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Clinic Articles




A Suggested Process to Improve Sightreading Jim Ahrend May 14, 2015

I have noticed the tremendous weakness in students’ ability to sight-read and have tried to find ways to overcome it. The bulk of the problem falls upon band directors who do not make it a daily action but rather select a few pieces that get worked on over and over again until “perfected” for performance in a concert or a contest. I am aware that there is limited time in a band period and of course any good director wants his band to sound good when they perform. But, we must take a longer range look at the conditions that are created in the students who once out of school, will find difficulty participating in ANY type of ensemble, whether for employment or just for personal enjoyment. I also believe that it truly the responsibility of each student to work on his or her skills away from the band room and more so in their practice room. But, if the band director does not find ways to encourage the self-motivation in the student, it is unlikely that the student will make the effort to do anything other than to try to avoid making mistakes on the music that has been selected for performance.


I have realized MANY years ago that there is a valuable 3 part formula in the learning process. It is PASSION, INSPIRATION, MOTIVATION……in that order. The PRIMARY job of any director is to express, to show passion for his or her relationship with music. This LOVE aspect will very likely INSPIRE the student to want to also LOVE to play …..and to PLAY BETTER. The inspiration generates the energy of self-motivation and lo and behold, the student WANTS to improve and will not require being told to practice but rather will merely just want to do it on their own determinism.


So, one of the MOST vital actions for any music student is knowing HOW TO IMPROVE, HOW TO PRACTICE. I have spoken and written many times on this subject over the years and those speeches and articles are available. In THIS article, I want to present a logical and very effective way to improve ones’ sight-reading abilities. Of course there are a number of other ideas and options to learn this and if THIS process does not work well for you, please find one that DOES!


Sight-reading is basically nothing more than RECOGNITION. That is a two-part word: RE as a prefix means “AGAIN” . COGNITION means to know. Music is nothing more than a collection of various symbols. It is comprised of notes, rests, attack marks, dynamic marks, endings, coda signs, etc. If you see a symbol on the page that you cannot “define”, that you do not recognize, you will have a “blank” reaction in your conscious mind. So, you must have a reference book of music symbols so you can define them much like looking up a word definition in a dictionary. John Schaum Note Spellers series are a decent place to start but there are others available as well.


One way or another, you need to get ahold of some books of sheet music IN YOUR CLEF. I used to purchase stacks of “clearance music” from sheet music stores. They were merely trying to get rid of things that were not sold so prices were reduced greatly. If you cannot do something such as this, suggest you borrow some sheet music, books, etc., from a musician friend who has things that are in your clef. You will not need them for very long so you can return them quickly. So, here’s the process.


Open a page of sheet music. Suggest you NOT start with something that is rhythmically extremely complex and / or with a lot of sixteenth notes that might be incredibly difficult for you. Be sensitive to your realistic reading level. It is VERY important to approach the learning process on a GRADUAL approach which can later expand as you improve.


  1. Look at the TEMPO marking to determine approximately how fast you will be trying to read this sheet.

  2. Look at the KEY signature.

  3. Look for repeats, endings, key changes, tempo changes, codas, del segnos, etc, the road map.

  4. Select a small SECTION of the page, i.e., perhaps only the first line or two, maybe 8 measures maximum. It depends upon your current ability.

  5. Sight-sing THE RHYTHMS of the selected section. Pitches are NOT important for this drill.

  6. Play what you just sang. If necessary, slow the tempo down to a comfortable speed. DO NOT STOP when you miss a note.

  7. Slowly visually scan the section just played and have a close look at what gave you trouble, what you missed. Analyze the correction(s). Do not spend more than 2-3 minutes on this. Sing the corrections without playing.

  8. Play the section again and see how much improvement you have made by doing the correction. If you feel a high degree of improvement ( NOT PERFECTION ), leave it and find another section and repeat the process on something different. If you didn’t make a noticeable improvement, repeat steps 6-8 to make further corrections. After this optional step, leave the sheet and move on.

The purpose is to develop the ability to IMPROVE, not to achieve perfection for performance. This is a READING process. If you are a beginning or poor reader, it would be wise to have someone who IS a good reader be with you early on to make sure you are doing things properly including the “mistakes” and helping you make corrections. I hope this helps you improve your reading literacy. When you can read well, it opens a great many doors of opportunity to play with more groups and at a higher level. This essentially means ENJOYMENT! The better you play, the more enjoyable your life will be.


Bobby Shew

May 2015



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