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  • Sight-Reading Tips by Christopher Wilson

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Aug 02, 2021

    Sight-reading is a critical aspect of music making and a skill that takes time and practice to develop. While it may not be a consistent part of every musician’s life, there are times as both a student and a professional where you may find yourself sight-reading.

    One of the keys to sight-reading well is to avoid having things take you by surprise. Before sight-reading a piece or selection of music, you should have a bullet-point checklist to go through mentally before playing a single note. This checklist should be designed to allow you to learn as much information about the music as possible.

    MALLET KEYBOARD SIGHT-READING
    Start by analyzing the range of the music. Find the lowest and highest pitches, stand in the center of the range, then move your music stand so that it is directly in front of you. This will minimize how much you have to move your feet and also set your body posture to where your head is not turned at an angle. If the music you’re sight-reading has a larger range, putting the stand in the middle will ensure you’re never too far away from the music while reading. 

    Next, observe basic information about the music: tempo, time signature, clef(s), key signature, etc. Scan the document for any changes to that initial information. Is there a change in clef or time signature; does the tempo fluctuate? Next, examine the music for accidentals. This is where a good grasp of music theory is helpful; if the selection is in minor, look for scale degrees six and seven being raised a half-step.

    Now that you are familiar with the technical aspects of pitch and time, you can look at other aspects of the music. Are there any rolls? Are there any challenging technical passages? Now is also the time to consider the dynamics, phrasing, and overall musicality. If there’s time, you could start air-playing and familiarize yourself with specific passages before performing.

    4-MALLET KEYBOARD SIGHT-READING
    While everything above remains applicable, there some added technical aspects to consider when sight-reading for four-mallet keyboard. First, how is the music written? Is it clearly defined as treble clef for right hand and bass clef for left hand? Do the hands have clearly defined roles, such as right-hand melody and left-hand accompaniment? If so, do those roles ever switch?

    When looking at the technical aspects of the piece you could examine the stroke types used (double vertical, single independent, single alternating, double lateral), especially if one hand predominantly uses one stroke type. Accidentals in four-mallet literature can be a little different than for two mallets, as the use of accidentals may cause the need to shift weight or balance while playing, so be sure to find any use of accidentals before performing.

    SNARE DRUM
    The biggest difference between sight-reading for snare drum and for mallets is the lack of pitch notation. However, in a snare drum piece there may be a key or legend at the beginning if the edition uses different noteheads or placement on the staff for things like rimshots, rim clicks, specific placement on the head, etc. If one exists, scan the document for times that those alternate sounds are used in context. Another thing to look for immediately is if the snares are on or off, and if that changes during the piece.

    Next, scan the document for rudiments utilized. Does the piece make use of multiple-bounce rolls, open-stroke rolls, or both? After that, look for flams, drags, and ruffs, and in what context they are used. If you can identify rudiments, then your training will take over and you can simply play. 

    If sight-reading on snare drum is being used in an audition, the person listening may be using the snare drum to test rhythmic accuracy and interpretation. Therefore, check the piece for challenging rhythms or changes in rhythmic division and take time to work those figures out in your head or in the air.

    TIMPANI
    The most important considerations in timpani sight-reading are the number of drums needed and the tuning. Sometimes this information is written in the part, with indications of how many drums are required, what the opening pitches are, and if there are any pitch changes throughout the selection. If that information is given, you can move on. If it is not, then you have work to do. Take any skills you have learned in how to make pitch decisions, whether from lessons or in ensembles, but with the notion that you must work quickly and make your choices confidently.

    When playing timpani, you absolutely must play in tune. First and foremost, take the necessary time to tune the drums accurately. If the timpani have gauges you can consider using them, but only if you have time to confirm they are accurate. If you have time to confirm and adjust the gauges on a piece with pitch changes, it is best to work backwards in setting the gauges so that you end with the drums set at their opening pitches.

    Take time to set up the timpani in a way where you can play without looking at them. Be able to stand or sit on a stool in such a position that you can rotate your body and not need to move your elbows in or out to achieve a good striking spot on the drums. At this point, consider the other elements discussed with mallet keyboards and snare drum. Scan the document for rolls and if you will need to do any dampening. Look for technically challenging passages that may require cross-sticking.

    PRACTICING 
    When practicing sight-reading, start by reading music at the beginning level for that instrument. It does not help your sight-reading skills to work on a piece you would have to practice extensively to learn. When practicing, open the music, go through the checklist, and immediately dive in. Afterwards, ask yourself what kinds of mistakes you made. At this point, you should not take time to practice the piece; think about how you would have prepared and read it better, then move on to more sight-reading.

    Christopher WilsonChristopher Wilson is the coordinator of percussion at Washington State University, serves in a dual role as digital director and instructor of percussion for the Lutheran Summer Music Academy & Festival, is the president of the Washington PAS Chapter, and is a member of the PAS Education Committee.  As an active soloist, he regularly presents recitals and clinics at institutions and conferences nationally, including recent engagements at the National Conference on Percussion Pedagogy, PASIC, and the College Music Society national conference. Dr. Wilson has given workshops and presented assemblies on all areas of percussion at hundreds of K–12 schools throughout the country. His current research area stems from his dissertation, which analyzed the ability of commonly used band method books to prepare beginning percussionists for modern Grade 1 repertoire. Wilson received his Doctor of Arts degree from the University of Northern Colorado studying percussion performance with a secondary area in wind conducting. He is also a graduate of the Boston Conservatory and Eastern Washington University. His principal teachers include Gray Barrier, Nancy Zeltsman, and Martin Zyskowski.

  • Five Question Friday: Layne Mauldin

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 28, 2021

    Layne MauldinLayne Mauldin is an active educator and performer based in Greenville, South Carolina. She serves as Adjunct Percussion Instructor at Clemson University, where she teaches applied lessons in all areas of percussion and works with the percussion ensemble. She is also the Director of Percussion at Legacy Early College Elementary School in Greenville, where she teaches world percussion to second through fourth grades and directs the honors percussion ensemble. She actively composes pieces that her percussion ensemble performs and frequently collaborates with the string and choir directors at her school, providing her students with well-rounded experiences as performers. Additionally, she serves on faculty at DRUM Percussion Studio in Greenville, where she teaches private lessons and directs the Pre-Collegiate Percussion ensemble. 

    Rhythm! Scene: If you weren't a percussionist and educator, what career could you see yourself having pursued?

    Layne Mauldin: My dream as a young girl was to go into the equine business as a jockey or horse trainer; I was an avid horsewoman growing up. In college, I also briefly considered going into law. There are several lawyers in my family, and I have always found that field interesting! 

    R!S: As a freelance artist, what's one of the weirdest gigs you've taken or oddest jobs you've had outside the industry?

    LM: Easily my oddest job outside the industry is being a PE coach. My position at my elementary school was adjusted due to COVID restrictions and precautions this past school year, so I have had to learn how to teach physical education to my younger students. It has been a wild ride, but I have learned a lot that can be applied back to my percussion pedagogy. One of the most unique aspects of being a freelance artist is applying knowledge from seemingly random situations and/or gigs to teaching percussion and performing.

    R!S: What's one thing about you that your colleagues or students would unanimously proclaim?

    LM: I get really loud when I am excited about something! Whether it’s the student making a realization or me coming to my own revelation mid-teaching, it’s not uncommon to hear me all the way down the hall during my students’ lessons. With my new students, I always have to give a disclaimer that I may startle them the first time that I get loud.

    R!S: What is your favorite percussion instrument and why?

    LM: I gravitated towards drum set in middle school and never really looked back. I considered pursuing my master’s degree in jazz performance so that I could continue focusing on drumming, but that wasn’t the path I eventually took.

    R!S: Where did you grow up, and what’s one interesting thing about your childhood (musically or otherwise)?

    LK: I grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, just south of Charlotte. I grew up spending all of my spare time outdoors and/or in barns riding horses; I didn’t even consider picking up drumsticks until it was time for middle school band! I also had never had a formal private lesson in percussion until my freshman year as a college student.

  • Deliberate Practice Strategies — Part 5: Feeback by Sean Millman

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 28, 2021

    The previous three installments of this series were focused on preparation steps before performance: motivational effects related to motor learning, creating mental representations of the ideal, and pre-performance routines for the last few moments before execution. This article is focused on post-performance: learning from past executions, whether they happen under the lights on stage, when the red light goes on, under the eye of a teacher, or in the practice room. 

    After performance comes analysis. This concept is universally accepted in fields from sports and business to politics and combat. In my experience however, it is used and recognized far less among performing musicians. The only consistent implementation of feedback for musicians is in the form of private lessons, which are clearly an invaluable part of music training. However, the traditional lesson model often does not optimize its variables for the student’s improvement and leaves out multiple other crucial avenues for feedback informing growth. 

    Meaningful feedback can be derived from three main sources: self, peer, and coach. Coach feedback is the private-lesson scenario discussed above; peer refers to a performer’s colleagues, student’s classmates, or player’s teammates; and self refers to the feedback gathered by the performers themselves. The ubiquity of smartphones in the modern day means nearly every musician — professional, student, and hobbyist — has a recording device available at a moment’s notice.

    Psychology tells us that humans are not capable of simultaneously performing and analyzing while doing either task optimally; analysis becomes an element of interference detracting from potential, and it is ineffective anyway because of perception limitations during execution. Thus, self-recording is an indispensable tool for performers to be able to effectively analyze their performance and separate that analysis from the act of performing. This concept is widely known in the music field from Gallwey’s Inner Game books, with his discussion of Self 1 and Self 2 being essentially a mental state of performance and analysis respectively. As Gallwey aims to quiet Self 1 in the moment so that Self 2 can function optimally, self-recording allows players to outsource their self-criticism to the future and focus only on execution in the moment. 

    Part of the benefit of the pre-performance routines examined in the previous article of this series was moving the performer into a mentally-quiet, hyper-focused performance state unhindered by analysis; this article is about the stage at which we turn off the performer and fully embrace the analyst.

    Self-recording is a bedrock action to deliberate practice, because it offers immediate data available to be rewatched, slowed down, looped, zoomed, cut, or otherwise altered for analysis at zero cost once the necessary gear is acquired. A smartphone is enough in most cases. Simply pointing a smartphone at oneself and pressing record on the video function has countless benefits to musical training; I will lay out a few of the most helpful here. 

    First is the ability to hear ourselves from outside our own head, without the burden of analyzing while executing as noted above. In addition to separating the responsibilities of listening and playing, this also allows for checking recordings for objectively measurable musical elements like pitch and time by simply using a tuner or metronome next to the audio. Common are tales of  musicians utterly convinced of their own correct timing, who are then confronted by the objective truth of their wobbly and wavering pulse upon hearing a recording. Consistently recording oneself as a normal part of the practice process not only exposes the flaws in our playing more clearly, but also acquaints us with the feeling of playing while being recorded. Performance anxiety can be greatly mitigated simply by being exposed to that feeling more often, and turning on the recorder adds a feeling of weight to a practice rep, even when we know the only audience is ourself in five minutes. Ancillary benefits include increased familiarity with recording equipment and a repository of content ready for posting in the age of digital media.

    Peer feedback is gained primarily through mock auditions and practice runs for colleagues. Neither of these are novel ideas, but they are often not used with the consistency or rigor that they are in other domains, leading to a diminished return. Recording remains crucial, as the benefits of recording for later analysis from self-feedback remain relevant, as do those related to gaining experience performing under pressure. These mocks have two primary purposes: preparation for the feelings that will be experienced in eventual performances and as an additional source of data on the effectiveness of present execution. Performing for real people can pre-mitigate nerves and performance anxiety when the real thing comes, both through minimizing felt nerves at the time and by giving a player experience in successfully overcoming them, leading to confidence in the moment that they can be overcome again. This is an example of enhanced expectancies increasing performance, as discussed in the earlier article about motivation.

    Mocks as a data source for evaluating execution offer a greater sample size of feedback than can be gained from lessons. Consider a month’s worth of preparation by a student in music school. This most likely consists of four lessons, an hour each, the vast majority of that time focused on information transfer and skill development rather than pure performance. Now, imagine the same player also sets up two mock performances each week, each of them with a panel of four student colleagues. Now the player has eight performances completed, and the feedback of 32 fellow musicians-in-training. The value for crafting effective interpretations that connect to an audience is self-apparent, especially if the players have been able to fill these mock panels with listeners who aren’t percussionists and are thus unencumbered by our predilections of focus. 

    Consider how much more effective these players’ lessons will be. With experience performing their repertoire, informed interpretation feedback, and significant time reviewing those recordings and self-recordings in the practice room, the lesson teachers are free to focus on pushing the players to another level rather than diagnosing simple issues that are obvious and apparent to anyone — ones that do not require the teacher’s expertise. The players’ questions will be far more detailed, specific, and informed, leading to answers that are more useful and impactful. And by recording these lessons as well, the players arew free from taking notes and can be fully present at the time and review the recording at a later time to squeeze the information out of it. 

    One final element of feedback that should be implemented is an archival system, to store these self-recordings, mock performances, and lessons for the players to review again in the future. As scientists have lab notebooks, athletes have game film, and soldiers have debriefings, many musicians are now using digital archives to track their progress over time. 

    This topic is too large to cover completely in this article, but I will offer a few basic concepts. First, don’t let technology at hand dissuade you from starting. Again, a smartphone is enough for the vast majority of information needed. External microphones, dedicated video recorders, even entire studio-quality recording setups are useful, but involve a significant investment with diminishing returns of improved data on improvement. While professional-level recording gear will improve the look and sound of your recordings for online publishing or school/festival/gig applications, for the purpose of feedback, use what you have. In terms of organization, the most effective system is the one you will use consistently. Mine is nested folders within my local and cloud storage; I also know many players who have used iTunes to organize things. You don’t need an entire computer or program dedicated solely for this purpose, just digital storage space and a system for cataloging feedback from yourself, your peers, and your teachers. 

    This process of systematizing feedback received is a way to minimize the mystery of artistic expression. If players have a specific interpretation idea they really like, but 95% of their mock listeners hate it, that is a valuable piece of information. That same players might be convinced their performance is in time, but then on listening back to self-recordings realize their perception during performance is not aligned with reality. Recorded lessons mitigate the potential for forgetting or mishearing an important piece of advice. And the archival system that is saving all of this data, in addition to all of these benefits during a process of improvement, offers players the ability to listen to lessons from months or years ago on coming back to a piece of music after a time off from it. 

    Feedback doesn’t make you better; watching self-recordings and hearing peers and teachers tell you what to fix is no substitute for actual practice. But it can be the silver bullet for gaining a full understanding of what needs to improve. 

    Next month’s article will address recognizing which targets are the most important for improvement and crafting plans to most effectively and efficiently hit those targets.

    Sean MillmanSean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt, and a freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at millmanpercussion.com.

    This series examines and applies elements from the author's forthcoming dissertation, "A Deliberate Practice Loop for Music Performance.”

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