for challenges in the score

We each know who in our groups will be challenged most. Start studying the score looking for things that will challenge those students or a particular section first. Peruse the score to see how many sections have similar rhythms or parts. If you can talk about the same challenges to multiple players or two or more sections you'll have more time to address more problems. Don't get bogged down trying to “over explain.” That will be counterproductive because you'll create a wall of fear of that section. Try to be as matter of fact with your description as possible.

Show no fear while perusing the score

Most festivals give you three minutes to study the score and two minutes to talk your students through the music. While you're studying the score, your kids are studying you. They can't turn their music over until your time is up. There were times I was panicking inside but smiling and bobbing my head displaying confidence. Frustration breeds frustration and confidence breeds confidence. Even if you think you'll need paramedics don't show it. Formulate your presentation as you read down the score. There shouldn't be anything in the score you have difficulty reading since groups sight read a grade beneath the grade of their performance piece. Let your body show, “I've got this, follow my lead.”

Tap, sing and/or count out challenging passages

Once you're ready to explain to your students, try to be as measured and efficient as you can be. If you have doubts that a particular section will be able to conquer a challenge deflate the challenge. Help the students work from the familiar to the difficult. Don't say, “trombones, you always miss this pattern so listen carefully.” You have just created a self fulfilling prophecy and also given them permission not to try to work through the problem. If you're absolutely sure you can't effectively explain to them how to solve the problem don't put up a wall. This is a place where you can let them know that another section has a similar part or reference a song you've worked on in class.

Call out letters or numbers

As you get to rehearsal numbers or letters, call them out. If players are lost hearing the letter or number gives them a “meeting point.” I would tell my students during the explanation period that I'd call out the letter a measure ahead and say “now” once we got to it. This reinforces confidence for those who are there and gives those who aren't the “meeting place” they need.

Remind them that we're all in this together

Strong players shouldn't feel as though they have to carry the group and weak players shouldn't feel as though they're holding the group back. Put the group on your back and remind them that no one person will get all of the credit and no one person will get all of the blame. What you do in sight reading should be an outgrowth of what you've done in class. If you've only taught the music for success at the festival you'll probably fail at sight reading but if you've taught your students rhythms and patterns and analytical skills you'll be consistently successful sight reading at school or at the festival. Above all else, you want your sight reading to be a very “musical” performance and that includes expression marks, dynamics and stylistic accuracy. Remember, it all starts with you.

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Ronald E. Kearns is the author of Quick Reference for Band Directors (NAfME/RLE Publishing) and Recording Tips for Music Educators (Oxford University Press). Ron is a Vandoren of Paris Performing Artist and Selmer of Paris Performing Artist.


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