Sightreading Room Hints for Young Teachers

The following sightreading room hints are based on the UIL sightreading rules in Texas.  Your state may have slightly different guidelines.  Many of these hints will apply to any contest/festival situation.  Terms such as general explanation, summary explanation as well as specific rules may need to be adjusted based on your situation.
The idea of taking a band to sightreading contest can be intimidating to anyone, especially younger teachers who lack the experience of having done so. Here are a few hints that will, hopefully, make the process easier and alleviate some of the anxiety that can come with this portion of contest.

Before You Go

Talk with students about how to enter the room, whether or not they will be sharing stands, and how to handle if the set up is incorrect and/or if there are not enough stands or chairs.

Specify and practice how you want students to sit and how to hold instruments when fingering or positioning through the piece during the explanation period. Also, talk to percussionists about how to handle learning their parts (Sticks or not sticks? Touch the mallet instrument bars with fingers? To hold or not hold cymbals and/or other accessory instruments?).

Establish with your students what the “critical notes” are for each of the potential key signatures that you might see in the sightreading music. For example, Key of F: Concert E and A, Key of Bb: Concert A, Key of Eb: Concert Ab, etc.

Address how and when to ask questions and what types of questions are OK.

Whenever you practice sightreading, insist that students look up and respond to the baton, just like on stage. The more you can help students step out of their comfort zones and look up, the more likely that this will occur at the actual contest.

Work out any special conducting signals. For example, holding up four fingers might serve to remind students about phrasing, pointing to a section could be a reminder to the band of which section to balance to, touching your earlobe might be a way to remind students to listen for balance, blend, and/or intonation.

It doesn’t hurt to take a few sightreading scores home and practice the explanation period. Record yourself, and then go back through the recording while following the score.

General Explanation

Don’t forget to stand on the podium and have students adjust chair angles and stands prior to the start of the explanation.

Once students turn their music over and time begins, it is prudent to jump right in to the piece. The goal is to give band members as much time as possible becoming familiar with and fingering through their parts. It is more effective to deal with potential pitfalls as you cross to them than it is to run down a “laundry list” of traps prior to talking through the piece.

As you are taking students through the piece, count in quarter notes, replacing beat 1 with the measure number (as most of us train our students to do when counting multi-measure rests). In other words, instead of saying “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4…,” etc., say “1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4…17-2-3-4,” etc. 

It can also be helpful to tap your foot on the podium to create an audible pulse. That way, when you stop counting to point something out in the music, students still have a strong feeling of where the beat occurs.

Point our critical notes, accidentals, who has melody, etc., as you cross them. Stop to explain or go over parts of the music as you see fit.

As much as possible, try to tie style and other musical components back to the music you performed on stage. (“This section is similar the march.”, “This portion is lyrical like the second movement of Greek Folk Song Suite.”, “This piece is in ¾ time just like Butterfly’s Ball.”) Not only is this is quick way to get information across, it also builds student confidence because it relates the sightreading music to something that they have already done.

Phrasing is another area to address. Many young players tend to chop sightreading music into two- (or even one-) bar phrases even though most of our sightreading music is written in four-bar phrases.

Balance and roles (melody vs. accompaniment) are also areas that should be dealt with during the general explanation. It’s especially helpful to point out when someone else takes on the melody and/or spots that are thin or exposed.

Students may not talk during any part of the explanation, but it is perfectly fine for them to point out to each other potential pitfalls such as key signature notes, accidentals, tricky rhythms, rests and long notes, etc. Have them do this when you practice to make sure that every student is handling this in the correct manner and taking it seriously.

While it’s perfectly fine to stay on the podium for the entire explanation period, don’t feel that you have to. If you need to see what a particular section is doing or just want to get closer to hammer a point home more effectively, that’s OK.

Summary Explanation

If not through the entire piece yet, pick up where you leave off at the end of the General Explanation.

If you have already made it through the piece, you might move to a transition spot or an area of the piece that concerns you (tricky rhythms, features a weaker section in the band, etc.).

Even if you are not a great sight-singer, it’s OK to sing. It will help the kids hear phrasing and the direction of the musical line. While singing, you can continue to use whatever counting system you have taught.

Continue to mention phrasing, style, and key signature when possible.

If possible, try to cover the beginning of the piece at least once more as the last thing you talk about. This can help ensure a confident start.

If the piece ends in a different key than it started in, be sure to remind students about starting the piece in the original key, especially if you don’t get back to the beginning at the conclusion of the explanation period.

End of Explanation

Once students have turned their music back over, have them empty water from brass instruments and re-wet their reeds.

You are allowed to play long tones or a chorale. The advice here is to play a Concert F or Concert Bb long tone. A chorale could be written in a different key from that of the performance piece, and that could create problems. I play a Concert F with my band, and I tell them to play it fairly strong and then look at me so that I can adjust the end of the note up or down to the volume at which I want them to start the piece.

Remember, you cannot count the ensemble off at the beginning of the performance, but you CAN remind them with a show of fingers how many prep beats you will give and/or give the tempo with your baton prior to starting the performance. Work out how you will start the sightreading performance ahead of time, and incorporate it into your practice.

Jim Shaw is the Director of Bands at Willow Wood Junior High School in Tomball, Texas. A graduate of West Texas A&M University and contributing editor to The Instrumentalist, he can be reached at

Related Reading:
How to Have a Silent Band Rehearsal
The Pre-Contest Syndrome
Learning to Play the Flute in Tune

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