Taking the Fear Out of the Mystery – Part 2: An Approach to Sight Reading at Music Performance Assessment

Jon Bubbett • July 2023SightReading • July 16, 2023

In part 1 of this series, we discussed some of the most important aspects of sight-reading. Namely, quality of sound and playing with musical intent. We also covered how to prepare your ensemble during the first semester by focusing on rhythmic skill development using the “Rhythm, Keys, and Time” series. In Part 2, we will focus on how to continue preparing during the second semester. SBO+: If you didn’t read Jon’s March 2023 article, we suggest you do that first. You can always find back issues at SBOmagazine.com.

Second Semester

Early in the year, begin building a library of sight-reading music. The past year’s sight-reading pieces are available for purchase from RBC Publications. We would keep a separate set of folders with only those sight-reading pieces. We were fortunate enough to buy several examples of sight-reading music for each grade level to use as a classroom set. Beginning approximately 6-8 weeks before the assessment event, we would begin teaching the “process and procedure” we used in the sight-reading room. We would start with once or twice per week and then gradually increase this to three to four times per week as we got closer to the assessment. Like the rhythm exercises, we would start with the easier grade levels and then progress to a grade level more difficult than what they would be expected to play. By doing this, your students will have tremendous confidence when they first see the sight-reading music and realize they are more than prepared. This also allows you to focus more on the expressive aspects of the music.

Setting Up

Make sure you have your parts assigned ahead of time as to who will play what. UIL has the instrumentation specified for each grade level of the sight-reading pieces on its website.

Percussion – make sure you have all the parts assigned to specific individuals and then rehearse several times before assessment. The students should play the same part every time! Since multiple percussion parts must be covered, this will avoid last-minute confusion.

Winds or Strings – your sight-reading set-up need not be exactly as your on-stage set-up. Consider taking some of your more experienced players and interspersing them with your younger players. Younger players learn more from the more experienced players sitting around them than they do from us! Consider taking one or two of your first clarinets or violins, for example, and have them play a second or third part. The same is true for any section with multiple sub-sections (trumpets, trombones, etc.). Have the more experienced student sit with the sub-section in which they are performing. Have them sit in the second chair of the row, not at the very end. That way, they will have younger players on either side of them. The older, more seasoned player then acts as an anchor for the younger players on either side of them. Make sure these older players are strong rhythmically. The younger players will not only gain confidence from having a stronger player sitting next to them, but they will also follow them musically.

Approach to Sight Reading

The students will feed off the type of energy and demeanor you exude. If you are highly-strung and anxious, there is a good chance your students will be as well. On the other hand, if you enter the sight-reading room with a relaxed, professional demeanor, there is a good chance your students will emulate that too. Your demeanor should be one of anticipation as you and your students excitedly discover a brand-new piece of music.

How the students enter the sight-reading room is very important, this is the first impression the judge will have of your students. Students should enter the room with a relaxed, professional demeanor. Understand the students are coming directly from the on-stage performance and are already mentally and emotionally spent. Gently remind them they aren’t done just yet, and to remain focused on the task at hand.

Students must stay engaged 100% of the time, with relaxed professionalism but focused. I have discovered this is the most critical and essential factor, next to being properly prepared ahead of time. While the judge is evaluating how well the director is teaching, they are also evaluating how well the students are learning. Students who are not focused, are inattentive, distracted or talking, etc., have taken themselves “out of the game” and taken the players on either side of them as well. Percussionists tend to be the most scrutinized as they are standing up and much more visible. Also, there may be more movement from the percussion section as they settle in and transition from the on-stage performance to the sight-reading room. 

In part 3, we will cover the process, the study period, and how to be most efficient with your time.

Learn more about Jon at JonBubbettMusic.com.

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