Music Literacy/Sight Reading for Band

In 1997 I attended a presentation by Dr. Gordon Mathie at the NYSSMA Conference. The topic of the session was about developing your band’s reading skills, or at least I took it as such, as what he presented inspired me to pursue a path of developing sequential study in literacy in the bands that I have conducted since then.

Dr. Mathie related his experience teaching public school band. He noticed that his band’s reading skills were not very good when he first started teaching, so he told the band that they would practice reading music every day to gain skill. The band began with some very easy music, gradually increased the difficulty of the music until about 2 or 3 weeks before the scheduled concert. At that point, they would choose some pieces from those they had read and polish them so that they were ready for the performance. Mathie repeated this process throughout the year, gradually increasing the difficulty of the pieces being read while developing instrumental technique through small group lessons using whatever lesson books were available at the time.

Dr. Mathie’s belief was that the students would improve at reading if they had the chance to read a lot of music at their level of ability. He devised a plan for making this happen and put this plan into motion. As the students became better readers, it took less and less time for them to prepare music on their own and in the group setting and made learning music and preparing it for concert an easier task, and therefore much more fun!

This process that Dr. Mathie implemented really makes a lot of sense; I felt a need to develop a program that stressed music literacy and to give the students an opportunity to read new music at every band rehearsal. I was a very weak reader as a young student because I rarely got the chance to read a lot of new music. The only way to get better at reading is to do it often, and unless students have a lot of music at home (which most do not), they progress very slowly in this area due to lack of exposure.

So, the week I got back from attending Dr. Mathie’s lecture, I developed “The Sight-Reading Folders” for my band. I stocked them with some easy arrangements that I thought my band could handle, and added a few slightly harder ones to work up to. I explained to my band at the next rehearsal that
the sight reading folders never leave the band room; students were not supposed to practice anything out of them other than a few passages here and there that we would only work on in rehearsal. They were simply for reading practice. Students were not to remove anything from the folders or take home and practice anything. We were going to read music from the folders, work on reading skills, and then put them back in the folder without really working on anything other than to gain experience/log time reading music.

Fast forward 16 years... I am still approaching reading the same way, as I have found this approach to be an immense help for students gaining reading skills. I have honed my technique for teaching this way over the years and developed specific song choices and order of concepts to address over the years. Concepts generally mirror the concepts developed in the Essential Studies Books that I have designed. Interestingly, the students generally accept this approach without much grumbling -- after they understand the importance of working on reading skills, most of them actually look forward to reading new music and discovering how new songs sound.

Here are a few pics of my system; perhaps this will spark some interest in developing a reading intensive program of your own.

The “Sight-Reading Folder” Cabinet

Contents of a 2nd-Year Sight-Reading Folder

The first book on the right hand side of the folder is a book that I have been working on for about 10 years, Reading Exercises for Beginning and Intermediate Band. This book contains unison one-liners for the whole band to read together. Read more about this book here.
Other folio-style books for reading practice include: Yamaha Performance Folio, Essential Elements Concert Favorites, Jumpstart 1st Concert. This folder is a 2nd-year band folder, used by the 6th grade band (we start students in 5th grade).

Contents of a 2nd-Year Sight-Reading Folder

The left-hand side of the folder contains a selection of tunes from our music library. The right-hand side contains Sight Reading for Band, Volume One (yes there is a Volume Two also!), Essential Elements Performance Favorites, Beginning Band Book No. 2 by Queenwood Publishers. These are all available through JWPepper; I try to have the school purchase a new folio set for the band every other year so we have tons of stuff to read in our folders. Some other folios not currently in the folder are Essential Elements Movie/Film/Broadway Favorites, Beginning (and Developing, blue cover) Band Book No. 1-5. These are shared folders; 2 students to a folder to save on the number of copies the school has to purchase. The only instruments that are 1 folder per student are for low brass (trombones, baritones and tubas) because with the size of the instruments it is difficult for them to share and see the music.

Hope this page has been useful to you!

Best regards.