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Sight-Reading Tips by Christopher Wilson

Aug 2, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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