Help Your Students Gain Sight-Reading Confidence
By Scott Watson | November 12, 2019
You may have heard some form of the old joke, “My child never practices...he’s gotten really good at sight-reading!” Of course, we know children really learn to read and understand words through experience with language: hearing it, speaking it, and encountering it in written form again and again in increasingly expressive ways. Language arts reading strategies used in our schools include scanning ahead for tough words, rote repetition, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, chunking, word walls, comparing known words to new words, and more. As it turns out, students learn to be better sight-readers by employing analogous music decoding strategies. Here are a few:
When encountering new music, train students to first scan ahead for parameters such as key signature, accidentals, and tricky rhythms. In Sound Sight-Reading, we recommend using the acronym S.T.A.R.S. to remember these items:
- Signatures (time and key): How many beats per measure? What notes in this line are affected by the key signature?
- Tempo (and other expressive markings): How fast and with what character should the music be played?
- Accidentals: Where do they occur and for how long before returning to the “normal” (diatonic) note(s)?
- Rhythms: Are there any complex rhythms that should be examined? How should the rhythmic subdivisions be counted?
- Signs (repeats, endings, segno, coda, etc.): What is the “roadmap” for this piece?
Learning scales and rhythms in various contexts (i.e., scale patterns, rhythm grids, etc.)—helps prepare students for encountering those musical building blocks in repertoire. Incorporating a little time during rehearsals for scale materials, perhaps as part of your warm-up routine, will pay huge dividends when students encounter those notes in music. Consider the following excerpt from Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band (movt. 1, “March”) and imagine how differently it would be sight-read by a trumpeter that has worked on the scale on which it is based (concert F major) from one that hadn’t.
For this reason, each of the six successively more musically complex and expressive Levels of Sound Sight-Reading includes a Scale and Scale Patterns page to help students gain facility with the major and minor keys presented.
The same goes for employing a systematic plan for introducing and reviewing rhythms. Each Level concludes with one or more pages of “Rhythm Grids”—a graphic table showing each rhythm presented at that level, plus its common permutations (the image below shows 30 of the 60 rhythms in Rhythm Grids 4.3). Some directors focus on rhythm using rhythm flash cards, a “Rhythm of the Week,” or the rhythm studies included in many method books. Whatever your approach, building rhythmic fluency is paramount in developing excellent sight-readers.
Just as complex words may be broken down into component sounds, a passage of music may be broken down into component parts. Briefly reviewing the components students need (i.e. note names, fingerings/slide positions, rhythm/counts, etc.) can bring tricky passages within their grasp. After such a review the components can be-reassembled by performing the passage, slowly at first if needed. Have students reflect on, identify, and review any areas of weakness before a second attempt.
Fluency, Chunking, Comparing Known Words to New Words
Have you ever noticed how beginning readers use their index fingers to point, word-by-word, as they slowly sound them out in a sentence? Over time, as their vocabulary grows and they become familiar with the way sentences work, more advanced readers absorb and comprehend groups of words (phrases) in a more “zoomed-out” fashion. This is fluency. We’ve already discussed how musical vocabulary (scales, rhythms) can aide with musical fluency.
Another part of being able to grasp and execute musical phrases involves chunking. Your mind allocates separate memory storage to disparate information it encounters, such as each digit in a series of numbers. However, if you are able to “group” (or chunk) those numbers—such as when you regularly use a zip or area code—you begin to think of them not as separate digits, but as a single unit. This not only uses less storage, but it allows you to retrieve it more quickly. Similarly, if I share my phone number with you and it is only one number different than a phone number you already know, you will have a much easier time remembering it. You’d be using a known word to learn a new (similar) word. I’m sure you can imagine the analogs in music!
When students perceive repetition and/or patterns in music they experience music decoding advantages analogous to readers who chunk words or make comparisons to known words. Recognizing repetition and patterns in music allows students to anticipate what’s ahead in the music. When material recurs, less energy is required to interpret it. For this reason, I have found that it is actually very time-efficient to give students a few moments to look for patterns and repetition when introducing new music. After discussing what they’ve found, they always execute the music more confidently.
Consider the following excerpt from the opening of my Balkan Seven (Alfred, Grade 3). Students who note that each measure begins with a triplet can then shift their efforts toward grasping the pitches (which do vary). Perceiving that M5-8 is repeated almost identically in M9-12 cuts in half the time it takes to decode and execute that passage.
Similarly, examine the opening of Mozart's Smphony No. 40 in G Minor:
Grasping that the entire melody is connected back to the opening three-note motif, rather than viewing these 40 notes as separate events, allows for chunking and comparing (see example below). This, in turn, leads to more efficient and effective execution in performance.
By the way, the Mozart excerpt contains a great example of a pattern-type frequently found in music known as the Rule of Threes. The Rule of Threes observes that the third iteration of a musical gesture (a rhythm, a motif, a phrase, etc.) is often special in some way. In the Mozart example, the opening three-note motif is repeated once exactly, but on the third iteration an extra note is added (an ascending 6th).
The more I work with students on spotting patterns, the better they’ve gotten at perceiving patterns at work in the music we play. Music of lasting worth is full of both small and large-scale patterns. If you are performing repertoire you find compelling, assume there are patterns to discover. When students spot them, it will greatly reduce the amount of time needed to learn the music. Plus it gives them an insiders perspective on how composers assemble notes into formal units.
Perhaps most important is that we regularly reinforce these concepts with our students. Play scales and scale patterns as part of daily ensemble warm-up, work rhythms sequentially (perhaps incorporating a rhythm of the week), and train students to look for repetition and patterns in their music (taking a little time to discuss what they find). Then, set aside rehearsal time each week performing unfamiliar music at sight, first allowing students a moment to scan ahead for S.T.A.R.S. elements.
The above is just a taste of some of the approaches used in Alfred Music’s new Sound Sight-Reading for Concert Band method, the latest addition to the Sound Innovations series. Additional content includes more than a hundred performance examples of varying textures (unison, duets, SATB, full-band, polyphonic, contrapuntal, etc.), genres, and length (including extended sight-reading examples excerpted from actual concert band literature), plus a variety of fun music reading games and challenges. The focus of everything: helping students gain comfort and confidence when performing music at sight.
Dr. Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music in the Parkland School District for 35 years and serves as adjunct professor for Cairn University, among others. He is a frequently commissioned composer with approximately 100 published pieces for band and strings, and is an active clinician and guest conductor.View Author Page
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