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Palen Music Center Quick Note

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palen Music Center is dedicated to helping children experience excellence, personal growth, and joy through involvement in music. We carry out this mission by supporting area band directors through weekly service, support, educational programs, and quality products. This weekly Quick Note newsletter strives to highlight topics that are immediately helpful in the classroom. Comments, suggestions, ideas, and articles are always welcome.


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Sight Reading at the MSHSAA Evaluative Music Festival:
What Can I Do In Six Minutes? by John Bell

The simple answer…A LOT!  After several years serving as a MSHSAA Festival Manager, adjudicator, and clinician, I’ve had numerous opportunities to observe not only ensembles in MSHSAA Large Group sight reading sessions, but also many colleagues who were in the process of preparing groups for Festival sight reading during their regular school rehearsals.  Everyone has his or her own approach, some of which are very successful.  However, I’m always surprised when I observe someone not taking advantage of what you CAN do in the sight reading room.

When I started teaching at the high school level in Missouri, sight reading was precisely that; we were given six minutes to review the music, talk to students about what we observed, ask questions, answer questions, etc.  After the six minute preparation time, it was off to the races, hoping students (and their conductor!) would actually remember all the things observed during the preparation time, and then execute the performance of the material at an acceptable level. 

My approach to this process changed dramatically the first time I judged bands in Oklahoma.  Conductors spent very little time talking; most of the preparation time was a ‘rehearsal’ of the music, with the conductor singing/counting/cueing/talking while students in the ensemble were air-playing and verbalizing their parts with a counting system with which they were familiar. 

Most were able to read the entire work during this time, AND had time to go back to problem areas and ‘work’ those spots, using the same procedure.  As I reflected on the much more restrictive process we in Missouri faced during festival sight reading, I became aware that what I witnessed in Oklahoma was a true reflection of how teachers teach and how students learn.  Hmm…a real educational reflection and applied measurement, students who were involved in the process of learning.

The next year, I was ready!  I had spent quite a bit of time reviewing the MSHSAA Music Manual sight reading guidelines.  I decided I would look for what was NOT in the manual. 

  1. We could not audibly count specific rhythms in the work, but nothing was stated about the conductor continuously counting time aloud throughout the preparation time;
  2. Nothing was stated about the conductor CONDUCTING during the prep time. 
  3. No sound could be made on instruments, but there was no indication that would prohibit students ‘air playing’ through the work. 

So…we did all of those things!  When our prep time was up, the adjudicator looked at me and said, “Can you do all of those things?!”  I assured him we could, and that I’d be happy to show him what was NOT stated in the rulebook!

Within a few years of that experience, the rules for sight reading began to approach what we see today, which I think is closer to a “here’s how teachers teach and how students learn” measurement.  When a group is successful in the sight reading room, it’s an indication that basics are continually stressed.  And…it’s obvious that this is not just an activity added to preparation for the Large Group Festival experience.

There are numerous articles referencing sight reading available.  In fact, there are previous Quick Note articles addressing sight reading by Paul Warnex, Todd Johnson, Paul Copenhaver, and Bob Holden, all containing some excellent thoughts and recommendations.  I encourage you to look through these archived articles!

Here are some things to consider about the MSHSAA Sight Reading requirement, directly from the current MSHSAA Music Manual:

“PURPOSE OF SIGHT READING: The interscholastic evaluative music program, of which sight reading is an integral part, shall serve as a supplement to the secondary curricular music program. Aside from concert performance, sight reading provides additional criteria to evaluate and opportunities for students to exhibit an understanding of the basic fundamentals of music. The importance of teaching the fundamentals of music, the skills of accuracy in reading music, and overall musicality shall be reinforced by sight reading at the evaluative music festival.”

…”During the instructional time period, students and/or director may do anything but play their instruments. It is allowable to "silent play" during this time as long as no sound of any kind is produced. Silent Play is defined as no sound of any kind being produced on the instrument. It is recommended that the instrument not be placed near the mouth where air can be blown through the instrument. Performers may ‘finger’ the notes on their instrument as long as no audible sounds or pitches are produced. Percussion should avoid placing sticks/mallets directly over the instrument. You are encouraged to use a verbalized counting system while fingering and counting the notes.”

“…do anything but play their instruments.”  That’s your cue!

John Bell servces as a road representative for our Liberty Palen Music Center location. He recently retired as Director of Bands and Music Department Lead Teacher at Park Hill South High School, and also taught at Park Hill HS and William Chrisman HS. He holds degrees from Central Missouri State University (now UCM) and the University of Illinois with postgraduate work toward the DMA in Conducting at The University of Iowa. John is a recipient of the John Philip Sousa Legion of Honor. He is active as an adjudicator and clinician throughout the Midwest, serves as Director of Bands and Orchestra at Northwest Missouri State University, and is the co-conductor of the Northwinds Symphonic Band. John can be reached by email at [email protected].

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