Let’s talk about sight reading…

I interrupt your regularly scheduled series on “The proper care and feeding of musical equipment” to give you this little post…

Those two dreaded words that pretty much every musician hates.  They make you do it for auditions.  It is part of festivals.  It is a huge part of selecting new music.  Yet we all still HATE it. What is it about sight reading that makes it so dreaded? Sight reading is a scary task.  It requires a musician to play something they have never played before and when done in front of a judge, teacher, or panel it becomes nerve wracking and even terrifying.  I believe that a large part of the reason sight reading is so dreaded is because so many of us have no organization to our method of attempting to sight read. Without realizing we are doing it most musicians begin sight reading a piece by finding what we believe will be the mostconfused-doubting-baby difficult part of the piece and fingering through that part as many times as we can before we are required to perform.  Others just start fingering through the piece from the beginning in the hope that we will make it far enough through for the effort to have been worth the time.  Some just stare at the music until it becomes a blur, not comprehending any of the lines and dots on the page.  These disorganized methods often cause confusion, but may occasionally supply small successes. When I was in a practicum class in college the teacher I was working with assigned me to sight read a piece with his band.  I knew how difficult sight reading a piece for just myself was, I was terrified of sight reading a piece not only by myself, but also guiding a group of sixth and seventh graders through a process that would make it a successful read.  The day before my assignment was to take place this teacher taught me his sight reading method that he uses personally as well as with his students.  I am going to share it with you here.  This sight reading method breaks sight reading down into four basic parts of music that makes sight reading far less intimidating. Steps for sight reading:shutterstock_70014118

  1. Road map:  When you are planning a trip you try to familiarize yourself with the route you will have to take.  You decide which highways to use, which stops to make, and may even investigate speed limits to find the quickest way.  Sight reading music should be the same, you should look at the direction of the piece and look for anything that is going to start, stop, slow, speed, or turn you around while you play.  This includes ritardando, fermata, tempo, repeats, D.C., coda, signs, etc.  Take note of all these, trace the road map with your finger quickly, and maybe even ask if you will be required to play all the repeats.  This step does not include changes in rhythm, changes in time signature, changes in key, dynamics, style, etc.
  2. Rhythm:  Correct rhythm is vital to music, without it everything with the same notes and keys would sound the same and we would have run out of new music a long time ago.  When sight reading you should scan the piece for essential rhythmic notation.  Check the time signature, look for any changes to it, and find any rhythms that look unfamiliar or difficult, check out any ties, and don’t forget the rests.  Clap or play difficult rhythms, if you can write on the music write the counting in (IN PENCIL!).  This step does not include notes that you may not know fingerings for or have to count ledger lines to figure out, dynamics, articulation, key signature, or anything in the road map step.
  3. Notes: Now you finally get to investigate the key signature and the notes.  Notes come third because if you are in ayToe4dnjc time crunch this is something that should come easier than road mapping and unfamiliar rhythms.  When you get to investigating the notes first check out the key and make sure you know all the flats and/or sharps.  Next, look for notes that you are unfamiliar with, count ledger lines, check fingerings, and maybe even write note names in (IN PENCIL!).  Last, but not least, check for accidentals, make note of them and where they happen, remember the accidental rule (if a note is marked at the beginning of the measure the accidental applies to the whole measure and it goes back to normal at the bar-line).  This step does not include articulation, dynamics, rhythms, or anything in the road map.  (Choir teachers can use this step to discus pronunciation, especially when singing in a foreign language.)
  4. Anything else:  If you have time you can now look at any of the other lines, dots, and words that make the music really interesting.  Check dynamics, articulations, style, and any of those other nitty-gritty things that are often at the back of the mind when sight reading.  This step is last because these are some of the less important components when sight reading, judges and juries take into account that sight reading isn’t going to be perfect and likely won’t involve a lot of the more detailed parts of music performance.

I have been using and teaching this method for 4 years, both to private student and classrooms.  It takes some time to get used to, but after a few tries students start to really understand the benefits of these steps and start to apply them without instruction.  If you struggle the first time around, don’t give up!  Try it a few more times, and really take your time.  Allow students the chance to participate by finding each of the components to each step themselves.  Correct students when they associate rhythms with the road map, remind them that you are only talking about rhythm when they ask for a fingering during step two, and teach them about new concepts during step four. Another tip is to sight read with the kids.  Choose a piece that you are unfamiliar with.  Take a short look at it before handing it to your class to determine if it is appropriate for their level, then put it away until you are ready to read it with the students.  When students see that sight reading is something that you are willing to do with them they feel less frightened of it. When sight reading is broken down into more manageable pieces it becomes less intimidating and more manageable for students.  When a task is less intimidating students find greater levels of success.  When students find success teachers find success.  When teachers and students are successful music is fun and everybody is happy. This method can be done quickly as needed or can be done in a classroom more slowly so as to really understand the music before reading it.  Student do well with this method because it helps them break the music down into more manageable pieces.

Hans und Franz

When I was teaching in a classroom I was always on the lookout for fun and interesting ways to teach my bands and really engage the students.  While team teaching a middle school band we were trying to figure out a fun and new way to teach our kids about breathing and some breathing exercises that would be really memorable and really get the kids engaged.  I thought about my college marching band experience and the breathing we would do to warm up for practice.  Our drum major called it “Hans and Frans” because we were getting “pumped up.”  With this in mind one of my partner teachers and I decided that the kids would enjoy a visit from Hans and Franz. Here’s how to recreate this lesson for yourself: If possible, find another teacher to do this with you, it really works best with two, but it is doable with just you.  Think about combining with your choir (or other musical or performing arts groups).  Wear some baggy sweats, or a muscle suit, and use your best German, “tough-guy” accent.  Choose 4-6 breathing exercises you want to teach and practice with the kids. Enter the classroom in a disruptive manner and anhans-and-franznounce “I am Hans” “Und I am Franz” (together) “Und ve are here to pump *clap* you up.”  Follow this up with an explanation about shallow and deep breathing and by demonstrating it, making sure to exaggerate moving your shoulders for shallow breathing and your stomach for deep breathing.  Then have the students stand and go through the exercises you have chosen with them.  Take time to watch the students do the breathing exercises and be sure to help them feel and understand the difference between deep breathing and shallow breathing.  Remind them to allow their stomachs to move, not their shoulders. This is when it comes in handy to have two of you teaching. One teacher can be demonstrating the exercises and doing them with the kids while the other is roaming the room and pointing out any issues students may be having. Some ways to help students recognize when they are breathing incorrectly are having them place their hands on their stomachs, laying on the floor (on their backs or face down) and feeling the movement, or partnering them up and having one student gently place their hands on the others’ shoulders as a reminder not to move them. Some of my favorite breathing exercises to use with this lesson are as follows:

  1. Rag Doll:  This exercise cafull_4200_6981_SarahClothRagDollPatternSoftToy_1n be done both standing and sitting.  It is performed by bending at the waist (if sitting the torso should touch the tops of the legs, standing one only needs to bend as far as they can without hurting themselves or feeling any kind of stretch, 90-degrees is usually a good benchmark).  Then one takes in four sips of air.  After each ship the person(s) raises the torso one quarter of the way to being upright– thus after the first breath the person is still mostly bent over, after two breaths the person is half way up, after 3 breaths most of the way up, and after 4 breaths the person is fully upright.  Upon becoming fully upright the person(s) exhale all their air and flop over like a rag doll.  This exercise tends to be somewhat more effective when sitting because it allows the person(s) to feel if they are breathing correctly as their stomach will touch their thighs as they inhale the first and second sips of air.  It also provides a sort of measuring stick for how full one should feel after breathing deeply and after exhaling well.
  2. Measured breathing:  This is another exercise that provides a sort of measuring stick for a good, deep breath.  This is done in sets of eight beats, seven beats, and six beats and must be performed standing with plenty of space between people.  The person(s) doing this exercise should use a metronome set at 60-70 bpm.  The person(s) then inhale for six beats while raising the arms to meet above the head in a smooth motion, then exhales for six beats while lowering the arms.  Repeat this same motion for seven beats and eight beats, then reverse (eight, seven, six).  The trick is to not move the arms in a jerky or clock-like motion, but to keep the movement continuous and smooth.
  3. Dynamic breathing:  This exercise can be performed sitting, but is best done while standing.  Person(s) performing unnamedthis exercise try to create a forte (loud) stream of air, a mezzo forte (medium) stream of air, and a piano (soft) stream of air with different visualizations for each.  For forte the person visualizes shooting a bow and arrow and the steady stream of air is what keeps the arrow on target.  The person puts both arms up in front of them right hand on top of left hand and, while keeping the left hand steady, pulls the right arm band as if drawing the arrow back.  When the right hand gets near the person’s face the right hand releases the “arrow” and exhales a fast, voluminous, and steady stream of air that will keep the arrow flying straight.  For mezzo forte the visualization is a dart.  This is done by placing the person’s throwing hand about ear or shoulder height, pulling it back, and quickly flinging it forward, as if throwing a dart.  The air stream should be less voluminous than the arrow, but strong and steady enough to carry the “dart.”  Lastly is the piano air and the visualization is a paper air plane.  The motion is the same as that of the dart, but with a more gentle release.  Again, the exhale needs to be steady, but gentle to carry the paper air plane on a straight course.  With each exercise the exhale can be measured by setting a count goal such as having all the air out in 8 counts, or by having a contest to see who can sustain a steady stream of air longest.
  4. Resisted breathing:  This is an excellent exercise to teach students about back-pressure and wind resistance from their instruments.  This exercise is begun by pushing out all air from the lungs, this will require use of the abdominal muscles to push the diaphragm up and all the air out.  Then students immediately inhale for a predetermined number of beats (60-70 bpm), four is a good place to start.  This inhale should fill the lungs to their full capacity.  Then the person(s) performing the exercise should take four more sips of air, in time, then hold the air for four beats.  At the end of the four beats the air is expelled in a hiss with the teeth together to produce resistance.  The exhale can be done to a set number of beats or as a contest to see who can exhale longest.

There are many more breathing exercises that can be found online or in the excellent book, “Breathing Gym,” these arejust a few that are very effective and fun for kids.  The students really enjoy a change in pace and getting up out of their seats for a few minutes out of a long day of sitting.  Hans and Franz can really take the formal feeling out of a classroom and make learning to breathe well a lot of fun.  Plus, students remember Hans and Frans well, so the lesson sticks with them longer than a boring lecture.