Taking the Fear Out of the Mystery: An Approach to Sight Reading at Music Performance Assessment

Jon Bubbett • March 2023SightReading • March 13, 2023

SBO+: This is the first in a three part series from SBO+ contributor Jon Bubbett about how to succeed at sight reading assessments. Everything he has to say is relevant to string ensembles, choral groups, and jazz bands in addition to concert bands.

I am always fearful when I am underprepared and don’t know what to expect. Knowing what was coming up and then preparing for it was the best way to gain confidence in my performance. This is especially true regarding sight reading at music performance assessment events! Over the years, I developed some exercises and crafted an approach that tremendously helped build my students’ confidence. Sight reading is about building confidence in your students and yourself.

Quality of Sound

The first and foremost consideration should always be the quality of sound your students produce. If a group makes uncharacteristic sounds, success will be extremely difficult. It doesn’t matter much, musically, how fast your fingers move, how high you can play, or how fast you can tongue if it doesn’t sound good. 

Tone quality is an all-year, every-rehearsal kind of thing. Don’t begin thinking about your quality of sound a few weeks before assessment! The quality of your band’s sound should be the primary focus for EVERY rehearsal but ESPECIALLY the marching band. You first must know how you want your band to sound. You must have that mental and aural concept in your mind and constantly assess how your band is doing daily. Good tone production is always a work in progress.


Always strive to give the most musical rendering of anything we do with our groups. That is especially true in the sight-reading room. Find the places you can make musical and then, using the words of Richard Floyd (another regular SBO+ contributor), “Go for it!” Don’t shy away from enhancing those musical moments in the sight-reading room simply because it isn’t written on the page. As musicians, we all take some liberties to enhance the music we are performing when we feel it is appropriate. Make your sight reading as musical as possible!

What to Expect 

Ensure you thoroughly understand your sponsoring organization’s rules and procedures for your assessment/sight-reading event. You don’t want to get caught in that awkward situation over something you should have known but didn’t. Remember, it isn’t you it affects most; it’s your students.

Our organization uses the University of Texas, University Interscholastic League (UIL) sight-reading material from RBC Publishing. You can find their complete set of criteria listing all the rhythms, key signatures, and time signatures used in the sight-reading exercises at

How to Prepare 

Strive to keep your students’ daily “musical diet” more challenging than they might encounter in the sight-reading room. You want your students to have “seen it all.” Strived to create a musical rendering, NOT just the right rhythms and notes. Help students have a musical experience BEYOND the right rhythms and notes. 

First Semester

Start early! Time can be your friend…or your enemy. We started by developing rhythmic recognition and performance skills. To do this, we developed a series of exercises that uses all the rhythms, key signatures, and time signatures listed in the UIL Sight Reading Criteria. This ensured no “gaps” existed in the students’ development. We always tried to keep more challenging music in front of our students, but sometimes the literature we picked might not cover all the bases. Using these exercises, we ensured our students are properly prepared for anything they might encounter in the sight-reading room. 

Exercises are divided into three sets. Rhythm, Keys, and Time I, use the UIL sight-reading criteria for grades 1 and 2. Rhythm, Keys, and Time II cover grades 3 and 4, and Rhythm, Keys, and Time III cover grades 5 and 6. The goal is for students to recognize and play rhythms at sight as fluently as if they were reading words out of a book. We use a counting system to LEARN the rhythms but not necessarily to PLAY the rhythms. Same as when we learn to read words phonetically. We were encouraged to “sound out” words using different syllables in the beginning. However, once we LEARNED the words and could recognize them at sight, we no longer had to sound them out. The same holds for recognizing rhythms at sight. Rhythm recognition is skill-based and must not be rushed. Start with the easiest examples and then progress to the more difficult examples. Strive to prepare one level beyond what you might be expected to sight-read. These exercises are also available for string and full orchestra.

Encourage musicality by varying the styles of the exercises, the tempo, dynamics, and direction of the phrases. Go BEYOND the notes and rhythms on the page and find ways to make even the rhythm exercises musical! Be creative and let your students explore their creativity as well, all while developing critical rhythmic skills!

Start with the easiest exercises and then move to the more difficult ones over the course of the semester. Remember NEVER to sacrifice the quality of your ensemble’s sound as the exercises get more difficult. If it doesn’t have a good sound, then a musical experience is simply impossible. Making music is the ultimate goal!

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