Sight-reading is the necessary and oftentimes dreaded part of auditions. Why is it so important, you might be wondering, after you've spent endless hours preparing music that you know? It's not meant to throw you under the bus after you've worked so hard. It's meant to show how sharp your musical skills really are. If you have good fundamentals, you can do it well.
Here are five steps to follow in the moment to ensure you are proud of your sight-reading performance.
1. Look at key signature
It's the first thing you see on the top left of the piece, so it's a good place to start! Absorb it into your soul.
2. Look at time signature
Think this is not as important as the notes? Think again. Understanding what meter it's in is key to your rhythmic execution.
Life lesson: the number one most important thing to do correctly when sight-reading is RHYTHM.
Why? Because in the long run, notes are fixable through practice. They are important, and you still want to play them right, but playing with good rhythm means you can play with other people. That is primarily what judges want to hear from you in an audition.
3. Find the hardest part
Spending your entire prep time looking at the first two measures may set you up for success on them, but leave you flailing afterward. Skim the entire excerpt for the part with the most challenging section. See a group of sixteenth notes amidst a lot of quarter notes? Syncopation amidst straight rhythms? Dotted notes amidst straight eighth notes? Zoom in there. What you do next will be the key to nailing it.
4. Decide on your tempo for that part
At what tempo can you play that hard part a) in the right rhythm (because that's the most important thing!), and b) with as many of the right notes as possible? Got it? Good. That tempo will be your tempo for the whole excerpt. Not any faster! No matter what happens, keep that tempo for the entire thing, and play the correct rhythms within it.
Another tip: When in doubt, choose a slower tempo. Nerves make us play faster, so go S L O W to give yourself a cushion.
5. Scan for other details
If at this point in the game you still have time to keep prepping, scan the rest of the excerpt, and expand your focus to notes, dynamics, and articulations.
Prioritizing the details of a new piece in this way will give you a solid foundation for your performance. Remember, you are playing music, not doing brain surgery. You should still be able to enjoy it!
Another way to get ready for sight-reading is to, well, practice doing it. On a regular basis, find music you've never seen before and go through these steps. You'll build the confidence and skills to wow the judges.
Any other tips for sight-reading like a pro? Leave them in the comments.
Which is worse?
“I used to play the flute and then I quit in sixth grade. I’ve always regretted it.”
“I was forced to play the flute all throughout my childhood, and I hated it. I've never recovered from the psychological damage that ensued from being forced to do something I didn't enjoy and I'll never get over it until the end of time.”
Feels like being between a rock and hard place, doesn't it? Here are five ways to split the difference, getting your student to stick with music.
When the going gets tough, consider these tips:
1. Make sure it's the right instrument
Gauge whether they really do want to study that particular instrument. If not, consider changing it.
2. Pick the right music
If scales and Bach are getting monotonous, add in some Disney songs or arrangements of pop music. It's okay to spice it up.
3. Find the right teacher
No matter what your goals are with music, the right teacher will make the activity fun while still stretching them to reach new heights. It is a delicate balance, but in my opinion, meeting the student where they're at and finding where they have the most fun is key to their success and growth.
4. Make it fun
If they have a problem practicing (which most kids do), think of it as any other discipline they need to build. Memorizing multiplication, doing homework after school before dinner, brushing teeth, etc. Sometimes, a little touch of bribery can be worth it. If they practice 10 minutes a day for a whole week, perhaps they can go out for ice cream or watch an extra hour of TV. There's also the natural reward of playing really well at their concert or audition.
5. Connect it to real life
Generally, music is scientifically something that reduces stress and promotes enjoyment. It can be an escape from the daily grind activities like school, while also helping to improve academic performance.
Going to concerts is a great way to see music in context. Music can also be a good motivator for getting other opportunities, like college scholarships, new friends, and more.
In the end, if music is not their thing, accept it and move on. Allow the developing person to be who they are, and allow them to figure it out by trying out different methods. Music can always be a positive step on that journey.
Other articles on music lessons and cognitive growth:
Have questions? Send me a note.
In a flute lesson with a student recently, we were working on a section of music that involved a lot of long notes tied together. At a fast tempo, it was challenging to count and stay on track simultaneously.
So, we tried it a few different ways. First, she counted out loud while I played the passage. This way she could see where the notes changed, and on what beats.
Then, we switched roles – she played while I counted out loud. When she was still stumbling a little bit, we repeated this process, but we replaced playing with singing. Things were improving slightly, but we weren't out of the woods yet.
So, we took a pencil and wrote in slash marks where the big beats were. We zoomed in on the specific spots where the notes changed, and then wrote in the beat numbers on top of the notes.
It went much better! Just one more thing.
"Don't play that note so long," I pointed out. She nodded vigorously.
She tried it again, but made the same mistake, and we both laughed. Then, I tried putting it in a different way.
"Play that note a little shorter," I said.
Things were improving, but there was still a little uncertainty. Each time we repeated this process, we took a little step forward and a little step back. I could see her mixed emotions. Frustration and clarity. Self-doubt with understanding. Her energy was palpable. Being the good student that she is, she wanted to get it, and get it as quickly as possible.
With a couple more tweaks, she finally got it!
Then, I told her to do it two more times "for good luck". The first time was good.
"Great," I said. "You're doing it. One last time and then you'll be golden."
I knew I was putting the pressure on now. Predictably, she stumbled again on that second try.
We both laughed, and then we started talking really fast at the same time. I stopped and let her go first. She took a deep breath.
"I will just work really, really hard on this on my own, and it'll be fine," she said triumphantly.
I took a moment to think. Then, the whole situation hit me in a different way.
"You know what?" I said. "No. Working really, really hard on this is not what you need. I know you can do it. You know you can do it. You just did it. This is just a matter of relaxing, trusting yourself, and letting yourself count. That's all this is."
"Oh," she said.
"Shake it off and try it again. Just play."
Success. Then, I told her to leave it, and come back to it another time, remembering the place she left it today.
In the end, giving her permission to see through the anxiety and find herself was what made all the difference.
Do you have a story about learning? I'd love to hear it. Leave it in the comment section.
But no, I'm not talking about babies.
I'm talking about this funky rhythm:
Music. a group of three notes to be performed in the time of two ordinary notes of the same kind.
Why are there three notes under one flag? What does the little 3 on top mean?
This usually stumps everyone at first.
In basic rhythm (and life), things are usually divided into two's.
Therefore, two evenly spaced notes usually happen within the time period of one longer note.
But now, we are putting things into three's instead of two's. The triplet means that there are three evenly spaced notes under one beat.
So, think of a three-syllable word. How about MEXICO or ERENBERG or TRI-PUH-LET, as some people say.
Now start snapping your finger once on the first syllable of that word. Look at a ticking clock, or put a metronome on. Then, start saying that three syllable word in the space between each beat, with the actual beat landing on the first syllable.
Check out these videos for some real life examples and different ways of explaining it.
Triplets - Understanding Rhythm and Notation...
Triplets: Music Theory
In the meantime, can you think of any popular songs that have triplets? List them in the comment section! :-D
Writing on something that is already published is controversial. Remember back in English class when you were asked to *annotate* in the book? This is not too far off. Some teachers feel that a well-marked piece of music shows how well the student learned it. However, beware the downfalls of this popular belief.
Here is a picture of a piece I played as a child. Look how beautifully I marked it up!
The best part about this is how I mixed regular pencil with red pencil. Of all the glorious colors in my Polly Pocket pencil case, I chose red because it is urgent and alarming.
I was so full of anxiety that I thought this would surely scare me into playing this piece right!
This key signature looks like it is on fire.
Even though this is marked in regular pencil, there is no subtlety here. "LOUDER!!!"
In case you forget what it takes to make a sound on your instrument, break it down to its simplest explanation.
Here, "Just blow" is put in a drawn in box, accompanied by several breath marks.
And then, my favorite.
TE," it says across the entire top of the page in terrifying capital letters, followed by a never-ending arrow that winds in between the staff lines. Perhaps I meant this no nonsense command to take place only where the arrow ends. Or was it for the entire piece?
(Scholars will obviously investigate this for years to come.)
You might have guessed that the normal pencil markings were put in first, and they got darker, more jagged, and panicked as time went on.
Of course, I whipped out the red pencil right before the recital, in an act of desperation when my brain pleaded with...my brain...to actually do what was on the page to begin with.
You might be wondering how my performance of the above piece went. Unsurprisingly, it was as panicked and anxiety-filled as the markings on the page.
What can we notice from this, other than my interpretative spelling?
1. There is no shame in marking up your music.
Seriously, there really isn't!
2. However, don't overdo it!
If there are too many markings, you will literally start to not see them. Not only does it get confusing to look at, but additionally, studies show that looking at any one thing for too long will actually make your brain tune it out. Not helpful if you genuinely want to concentrate.
3. Therefore, PENCIL is usually your best friend in these markup situations.
The eraser, of course.
Believe it or not, 17+ years after the fact, I still cannot erase the red pencil from this piece of music. Unless you plan on blogging about this later in life (which is cool), stick with the classic pencil, especially if the piece of music is an original copy, on loan, or both.
However, when you do start marking, do what you like as long as it is beneficial. By all means, if drawing ornate colorful landscapes or funny faces is what inspires your interpretation of the music, go for it.
4. For basic markings like notes and breaths, simpler is often better. In other words, be polite to yourself. Take a breath (no pun intended) and calm down before getting carried away with smoldering exclamation points and giant letters.
After I shared this infamous red pencil story with one particularly great student, she used humor to learn scales.
In the end, whatever works for you works for me.
Jerry Xiong, an elementary school teacher in Oregon, asks:
How should I teach music in my school when I don't have a music education degree? What are some basic skills and things I should teach second graders?
This is a great question, particularly if you are in a school with little or no music program. Your ability teach music depends not only on knowledge and training, but also on resources and setting. While I am not primarily a school teacher, here are my ideas.
Why not start with basics, like reading music? This skill is best learned at a young age and never goes out of style. FACE for space notes and EGBDF (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge) for line notes works well in visualizing notes on the staff.
You can teach rhythm with a myriad of inexpensive and durable percussion instruments, or just with clapping. Singing is another great tool. Everyone can do it, and I even do it in flute lessons for learning pitch and musicality. Students can retain these skills until they are able to take up instruments.
While a degree in music certainly gives you the full tool belt, I don't think you necessarily need one to teach music in a basic, introductory way. Be confident and creative, and make it participatory.
Last thing I'll say is this:
A goal of mine to have students be able to teach themselves when they eventually leave me (just kidding, NO ONE EVER LEAVES ME!). ;-D Similarly, your goal should be to give students enough understanding and enjoyment so that they seek more music after their time with you.
Here are some additional blogs to refer to:
Teaching Music - Tanya's Kodaly Aspiring Blog
The Digital Music Educator
Anyone have anything to add? Particularly my other music teacher friends who can continue to advise on this topic, and even do a better job at it? (cough...comment...cough)
Dear students, parents of students, fellow teachers, friends, colleagues, and all other music enthusiasts,
I am excited to start blogging about teaching music. Do you have any special topics you'd like me to discuss, either about playing the flute or music in general? Comment below or contact me with your ideas.
i teach private and group lessons to all ages and levels, primarily in south central Pennsylvania, but also online.
i teach private and group lessons to all ages and levels, primarily in south central Pennsylvania, but also online.
Below is my teaching blog, where you can read about some of my most valuable experiences, stories, and thoughts on teaching music.