Composing Sight Reading: Priorities

I’m in the midst of writing sight reading exercises for MSVMA 2016 Festivals; here are my top-5 criteria in composing the exercises.
5. Appropriate intervallic material. MSVMA designates three levels of sight reading at the high school level, each with specific permitted intervals.
4. Appropriate rhythmic material. Same as 5.
3. Progressive challenges on the page. The three excerpts should build on one another, with more challenges coming later as the students integrate the musical perspective of the exercise.
2. Knowledge of what is tricky at various levels. I want to write materials that challenge the students without resorting to strategically placed mines. (For example, establishing tonality and fundamental rhythm in measure 1 of an exercise makes the entire excerpt more successful; writing m.1 so that students build confidence means that later measures can be more challenging.)
And most important,
1. Musicality. Sight reading excerpts are very easy to write as intellectual hurdles – the musical equivalent of an SAT math test. The end result of that approach is an exercise that isn’t musically satisfying or intuitive. If, instead, you write with musicality as your priority, you can actually write more challenging music and offer a truer test of the students’ musicality – it sings like music and offers a consistent musical perspective.
It’s one of the most challenging commissions I get each year to meet the goals I’ve set for myself; I liken it to a three-dimensional crossword puzzle. Every measure interacts with the rest in intricate ways to create the whole.


The end result is worth it, though – if students walk away from their festival feeling as if sight reading was a rewarding and musical part of their experience, then they are more likely to continue doing it!