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Monday, March 13, 2006


The PMC Quick Note is a weekly service provided to all area directors.  It is part of our mission to support the lives of band directors across the Midwest.  The weekly Quick Note will contain helpful tips and suggestions from area directors, spotlights on area college and university band programs, calendars of upcoming events, advocacy articles promoting music education, links to helpful web resources, and much more.  Comments, suggestions, ideas, and articles are always welcome.

Large Ensemble Sight Reading Tips by Bob Holden

Since I have been on both sides of the event as a teacher and as an adjudicator, I have learned much about the procedures of  preparing bands and orchestras for the stressful challenge of sight-reading at contest. I thoroughly believe that this portion of the event is just as important as the prepared performance. This really indicates, in my opinion, if a director is doing a good job teaching the basic fundamentals of instrumental music performance. It takes a period of time to develop good habits in sight-reading but I believe that one of the worst things that a teacher can do is to start preparing two songs for Spring Contest in the Fall.  A director needs to be sight-reading music - even simple phrases - as part of the class at least once or twice a week from the beginning of the year. This will also make the class more interesting to the students and allow them to play a wide variety of music.
Having attended Missouri High School Large Group Contest for 31 years, I managed to develop a system that assisted me in preparing for and performing in the sight-reading portion of the event. The following are suggestions that I used the majority of time during my tenure as an instrumental music teacher. Please remember that these ideas have been successful for me over the years but may not necessarily work for you.
Preparing For The Sightreading Portion Of The Contest

1.  Sight read from the very beginning of the year.  When the band or orchestra is handed a new selection, play the entire piece or a portion of the piece thru before starting to work on notes and rhythms.  I would recommend some instruction from you concerning what you might anticipate being  the most challenging passages.  This concept should also include marching band, pep band and jazz ensemble music.  Challenge the students to continue playing - even when there are problems and if they completely “fall apart”, stop and talk to them about the problems that they confronted and try it again.    I do not believe that a director should play a recording of the selection before attempting to play it.  Later, down the line, it can be very beneficial to hear a professional performance of a selection that you are going to perform - but allow them to, at least partially, prepare it first.  It also is not helpful, in my opinion, to play along with the students on a regular basis because they will continue to rely on your playing and will receive a huge “shock” when you are not playing your instrument with them at a performance or a contest.

2.  When actually preparing for the contest, I would suggest rehearsing the process of the six minute instruction period at least once or twice before contest when sight-reading new music.  When doing this, pick something that is either a suite of various styles and tempos or an overture that changes styles and tempos.  Approach it as if it is a dress rehearsal for the event.

3.  Select in advance your strongest four percussion players to handle timpani, snare drum, bass drum and cymbals - in that order.  There is almost always a short percussion section solo featuring these players.  Also pick your strongest mallet player to be ready in case there is a part for that instrument.

4.  Sometimes when I had an inexperienced or young band I would place my strongest readers throughout the sections so that everyone was close to an experienced player during the sight-reading event.   For example, the clarinet, trumpet & trombone sections generally have three separate parts. Don’t place all of the strongest sight-readers on the first part.

Entry Into The Sight-reading Room  

Whether it is in the rule book or not, your band is really being judged from the moment they enter the room.  They need to enter in single file in a quiet manner.  There really should not be any conversation  other than that which is necessary for positioning themselves in the proper location.  There is usually not enough time between the prepared performance and sight-reading to position the chairs and stands as you would on stage.  Talking should be held to a minimum and if additional chairs and stands need to be obtained, the students need to do that as quickly and quietly as possible. 

Procedures  Leading Up To The Performance

1.  Once the band is seated, the music in folders is placed on stands generally by student helpers and they should not be opened until the adjudicator tells them to do so.

2.  At this point, I would suggest having the group play a scale and tuning note since it had been a while since the last note of their prepared performance. They also definitely need to hear the acoustics of the room before they start.

3.  The judge or an appointed person will state the rules concerning sight-reading which really should have already been discussed prior to your arrival at contest (The rules are stated in the MSHSAA Manual under Section 7: Event Regulations).

4.   At this point the director may ask for a time warning or two from the judge during the six minute instruction time.  My suggestion would be with 3 minutes remaining and 1 minute remaining.  This way you can organize your presentation a little better and not run out of valuable time.

Director Instructions 

When the music is opened and the six minutes have started, I would suggest that the director immediately start talking about the following information:

1.  The overall form of the selection in this order:
      A.  Tempos and styles of the movements (if a suite) -  or changes in tempo and style (If an overture)
      B.  Repeats 
      C.  D.C. al Codas or  D.S. al Codas  - if they occur

2.  The general topics
      A.  Key signatures and any changes that might occur
      B.  Time Signatures and any changes  that might occur
      C.  Ritards,  Accelerandos and any other tempo changes

3.  Specific topics that you cannot clap or sing  but can discuss with the students.
      A.  Difficult or “tricky” rhythms
      B.  Dynamics
      C.  Anything that you see that may be a problem during the performance

4.  If you are finished by the time the one minute warning is given, allow the students to mention anything that they see and feel could be a possible problem.  More than likely you will not see everything in a six minute period of time. 

Actual Performance 

1.  Do not stop playing during the performance unless everything completely “falls apart“.

2.  If necessary, you can provide “large” downbeats in your conducting at letters and numbers marked in the score - but only if a “togetherness” problem occurs.   Let your students know this procedure prior to arrival at contest - not in front of the judge.  

3.  Conduct as musically as you can to help the band or orchestra play the music and not just notes.  In my opinion when I am adjudicating, playing just the notes and rhythms and not dynamics and style will rarely earn a #1 rating. 


When leaving the performance, have the students wait quietly for your instructions and exit quietly because the judge is still writing comments and can easily be distracted.   No performance is ever going to be perfect - especially when sight-reading - so don’t get upset with a group when they make mistakes.  Be positive about their performance because, you as the instructor, certainly know how stressful this part of the activity can be. 

Bob Holden has taught high school band for 31 years - including 19 years as band and symphony orchestra conductor at Parkview High School in Springfield.  After retiring from teacher he served as the Supervisor of Music in the Springfield Public Schools for 5 years.  After his second retirement, Mr. Holden served as an interim concert band and orchestra instructor at Drury University while playing trombone in a Branson show.    He also conducted the Springfield Youth Symphony for 8 years and the Drury Civic Symphony last year.  He is currently retired for the third time and is involved as a clinician and adjudicator at events in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma and directs three professional jazz bands while writing arrangements for the groups.

Kenton Concert

The Jazz Educators' Big Band, under the direction of Bob Holden, will be presenting a FREE concert featuring the music of former “Jazz Legend”  STAN KENTON on Sunday, April 9 at 2:30 PM.  The concert will be at Clara Thompson Auditorium, 900 North Benton Ave. on the Drury University Campus.  The significance of the location is reminiscent of  the Stan Kenton Clinics that were held at Drury University during the 70s.  Bob has put together a program with historical facts about Stan and his band spanning four decades. Stan Kenton

Included in the program are:
Eager Beaver - Stan Kenton (1943)
Stompin' At The Savoy - Bill Holman (1955)
Intermission Riff - Ray Wetzel (1956)
La Suerte de los Tontos from Cuban Fire Suite   - Johnny Richards (1956)
Jump For Joe - Gene Roland (1958)
My  Old Flame - Mary Paich (1958)
Somewhere from West Side Story (1962)
Malaguena - Bill Holman (1964)
Here's That Rainy Day - Dee Barton (1970)
MacArthur Park - Dee Barton (1970)
A Little Minor Booze - Willie Maiden (1970)
Malaga - Bill Holman (1971)
Send In The Clowns - Dave Barduhn (1975)
Granada Smoothie - Mark Taylor (1976)

The members of the twenty-one piece band include Mike Seidner, Bryant Robinson, Becky Wells, Jim Shannon, Tina Claussen, Jeff Nall, John Horrell, Mark Brueggemann, Cathy Coonis, Andy Wang, Carl Yendes, Bob Holden, Bob Swanson, Denny Pilant, Chuck Mahaffey, Bill Gulley, Jerry Schultz, Shane Knoops, Kate Tickner, Paul Davis, Mary Pilant, Michael Cassidy, Ned Wilkinson, Jake Schubert, Jeff Goug

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