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Learning to Sight Read Music

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The subject of sight reading is a popular one among euphonium players. Many euphoniumists would like to win a position in a military band someday, and such a feat would require excellent sight-reading skills. But how, you may ask, are such skills developed?

We all know (or should know) how to practice exercises, etudes, ensemble parts, and solos. There is a fixed "universe" to master, at least at some level. There are X number of notes, dynamics, time signatures, etc. in the piece you are practicing. There is in infinite variety of musical interpretation opportunity, but at least getting the framework of notes any rhythms is a relatively well-defined task.

Sight reading, on the other hand, has no such boundaries. The very nature of a sight-reading phase of an audition is to make sure you are forced to play music you have not seen before. You should limit the range of possible "new" music by practicing from excerpt books and going through your band's library for interesting parts. There is less chance that you will be actually reading (for the first time) the published pieces put in front of you at an audition. But even if you know every piece ever published, you might have to read an unpublished, special arrangement.

There are two parts of the preparation. The first is intuitive. Just sight read every piece of music you can get hold of. When you run out of euphonium parts, read the cornet or bassoon parts. The second part is simple building-block preparation. Musical lines are made up largely of scales, scale fragments, and arpeggios. Practice scales in any variation you can find, so that you are covering parts of the scale assembled in different ways. Do the same with arpeggios. Learn as many common patterns as possible by memory. This will help you get your foundation in shape.

Think about how you are reading these words. You are certainly not going letter by letter. You are probably not reading syllable by syllable. You are probably not going word by word. More likely you recognize phrases and assemble them on the fly. The same is true when reading music. But unless you know your syllables and words (scale fragments and arpeggios) you can't easily recognize phrases.

You also need to include various rhythmic exercises. You want to be as comfortable with various patterns. Try practicing scales in different rhythms. Eighth notes, dotted-eighths and 16ths, 16ths and dotted eights, etc. Incorporate syncopated patterns in scales and arpeggio practice. Be creative!

Remember as you do this that you are not practicing the pieces; you are practicing sight reading. If you have trouble in some passages, go back and take a quick look at them. Spend a minute to see if you can become proficient enough to get through the passage. After that, move on to the next piece. If you find passages (or whole pieces) that are especially challenging for you, set them aside until your sight reading practice is done. Then go through the ones you set aside and really practice them. The reason I suggest saving the "piece practice" until you are done with your sight-reading practice is that you need to build the skills that let you get through pieces fairly well on your first try. You don't want to get bogged down in woodshedding too much along the way because it takes away from your pacing. If you are trying to work up to run a marathon, running 26 one-mile segments is not the same conditioning for your body as running one 26-mile course. It is somewhat similar when you are building your sight-reading skills.

Woodbrass/Brasswind just offered a very fine article discussing this topic. I urge you to follow the link below and read more:

The Importance of Sight-Reading

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  1. ackmondual's Avatar
    Thanks for the article! Yeah, I've been subdividing beats to better understand how more complex rhythms work. It really helps to understand some of nuances and exactly what it should sound like. Problem is, this VERY slow, and by the time I "get it", we're well past those measures. This works better in concert and community band settings where we have many, many rehearsals (along with individual practice time), but doing groups like big band express where music is read on the fly, it's left me in the dust.

    Nothing else but to get more sight reading practice in! I've actually written a couple of pieces into MuseScore (it's free to download, and mostly intuitive to use, save for a few things you'll want to look up how to do) and played them there (if not going to YouTube for more popular parts), which gives you a definitive answer of how things are supposed to sound. However, I'll recommend that you first do your due diligence in sight reading on your own first. Else, you're just relying on tools rather than developing your own skills there.

    Also, your link yields a "You have arrived here because the page that you are looking for no longer exists." page, although we're still on the Woodbrass/Brasswind site. There seems to be a section for sight reading, but no mention of any article
    Updated 04-04-2022 at 04:32 PM by ackmondual