Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend my daughter’s band festival and sit in on her sight-reading exercise. The band went into the sight reading room right after their performance. (The performance rocked, by the way. They ended up getting a First Division rating. Yay! Brandon Schools.)
If you aren’t familiar with Public School District Music Programs, Festival is a mandatory event that happens on a Saturday. The band arrives at the host school at 6:30 a.m. and they receive a schedule of performances. My daughter’s band took the stage at 9:30 a.m. and did three songs. Beforehand, they spend about an hour practicing in a specially-designated rehearsal room, for which they had a scheduled time slot. The rest of the time was spent milling about in a state of nervous agitation. Sometimes the band director can get them doing scales, but they mostly have just the one chance to practice. It's okay. They've been preparing for months.
There are usually two bands from each school, so students are required to sit in the audience during the other band’s performance, and, time permitting, they have the chance to watch at least one "competitor" band. I included quotes because they’re not really competing with the bands from other schools but with themselves. (All the bands can get a 1 rating.)
The students behave well as audience members. They kind of have to. The judges (who are seated at American Idol-like tables taking notes) would surely notice if they heckled other bands, and might mark them down for it. Learning to be a good audience is almost as important as the hours they spent honing their playing skills.
Okay, so that's Festival in a nutshell. Kind of an ordeal. Now back to sight-reading.
The band students and director have an allotted amount of time (five minutes or so?) while they prepare to play an unfamiliar piece of music. They start by talking to each other, pointing out key signature and any changes to it, noticing articulation, rhythm, and any accidentals or repeats in the music. The instructor asks them questions to call their attention to certain things they may not have noticed, like unexpected pauses and notations of allegro or staccato. The students aren’t allowed to play their instruments yet, so they make hissing sounds as they finger the notes. The band plays through this way once and then their time is up. They must perform the piece cold.
In my opinion, our band rocked their sight-reading exercise, although I was probably a little biased, since I was so proud of them for even attempting this challenge. The judge gave kudos to the trumpet section, with good cause, because the music relied heavily upon them. I’d argue percussion should’ve been congratulated, as well. It's very hard to play a song for judges when you haven't practiced it...and this skill relies heavily on knowledge and confidence.
But what does this have to do with writing? you ask. This: Chances are, they won’t play it perfectly the first time. C'mon! A Middle School Band? How could they? That would be a miracle. In fact, I bet it’s never been done, no matter how good a musician is or how adept at sight-reading. This exercise gives a musician permission to not be perfect. And that’s what your first draft should be. You have a vision, you have notes, you have all the answers laid out, but even as you pound a really good start onto that page you know that what you write can be—and will eventually have to be—improved. It’s not about lower standards, but letting yourself off the hook. That’s when the magic happens, as it did at my daughter’s Festival.