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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Things I Did in College Which Most Prepared Me for My Career in Music: Practice Sight-Reading (1 of 5)

Andrew Hitz

The skill I developed during college from which I have profited the most is practicing sight-reading.  As with many musicians who got their “break” from being a sub, I didn’t have much time to be able to prepare for my first ever gig with Boston Brass.  Filling in for someone in an emergency is by far the most frequent reason for someone getting a call to sit in with an ensemble, large or small.  And most emergencies don’t happen well in advance! In January of 2000, my graduate school teacher, Sam Pilafian, got a call from a member of Boston Brass explaining that their tuba player had become very ill and couldn’t make their trip to Colorado to perform at the CMEA.  They called to check his availability.   Luckily for me, Sam was busy and he gave them my name along with a strong recommendation.  He later told me he mentioned to them that I was professional (more on that in another post) and that I could sightread anything.   I got the call at 10pm and was checking in at the airport to fly to Colorado at 5am the next day.

My ability to sight-read well came from years of practice at the insistence of Rex Martin during my time at Northwestern.   As many of you know, I have an amount of respect for Mr. Martin that I could not possibly put into words in a blog post and received an education from him that I feel was second to none.   And the thing I am most thankful for from his tutelage was his insistence on me improving my sight-reading skills.

He asked me if I practiced sight-reading regularly.  I told him I did.   He then asked me if I borrowed music from other students who played a variety of instruments on a regular basis.  He then simply smiled and said that I needed to work on my sight-reading every day if possible.

It was very easy to simply knock on the practice room door next to mine and ask that person if there was an etude book I could borrow for 10 minutes.  The to practicing sight-reading is to open the book, look at the page for 30 seconds, and then play it down from top to bottom.   Do not stop for any reason at all.  There is a very specific order of things to examine in a piece of music when sight-reading which I will get into in a future post.  But remember above everything else that you are making music, even when reading something for the first time.

Remember that as musicians we are storytellers.  Sadly, most musicians tell an incredibly boring story even when they are hitting all the right notes and playing all the right rhythms.   Even a talented sight-reader in college frequently sounds like they are simply doing a math problem.

By regularly sight-reading music from other students and holding myself to an incredibly high standard I began to improve at a very rapid rate.   Sight-reading started to become a strength.   There is not a faster way that I have found in my 18 years of teaching to get a kid to stare at the floor and slouch their shoulders than asking them if they are good at sight-reading.  This is an opportunity! You can make sight-reading a calling card!  This might be the fastest way to separate yourself from the pack.  If you develop a reputation while you are still in school for being able to sightread anything you will reap the benefits later in your career, either as a teacher or a performer.

Finally, if you are reading this and thinking “but I hate sight-reading,” keep one thing in mind.  Rarely do people hate performing tasks they are good at!  The more proficient you become at something, the more you will enjoy it.  Practice sight-reading regularly and you will be very happy with the results.  My job the last ten years with Boston Brass has been directly related to my ability to sight-read in many different styles in front of 1200 music educators that night in Colorado – and that all came from lots and lots of practice.

(Thank you Mr. Martin!)