Tips for Tuba Volume TTIXD
by David Porter
Two Stepping—not just a country-dance
In looking back at past articles, I realize I have not written an article exclusive to sight-reading. Perhaps the reason is that despite many years of helping students I still had not hit on a method that helped students really learn a process that they could use to self analyze new music and be able to play it quickly. Not only that, but a process that over time would allow them to get faster at reading the music to where it becomes almost instantaneous—and all of this for middle and high school students? Actually, yes, and I am excited to share some of these thoughts with you.
My old method had several steps involved in sight-reading. Starting left to right: key signature, time signature, scanning for accidentals, moving fingers through the rhythms, and finally, do not stop when playing a sight-reading piece for an audition. My new method has been consolidated into two steps—key signature notes and time signature rhythms. The rule about not stopping when playing still goes, but when my students have actually followed this latest reviewing rule, they are not tempted to stop as often. With each of the two steps comes a plethora of teaching ideas and explanations, but I am so far convinced that breaking it down into an easy method of remembering the process is helping the students. The two steps listed above may seem self explanatory, but I am writing to offer a few new things I have discovered with young students.
Key signature and notes
I use to think that students were getting the connection about how to figure out key signatures early on in their education and maybe they were several years ago. Not necessarily the case now. I find myself re-teaching high school students that what their ensemble directors have already been telling them. First, what are the names of the lines and spaces? I point out to the students that the names are repetitive and ascend in alphabetical order A–G and descend in reverse order G–A. Usually there is a light bulb here. Then we talk about the fact that the sharp or flat sign in a key signature is centered over the line or space it is labeling. Next, I bring up the 12 major scales. At this point, we have a discussion about how learning the scales and their corresponding key signatures will automatically help the student know every note in a musical piece before they even try to play it. We skip over the time signature and skim the piece for accidentals, programming our minds like a computer with each one we find. Our last part of this step is the most new that I have learned to tell young students—find the notes that are in the key signature. This step has helped enormously with students not getting caught off guard with key signature notes as they play. We cap this process for the very youngest students with also hunting for the three notes they normally play flat (B, E and A-flat) and noting whether these notes are natural or not depending on the amount of flats or sharps in the key signature.
Time signature and rhythms
We still state the value of the top and bottom numbers in the time signature. The newest thing is having the students find the downbeats. It is astounding to me how many students are not aware of the downbeats but also do not attempt to find them. Finding downbeats truly helps map their next step in deciphering the rhythms. Along with downbeats, we also cover how in much of young student’s music the notes are already barred together at the stems and patterned in the measures so it is easy to find downbeats and see them from all sides of the note. Downbeats could be described as little rest stops or checkpoints for mapping out the page and referencing where the student is on the page. For many of today’s young students, it seems like their basic idea of reading rhythms is to “guess” at length of rhythms by how the note is written. Keeping in mind that making them find the downbeats helps tremendously, here is are examples of comments I heard in the past regarding these “guesses.”
Double Whole Notes: Uh, what’s that?
Dotted Whole Notes: Um, what is that?
Whole notes: So, like, you have really long notes that aren’t possibly held as long as it takes to count them, so I better not hold them as long as I could count it because I might run out of air, and I am bored with holding already, and everybody knows how to count a whole note so I don’t need to prove that anymore, so I’m like, uh, going on.
Half Notes: Yeah, like these are so easy, and at least they are only two counts long, so I can count them pretty good. I know it is still a half note too because it has a hole in the middle even though it has a stem. It does have a stem, right? Oh, yeah, there it is.
Dotted Half Notes: This is cool, because I know that a dot means you hold it longer than two counts, although I’m not sure how much longer. Who invented dots anyway?
Quarter Notes: I know these get one count, and if I can just make them match my foot, I’ll get it right. I wish the black dot didn’t look like eighth notes, because sometimes I accidentally play them all the same.
Dotted Quarter Notes: This is way confusing. How am I supposed to match my foot to quarter notes when there is a dot on it? Oh, well, I know it is longer, but what’s the difference between these and dotted eighth notes? I see a dot on any note and I’m tapping my foot on the dot before I play any further.
Rests of any kind: Skip those things. Everybody knows how rests go, so why should I count them out. Besides, I panic when I hear too much silence.
Eighth notes: Oh, man, these are faster than quarter notes, but I can’t tap my foot that fast, so I guess I’ll have to just play them faster and hope I am right. I didn’t realize it, but my foot stops when I am playing eighth notes. I wonder if that caused me to stop counting?
Dotted Eighth Notes: Fortunately, the only time I see these is with a sixteenth attached. All I have to do is play them just like swung triplets.
Sixteenth notes: Forget it! I’m not playing these notes as fast as they are supposed to go no matter what. Besides, I can’t move my fingers or tongue that fast, and I can’t think the right fingerings that fast, much less the right notes from the key signature! If I could only practice this sight-reading piece a couple of times, I could sight-read it perfectly for the judges.
Dotted Sixteenth Notes: Alright, now you’re just being mean!
So, again, we focus heavily on the downbeats, looking for the “upfeets (reading previous Tips column from last Winter’s issue, Volume 36 Number 2),” and then I ask them to spend a moment moving their fingers through the rhythms as they look at them.
Along with this is the coaching that they must read the music at a tempo that allows them to “think” while they are reading it. That means slow enough to “think” breathing, embouchure, range, note names, key signature, and fingerings. At the same time, I advise them to take it fast enough that we can tell what the pulse is just from listening to them play. After they have been taught this process, I advise them to practice the “art” of sight-reading on their study books, even if they have already played an exercise. Practicing the process of sight-reading will go a long way towards being able to read any music in the future. After they have gotten better at knowing the two big steps, they get practice of looking at a new piece on their own for about 40 seconds (10 seconds on key signature notes and 30 seconds on time signature rhythms). Then I continue, “Alright, let’s give it a whirl. And, by the way, don’t forget to breathe!”