The importance of incorporating sight-singing into the rehearsal is frequently discussed throughout the choral world, but rarely do we address the elephant in the room: some students are just not naturally equipped to learn how to sight-sing.
Sight-singing, even more so than singing, is merely a skill that can be developed; but prior to being able to develop these skills, certain fundamentals, or prerequisites must already be in place.
These basic aural and technical skills MUST be developed in any student who wishes to be able to sight-sing and sight-read. Separate from singing talent or beauty of tone, each student is naturally gifted with certain fundamental skills, but may be severely deficient in others.
All students can learn how to sight-read. The time spent assessing and teaching each student these”prerequisite” skills will be an worthwhile investment, as it will make sight-singing and sight-reading a far more successful and positive experience for our students.
To be clear: If students cannot successfully complete these 8 steps, they will not effectively learn how to sight-sing.
Here are 8 Steps to Prepare Them to Sight-Sing
These 8 steps need to be assessed individually with each student
1. Ensure they can consistency match pitch
Any students who struggles to match pitch need to be singled out, albeit privately and delicately. They must learn to recognize when they are on pitch and off pitch. It is our job to meet them where they are at. If their range is only 2 notes, we must find those two notes and continue to expand from there.
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2. Ensure they have a vocal range of an octave or greater
Students do not have to be a great singer in order to become a solid sight-singer; they need to have enough range to be able to sing a basic melody. For weaker singers, this requires the development of fundamental vocal technique. Lower-abdominal support, falsetto, sighs, sirens, and anything else that creates tonal flexibility must occur before expecting students to be able to demonstrate the readiness to sight-sing. While most of this can be done in a class setting, it is important to continue to follow-up one-on-one with those students who lack vocal range and flexibility.
3. Ensure they can sing a scale in tune
A student must be able to sing an entire one-octave scale, ascending and descending, relatively in tune. This means the low “do” and high “do” must be in tune. If some of the pitches are slightly flat or sharp, it should be addressed; the overwhelming concern is keeping the overall scale in tune. This can be done in class through warm-ups, but students who struggle with this need one-on-one attention, and must gain awareness of their intonation.
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4. Ensure they can sing alternating Do, Re, Mi and Do, Mi, Sol patterns
It is common for beginning students to struggle singing Do,Re,Mi followed by Do,Mi,Sol. After they sing each pattern by method of call and response, I suggest verbally asking them to sing Do,Re,Mi, followed by Do, Mi, Sol, back and forth. If they cannot easily go between these two patterns, we must continually drill this. Their inner ear and voice need to develop together in order to recognize the difference between step-wise and skipping patterns before they will effectively be able to produce it during an actual sight-singing exercise.
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5. Ensure they can repeat any diatonic interval
Students must be able to sing/repeat back basic intervals through call and response. If they cannot sing Do-Sol, or Mi-La immediately after we sing it, they aren’t ready to sight-sing. The more we use call and response in class, the more likely they are to develop those sounds in their head. Kodaly hand signals would be quite useful as well. They should be able to repeat any diatonic interval that we sing provided it fits within their vocal range. A lack of ability to repeat implies either they cannot find the sound in their head or they do not have the technique to produce the note. The inability to retain the sound will improve through frequent call and response, along with focus of Steps 3 and 4. Should this be a physiological issue, it will be fixed as their vocal range expands, by focusing on Step 2.
6. Ensure they have developed comfort with using the solfege syllables
I believe “Movable Do” is the best system for beginning singers. The more solfege patterns they sing, and more they move up and down in the scale, the more practical and useful this language will become. A great exercise to develop step-wise motion is : “do, do-re-do, do-re-mi-re-do, do-re-mi-fa-mi-re-do, etc” and doing the same thing descending, “do, do-ti-do, d-ti-la-ti-do, etc”. I also recommend ascending and descending patterns such as seconds, third, fourths, and fifths. By practicing these patterns daily, students will internally lock in these intervals and solfege names.
7. Ensure they can sing any possible interval, while only giving them “DO” as a base
This is a crucial step, and one that many choral directors overlook. This step involves eliminating the concept of memorizing intervalic sounds and instead relating each individual pitch back to “do”. By giving “do” to the students, they should be able to sing “re-la” or “ti-fa”, etc. Ideally, they should be able to sing an entire row of random pitches while maintaining the “do” in their head; this step does not involve note-reading!
8. Ensure they can accurately label the pitches on the staff – with solfeggio*
Students should be able to label basic solfeggio on simplistic sheet music. Assuming “Do” is given (it’s best if it is the first note of the exercise), students must be able to recognize basic skips versus step-wise motion in both directions. The speed that it takes students to label is the speed at which they will potentially be able to read, once their ear has been properly developed. This step has two phases: Phase one is ensuring the students are capable of correctly labellng. Phase two is seeing how fast they can label. Of all the steps listed here, this one is the easiest to target in class by giving a note-labeling quiz and/or written exercises. I usually pair it with labeling the rhythms. From my experience, there is no reason to have students label note names (A,B,C, etc), at this stage of the game. It is most important that when labeling, students only use the first letter of the solfeggio (D,R,M,F,S,L,T), as opposed to the entire word; once they have identified the pitch and written the first letter, they should already by onto labeling the next pitch.
*this step is not necessarily in succession; it should be happening concurrently with the other steps
Why is there no mention of RHYTHM?
Rhythm is overrated. I’m just kidding. While rhythm is equally important, I have rarely found the primary cause for inept sight-singing to be rhythm; rhythm is a reason why they don’t read well, but not the reason that they are completely ineffective with demonstrating some semblance of competence. Once singers have developed these skills, rhythm then becomes an important focus. I’m not suggesting we skip the teaching of rhythm; I’m just pointing out that a certain level of aural skills, fundamental vocal technique, and note-reading must occur before any tangible level of sight-singing can even be measured.
Do Not allow students to say they are BAD AT SIGHT-READING
Every time they say it, they further validate their myth and perpetuate their weaknesses. If my student says that, I let them know that it is a skill, not a talent. If they want to hold onto the story that they are bad, they will always remain bad. If they want to be good, I’m here to teach them, and they can practice on their own as well.
A self-selected choir can and should read just as well as a select ensemble
Every student in my self-selected choir must be willing to sing by themselves, but not necessarily in front of the entire choir. They must be willing to sing independently within a small group lesson (10 or less students); this is not negotiable. At the very first meeting, I vocalize their range and begin to check and/or develop the 8 steps. Matching pitch, vocalizing their range, getting them into their mixed voice/falsetto, having them repeat pitch patterns, and singing a scale in tune are all part of their 5 minutes of singing. Each student performs an isolated task, one after another as I help to coach them; then we move on to the next skill where everyone again is assessed, encouraged and coached. From there, I am able to determine what step each student is on; it could take one meeting or several meetings before some students begin to exhibit consistency in improving upon each deficiency and completing each step. Once students are on the right path, it becomes easier for them to work on those skills within the large choir setting.
Additionally, sight-singing is performed in class every day, alongside these 8 drilled prerequisite steps. As I mentioned in my previous post, I highly recommend Sight Reading Factory for daily sight-singing in class. Once you use this program, you will never spend another moment writing out another sight-reading example on the board or search through sight-reading books for appropriate exercises EVER AGAIN!
There are three technology-based programs that I highly recommend for both high school and middle school choruses. I use SIGHT READING FACTORY in my daily rehearsal and SMARTMUSIC for homework and additional practice.
For those of you who are teaching chorus at the middle school level, are new to teaching choir, or are mainly teaching beginners, I highly recommend Dale Duncan’s S-CUBED. Dale has created a technology-based comprehensive sight-singing program intended to provide a full school year of training. He includes all the materials, lesson plans, and actually provides links of him teaching the actual lessons prior to you going into the trenches and doing it. Dale is a master teacher and essentially becomes your mentor for the year.