A few weeks ago, I served as an adjudicator for the second-round trombone auditions for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band. I do this most years, yet in 2020 this provided a particularly enjoyable bit of near-normalcy for me. While we heard some very fine playing, sight reading was a weakness for the majority of students we heard, even those who performed more strongly in the other portions of the audition. The errors tended to follow fairly predictable patterns, all of which can be alleviated by a systematic approach to both preparing for and executing the audition.
Before the Audition
- Master scales and arpeggios. Most auditions at the middle and high school levels require scale and sometimes arpeggio patterns as part of the audition, which itself is a reason to master these patterns. Not all students seem to realize that these patterns have applications far beyond the scale portion of the audition. I will explain their particular application to sight reading shortly; for now, suffice it to say that failure to learn these patterns very well will compromise your playing in many ways, not just in auditions based upon scales.
- Feel time, think rhythm. With a few exceptions, more students have difficulty with counting rhythms while sight reading than with executing pitches. A prerequisite for being able to play with good rhythm and time while sight reading is to be able to do so all the time. Some students have a good sense of the beat or pulse (i.e. “time”) but fail to understand how to correctly place rhythms in the context of that pulse. Conversely, some theoretically understand the mathematical relationships expressed in rhythmic values but cannot feel the pulse internally. Both thinking and feeling must be involved. We must intuitively—even viscerally—feel the pulse while at the same time cognitively and reasonably apprehending the rhythm. Trying to “feel rhythm” doesn’t work and trying to “think time” is worse. Practice getting both elements of this. A metronome is your friend!
- Sight read difficult things. I have heard people claim that practicing sight reading is impossible. False. Sight reading can be practiced and should be practiced regularly and systematically. You can begin by reading literally anything on hand. Method books that you have, old band music, things you find that aren’t even for your instrument—anything can give you a place to start. If you want more direction, the All-State Sight Reading series provides some good material, and the Sight Reading Factory app can provide endless reading material at different levels. I am very fond of Develop Sight Reading by Gaston Dufresne, an especially challenging book that my teacher used to prepare me for all-state auditions 25 years ago. That is one key to this—sight read things that are far more difficult than you expect to see on the audition. If you can learn to work through the “really hard stuff,” you will find that you have a much easier time in the actual audition.
In the Room: Before Playing
- Look at the key signature, time signature, and tempo. Resist the temptation to immediately begin reading through the passage. Look carefully so that as you begin to conceptualize the piece you are thinking in the correct key, meter, and speed.
- No, for real, look at the key signature. Key signature errors are exceedingly common in the sight reading portion of these auditions, and to a judge’s ear they indicate that you are not careful and thorough in reading. In an all-state audition situation, judges are looking for people who read well and are thus able to absorb a large amount of challenging music very quickly, and inattention to detail in sight reading can be an indicator that the person is not ready to perform at that level. In the professional world the stakes are higher. In situations with little or no rehearsal time, frequent reading errors—perhaps especially key signature problems—can quickly lead to a person not being hired back.
- Look for accidentals, dynamics, articulations, and difficult passages. After fully apprehending the key, meter, and tempo, still resist the urge to immediately begin reading through. Scan through the passage and look for details like accidentals, dynamics, and articulations, making note of where these occur. Then look for particularly difficult passages and try to figure those out next. You don’t want to run out of time when looking through the piece and then discover to your horror that there was something very challenging that you didn’t notice.
- Look/blow/finger through as much as possible in the remaining time. After taking these initial steps, look through the passage and “air study” or finger through as much as possible. Depending on the amount of time available, you might not even get through the entire thing, but that’s okay. The next two steps should be undertaken as part of this read-through.
- Look for known patterns, and read them in groups, not as individual notes. Remember: we learn scale and arpeggio patterns not just to create artificial challenges or provide material for auditions, but because music is really made out of these patterns. Look for known patterns in everything you play and read notes in groups whenever possible. This will make your reading faster and more accurate.
- Try to “hear it in your head.” Brass instruments are rather unique in that the vibrations are produced by a part of your body (the lips), not a reed, string, or other external device. From a mental perspective, brass playing is a lot like singing. If you accurately “hear” the piece internally, you are much more likely to be able to execute it correctly. Provided that your embouchure is “in shape” and responsive, he lips will respond to the concepts presented by the brain.
In the Room: While Playing
- Maintain steady rhythm and time. A graduate school professor of mine was fond of saying that “the wrong note in the right place is half-right, but the right note in the wrong place is completely wrong.” There is truth in this. At least a missed pitch with correct rhythm is a note occurring where a note ought to occur. A correct pitch with missed rhythm is a note occurring where a note ought not to occur. That is a problem. Additionally, players with steady rhythm and time tend to have better physical coordination also, particularly of the breath and articulation.
- Be aggressive with large intervals. Sadly, with brass instruments correct fingerings do not guarantee correct pitches. The player must conceptualize and then “buzz” the pitch. Fear or nervousness can have a negative effect on this process, and even players who normally read very accurately will compress large intervals, perhaps, for example, moving only a third when a fifth or more is needful. A reticence to “stick your neck out” with large intervals often guarantees that the feared mistake will occur. Go for it!
- “Sing” (mentally) and play. Again, internal “hearing” of the desired note or notes is a vital part of correct brass playing. Hopefully you began to develop an internal concept of how the passage should sound while air studying, etc. When playing, think of the sight reading (and the etudes, and everything else) as “songs” that you simply need to hear and sing internally as you play.
- Prioritize rhythm over pitch. Accurate pitch production requires not only internally hearing the notes and the use of the correct fingerings, but the precise coordination of all of the bodily systems that contribute to playing. If you are accurately feeling time and counting rhythms, you will find that many supposed “chop problems” go away. That’s because many (not all) chop problems are actually timing problems. This also means that stopping and going and playing with an erratic tempo in a bid to “get the pitches” can often lead to some pitches not “being gotten.”
- DO NOT STOP. If you have used your sight reading preparation time well, you should have at least a fairly good idea of how the piece should sound. So, when it is time to play, keep playing. Stop-and-go playing can cause some response problems due to poor timing, and besides, it is unmusical.
- Play “musically.” In the end, no one wants to hear a mediocre reading of any piece of music, not even “just a reading exercise.” As much as possible, think of this sight reading as another opportunity for expressive music making, and then do it. This will demonstrate both maturity and right concepts, and in the end will yield a higher score. Good luck!