Sight-Reading Software to the Rescue

Mike Lawson • Technology • May 15, 2013

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SmartMusicSight-reading is a lost art form in many performance-dominated music programs. In the professional world, however, it is an essential part of musicianship. In a series of behind-the-scenes videos chronicling the making of the “Hobbit” it is explained that the entire movie score was never rehearsed, and was recorded in just one take without any previous rehearsals or individual practice. (See 11:02 in the link above for commentary from the famous Abbey Road Studios in London, where the 93-piece orchestra sight-read and recorded the sound-track 18,000 miles from the New Zealand movie set.)

Why this critical skill of sight-reading often gets neglected in the classroom is a complicated problem. For example, one band director responded to my inquiry about sight-reading in his rehearsal by complaining, “I’m tired of putting together and taking apart (daily) ensemble sight-reading folders. I’m thinking about not even working on sight-reading this year, except I have to because my school has been assigned to host the district Band and Orchestra festival, so I’d better have my students sight-reading well. Any help will be greatly appreciated.”

To learn more about successful methods for integrating sight-reading into the curriculum, I recently contacted several prominent authors of classroom instrumental methods. “I have to say that sight-reading is without a doubt the Achilles’ heel of most young musicians,” says Dean Sorenson of the University of Minnesota. “They have chops like crazy, and wild technique, but ask them to play even a very simple part perfectly, at sight, and they fold. They get it the second time, but as you know, the professional world often does not allow the second time. I spend a lot of time in my jazz band rehearsals just reading charts. We never rehearse them – that’s not the point. The overall reading skills of the band show definite improvement over the course of the year. I can say that I was also a very poor reader when I was a student. What really helped me was hearing Bobby Shew talk about sight-reading at a clinic. He said to find a book of… anything, and commit to reading a page a day with a metronome. The metronome is key, of course: it keeps you honest. Do not stop for mistakes, but plow on through to the end.”

Edward S. Lisk, noted composer/publisher, believes that teaching concepts of music is more important than just sight-reading music. “I am always intrigued in the way sight-reading is taught,” he says. “I believe one of the greatest misconceptions about sight-reading is simply playing a lot of music. Playing a lot of music is supposed to improve reading notation. Directors are hesitant to question some of these conventional techniques, which often compound problems. I think of sight-reading as an activity that requires an intelligent process coupled with a spontaneous association of something previously learned with error free application.”

Lisk compares reading music to reading a book. “Before understanding can occur, one must develop a reading vocabulary (music or words) at the appropriate grade level,” he says. “Don’t expect a fifth grader to read a 12th-grade book with understanding. It can cause frustration and build a sense of failure. This is identical to reading musical notation. Reading must be developed sequentially. If a word or notation appears and the student has no awareness of its meaning, the response can only be a guess, hoping it is correct. The end result is lack of understanding with little to build upon for future growth or success.”

Bruce Pearson, author of Standards of Excellence, desccribes sight-readingas “intelligent performance. He comments, “Scanning a piece of music and associating various technical passages through scale fragments or a key eliminates a note-by-note reading process. Note-by-note reading process often produces note errors and poor rhythmic response. The eye scans and only transmits the symbol to the brain for interpretation and timed response. Scale patterns and interval recognition are important for accuracy and reading comprehension. The application of scale knowledge with sight-reading is much like having the necessary vocabulary for reading prose. Playing a lot of music may not increase reading ability. It is the analysis process coupled with the application of learned musical skills that provide successful reading.”

In order to achieve this, Pearson recommends instructing students to identify any technical diatonic passage (three or more notes) as scale fragments implying a scale or key which they have previously learned. ‘If all fundamentals are rightly taught, students will not have difficulty reading music,” he says. “We must teach for understanding and not simply content. It all comes down to what do we expect our students to know and be able to do.”

David Hickman was a pioneer of innovating sight-reading concepts in the 1960s. Rather than allowing the eye to focus on individual notes or symbols, his systematic speed-reading method trained the eye to scan ahead and take in an entire group of notes. Hickman’s premise was that the eye can be trained to rapidly recognize images as swaths of music notation.

Helpful Technology Options

Today’s technology applications incorporate the sight-reading ideas offered by Dean, Edward, Bruce, and Hickman. The advantage of using sight-reading technology in an ensemble setting is that it doesn’t require separate specialized books or folders; all you need is a notebook computer and projection system with display screen/space, or a computer connected to a white board to display the software app. Creative apps can be daily incorporated several ways:

  • Ensemble warm-ups that teach customized rhythm patterns found in upcoming repertory needs.
  • Teaching the ensemble to perform rhythm patterns a grade level above their ensemble music.
  • Expand sight-reading skills to include: appropriate ranges, key signatures, time signatures, tempo, rhythms, articulations, and dynamics.

With that in mind, two different products stand out to me because of their in-depth curriculum offerings covering rhythm patterns and meter signatures.

SmartMusic’s Sight-Reading Tools

SmartMusic added extensive sight-reading module in their application this past year. More than 300 exercises for each instrument are sequentially organized into 10 levels aimed at developing sight-reading chops. SmartMusic’s unique approach allows exercises to be recorded by individual students, assessed, and emailed directly to the teacher. Students receive an objective score that helps them know where they stand and reports their progress. Students can integrate this feedback until they’re satisfied with their assessment results. SmartMusic’s sight-reading exercises are more than etudes intended to trip up a student; they are real melodies written by real composers.

This teaching approach let’s students develop their sight-reading skills outside of the classroom, freeing valuable rehearsal time. Good SmartMusic sight-reading startup videos are available for teachers and students.


RhythmBee is a program that offers sight-reading instruction through intensive sequential training with a full complement of instructional material for pre-K through high school students. The rhythm curriculum includes 120 units that range from three to seven minutes in length, depending on the tempo the teacher selects. From steady beat to irregular meters and polyrhythmic ensemble performance, the RhythmBee curriculum leaves nothing to chance.

One major upside to RhythmBee is that the software can be projected on a screen for students to sight-read. Students walk into class, take their instruments out, and begin as a group to practice the progressively more difficult rhythm patterns while the teacher is free to walk around the room giving assistance and doing assessment. This time-saving routine is a great class opener. Students can even clap and count the rhythm patterns before taking their instruments out. At a 2007 TMEA clinic in San Antonio, I watched the late Marci Zoffuto ably demonstrate this with a large middle school band. Since then, the software has been expanded beyond unison rhythm patterns incorporating two, three, and four-part exercises for students to count, clap, and/or perform. This pedagogy is perfectly designed for easy classroom use, as it can be controlled and customized by the teacher. In effect, this should bring excitement and success to the classroom sight-reading experience, rather than stress.

RhythmBee is constructed on two pillars of learning science. First, every RhythmBee experience provides incremental development with carefully designed material that is only slightly more advanced than the previous lesson ensuring continual progress. And second, every RhythmBee experience is designed to be a comprehensive review of skills already learned.

Notice the following aspects of the image below.

The tempo (set to 100 bpm) is adjustable before or during the performance of the exercise. Measures two, four, and six demonstrate a review of tied notes and incremental progress toward dotted notes. And any student who glances at the screen will know that the class is performing in measure six on beat three. The audible click track can be muted with the audio button in the lower right part of the screen. The toggle is in the muted position in this graphic.

As students experience the familiar (ties in this case) and see the relationship to the new learning (dotted quarter eighth), the animation substitutes the new for the familiar.

Another instructional format called “drill points” allows instant looping when the teacher sees a concern, with minimal disruption or discussion. The teacher can concentrate on providing the information the class needs for a better performance, and with minimal fuss, start at measure three with a single click.

Closing Comments

There have been significant improvements in sight-reading materials since my last overview, in SBO’s May 2009 issue. In my opinion, RhythmBee by RhythmBee, Inc. and SmartMusic by MakeMusic clearly stand out for classroom or private use. The first is utilized in an ensemble setting without books or folders, while the latter works well outside of the class setting. For more about the sight-reading process, see this article’s supplement at:

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