Monday, December 17, 2012

Sight Reading - the oft ignored, yet requisite skill

Perhaps the greatest disparity between school ensembles and the professional music world is the amount of rehearsal time.  It is not uncommon for high school and college bands to spend an entire semester (20+ rehearsals) preparing material for a single concert.  This weekend I played a commercial big band show, "The Rat Pack Is Back" at the Shubert Theater in New Haven.  We had a one hour rehearsal prior to the show, and nailed it.  Everyone in the band was obviously a great sight-reader.

If you can't read, you can't work in this business.  If we are truly preparing and equipping our students to become competent, capable musicians, reading must be taught.  It doesn't just happen on its own.  For this reason, I spend the last half hour of each rehearsal sight reading.

Earl MacDonald and the UConn Jazz Ensemble sight-reading in rehearsal.

For some unknown reason, the UConn jazz ensemble library has hundreds of dated (horrible!) disco, jazz-rock, and swing charts.  We are working our way through them at a rate of about five charts per rehearsal.  My rule is:  even if the chart is "corny" and poorly written, it must be played with as much integrity and accuracy as possible.

Questions for my fellow jazz educators:

  1. How many rehearsals do you allot to prepare your ensemble's concert set?
  2. Is sight reading a regular part of your rehearsals?
  3. How much rehearsal time do you devote to sight-reading?
  4. What do you have them read?
  5. Do you think sight-reading should be done in rehearsals, or practiced on one's own?
  6. Would you ever consider having your band read a (simple) piece in a concert?

I will leave you with an anecdote.  A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of adjudicating an educational jazz festival with Canadian jazz education guru, Gordon Foote.  I learned a lot from watching his post-performance critiques.  After a nearly flawless student ensemble performance, he reached into his satchel and pulled out a piece of music for them to sight read.  The band crashed and burned.  Although this band placed well in a prestigious competition that same year, by not addressing their reading deficiency, I think their director did them a great disservice.  What do you think?




8 comments:

  1. Here's my Facebook thoughts codified:

    As student director of the 5:00 lab band I tried to find the balance of rehearsing charts for a big concert and reading/performing charts with little preparation.

    For our formal shows, we absolutely prepared harder music for a few weeks to make sure they were tight and sought to find as much nuance as possible. We did a few informal shows where I basically had them read a "book" of charts throughout the week and then I called charts from those selections on the band stand. On a few occasions I would compose a chart for them to sight read (this guaranteed they could never had played it) and I'd pass it out at the gig. I also made sure to at least read one piece of music every rehearsal in the last few minutes.

    In high school my jazz director made sure to make us a read a lot. When we did gigs at Retirement Homes and School Functions he'd always pass out these cheesy "Swing Classics" book and make us read out of it. In addition to that we had a jazz combo and he'd always take a few minutes to have us play through a mode or talk about ii Vs or some basic tenet of jazz theory/improvisation during big band rehearsal.

    At NT we read a lot, especially in the top band. The 1:00 would put together a lot of concerts in very few rehearsals, sometimes we would only get a read or two of the chart. I know Neil Slater used to call tunes to read at their first three hour show (which was after 2 rehearsals. Even further back Leon Breeden would have the band sight read pieces at formal concerts and even recorded the band sight reading on an album.

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  2. Dr. Craig Brenan, a first-rate jazz trombonist and respected high school band director in Edmonton, Canada left this comment on Facebook:

    Earl - for me it is all about teaching rhythm reading. Showing students how to isolate beats and divide the bar is almost as important as actual chart sight reading. Helping students track music and look ahead is something that seems to be over looked as well.

    In answer to your specific questions - I always have more charts on the go than are performed or needed. I think it is ok to have a few 'work' charts - something to practice other musical skills on.

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  3. Bassist Steve Haines, the Program Director in Jazz Studies at UNCG posted these insights on Facebook:

    Great to see your blog. Wonderful stuff, all of it. In my experience, high school jazz bands are product based, rather than process based. For example, a band might spend too much time polishing up three pieces for a good grade at a competition rather than consider the great process jazz offers: creativity, self expression, improvisation, spontaneity, history, culture, and swing. There is an underestimation of failure: allowing a student to take risks and fail often brings the highest reward down the line. I was very fortunate in high school, having performed many times each semester. We wrote and sight read music on gigs when it was appropriate. We rehearsed for competitions a couple of weeks before the event. I was fortunate.

    Sight reading is a necessary component to a successful jazz band experience and is undervalued. Learning by rote is also undervalued. Middle and high school students love learning to play tunes without sheet music at all. It can be a fun experience during rehearsal.

    Much of the problem lies in the lack of jazz training for music educators during their college degree experience. How can a teacher know the tenants of jazz culture if they are not taught? Will a teacher help a student to improvise freely if they themselves are terrified of it?

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  4. Gordon Foote, from the University of Toronto shared the following on FB:


    One thing I tell students is that they have to practice sight reading. It is a simple skill, like typing. Here is the process... find material that works for your instrument (for saxes it is the omnibook), set the metronome to a speed that will have you making about 20 or 30% mistakes. The key is to never stop. Most people stop every time they make a mistake, that defeats the purpose of sight reading. Mark the date and tempo at the top of the page. Go to the next tune. After completing the book, start back at the beginning. Students will notice the tempos they can achieve are considerably faster, with fewer mistakes. Do it 10 minutes a day.

    One thing I tell students is that they have to practice sight reading. It is a simple skill, like typing. Here is the process... find material that works for your instrument (for saxes it is the omnibook), set the metronome to a speed that will have you making about 20 or 30% mistakes. The key is to never stop. Most people stop every time they make a mistake, that defeats the purpose of sight reading. Mark the date and tempo at the top of the page. Go to the next tune. After completing the book, start back at the beginning. Students will notice the tempos they can achieve are considerably faster, with fewer mistakes. Do it 10 minutes a day.

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  6. The following response came via e-mail from Bruce Diehl, the Director of Jazz Performance at Amherst College:

    I'm writing in response to your shout out on fb sometime last month or even farther back.....and I had to go to your blog to find what I think was your question. Going to your blog then caused me to lose the past hour or so reading all the cool things you have on there...so thanks for that journey!!

    I love this sort of dialogue, and love the tone of your blog-and love the place that your questions are originating from!

    How many rehearsals do you allot to prepare your ensemble's concert set?
    Is sight reading a regular part of your rehearsals?
    How much rehearsal time do you devote to sight-reading?
    What do you have them read?
    Do you think sight-reading should be done in rehearsals, or practiced on one's own?
    Would you ever consider having your band read a (simple) piece in a concert?

    1. This answer varies.....mostly it's the lower double digits.....10-12. SOmetimes (in the Fall) we have a concert followed by another 2 weeks later, so there is not all new material....but leading up to that we practice material with eyes on both concerts. You played on one of those with Daryl.

    2. Yes.....for many of the same reasons you list.....they are a much stronger group if they have done lots of sightreading! I have put a sightreading tune on their stands at a concert (low-impact concert), and we also sightread on dance gigs (those are rare). But the mental state they put themselves in to approach a sight reading experience is the same mental state I wish they would use all the time. They are focused, they are concentrating and they also are relying on others (team effort) to get through the tune. This is a powerful place to be-and one that tends to get put aside when they have familiarity with a piece.

    3. We sightread at least one tune per rehearsal. Often we don't plan our set list until about 3 weeks (6 rehearsals) prior to a concert, so sightreading is the skill builder, but also a way of gathering info on each of these pieces that could end up on the performance.

    4. Sometimes it is the random piece, handwritten, no score, missing a part or two. Other times, it could be out of those swing books, or anything else. Our library has about 375 pieces.......

    5. Yes.

    6. Yes....I especially would do this in front of Parents on a Parents' Weekend....they are easy to play for, they appreciate us (me) pushing their children, and if the piece derails, they would understand exactly why.

    Thanks for asking these questions, Earl! Really makes me think about things, as does your blog......reflection is a great thing.
    Good luck with the semester!
    -B

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  7. I know this is an old post, but hopefully you will be able to help me. My son made the All Region Jazz B band, but the weakest area of his audition was sight reading. Where can he find material that would be appropriate for practicing sight reading for the All State audition? He obviously needs to practice sight reading, but needs to practice with the appropriate level material. He is a junior in HS. Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Dear Mrs. Shea,

      His band teacher should be able to help. If he were to borrow five charts each night and read through the parts, he'd see a noticeable improvement in a couple of months.

      When I was a kid, I read through a hymn book. Really any simple music will work. I hope this helps.

      ~ Earl MacDonald

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