Sight-singing is a core element in my choral program. The development of sight-singing comes after several other individual skills have been developed:
- matching pitch
- recognizing/producing solfege patterns that alternate between stepwise and skipping
- singing a scale in tune
- mastering the aural training
- labeling notation at a fast pace
- labeling and isolating rhythm
These six skills must be developed at a passable level before true progress in sight-singing will occur. As a result, I am constantly drilling these skills in class and sectionals.
When it comes to putting these skills together, I have an approach to sight-singing homework that I believe can work in virtually all teaching environments.
My Approach to Assigning and Grading Sight-Singing Homework
My high school choral program consists of two ensembles: a 9th-10th grade self-selected treble ensemble and a mixed ensemble consisting of 11th-12th grade treble voices and 9th-12th grade bass and tenor voices. This approach encompasses all students regardless of the ensemble they are in.
Using Sight Reading Factory in class
Every day, I have 2-4 Sight Reading Factory examples on the board in class. The sight-singing examples are intended to keep all students engaged but they certainly don’t reach all students the same way. For one thing, I have 1st year and 4th year students in the same ensemble. Also, there are extremely talented and experienced sight-singers mixed in with developing singers who are struggling to match pitch.
With this in mind, my approach in the classroom is to engage all singers by focusing on different concepts daily. I also layer the learning by asking the experienced sight-singers to focus on their tone, vowels and consonants of solfege syllables, and dynamics while the developing singers are focused on correctly identifying pitches and rhythm. All of this changes when it comes to homework.
For homework, all students receive a weekly Sight Reading Factory assignment. In fact, I have 4 “classes”. They are Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4 and are essentially intended to be 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, and 4th year singers; in reality there are freshmen in Level 3, and seniors in Level 2.
About Each Level
Each level is designed to meet students where they are at and challenge them to improve. All singers in the same level receive the same parameters for their assignments for the entire marking quarter. In Sight Reading Factory, no two assignments are ever the same; the parameters include the type of notes, specific skips, key signatures, and time signatures. For example, in my level 1, all assignments during marking quarter 1 are step-wise, range from do-la, only contain quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes, etc. The assignments are given in several keys.
Since I teach in New York State, I align my Levels very closely with the NYSSMA manual’s sight-singing guidelines. To start the year, this is how my levels are aligned:
Level 1 – NYSSMA Level 1
Level 2 – NYSSMA Level 3
Level 3 – NYSSMA Level 4
Level 4 – NYSSMA Level 6 (top level of NYSSMA)
For level 1 and 2, the metronome subdivides all beats. For level 3, the metronome keeps the beat with no subdivision. For level 4, the metronome is eliminated.
While all parameters are the same for the entire marking quarter, they become more advanced for each subsequent marking quarter. By the 3rd marking quarter the students progress to the following levels
Level 1 – NYSSMA Level 3
Level 2 – NYSSMA Level 5
Level 3 – NYSSMA Level 6
Level 4 – Aligned with the AP Theory Sight-Singing Requirements
If this is your first time integrating Sight Reading Factory into your program, I recommend beginning with just 2 levels: a beginner and advanced level. Students can self-select their appropriate level. On year two, you will likely have three levels, and year three, you will be able to progress into four levels.
How to give all students the potential to earn high scores
In my choral program, sight-singing homework makes up 10% of their overall grade. I give weekly assignments and have a simple grading system. I highly recommend listening to Chris Munce’s Choralosophy Episode where he explains his approach to grading sight-singing. My approach is closely aligned to his concept.
My students are given 10 tries to complete their weekly assignment. If they believe they were perfect or close to perfect, they can submit their take. If they are less than perfect and make 10 attempts, they should submit their final attempt. Prior to submitting their attempt, students can hear their performance along with the correct notes and rhythms being played at the same time.
All assignments are graded out of 4 points. A student will earn a 4/4 if they performed their assignment nearly perfectly OR completed 10 attempts. This encourages students to make the full 10 attempts. Keep in mind that Sight Reading Factory presents a new example for each attempt. This means a student who has submitted their 10th attempt practiced 10 different sight-singing examples.
A grade of 3/4 means a student submitted a decent but flawed performance and did this in 1-9 attempts. A score of 2/4 means a student submitted a performance that shows some skill but did not demonstrate competence. Additionally they completed 1-9 attempts, not the 10 attempts required to earn a perfect score. A score of 1/4 means the student likely submitted a very poor performance and completed 1-3 takes.
I have created a sight-singing rubric that details the grading system. The form can be used for teacher-grading or self-assessment and comes as a downloadable PDF and editable word document.
How to make grading simple (for us)
If we are encouraging students to complete 10 attempts, once we see the student has submitted their final attempt, they automatically earn a 4/4. This means, in terms of actually returning a grade to the student, the only assignments we need to listen to are the ones that have been performed in less than 10 attempts. With a metronome marking of 60 and mainly 4/4 and 3/4 assignments, it should take no more than 24 or 32 seconds to listen to each assignment.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be listening to more assignments. I listen to specific students and provide feedback to help them to improve. I do not listen to all assignments of all students and even the ones that are less than 10 attempts don’t always require me to listen to their entire performance. There are usually specific things I’m listening for in specific students. Some students need the steadiness of their rhythm checked while other students need to maintain staying in the same key. As the year progresses, I can take less and less time with each student while providing useful insight. I can also schedule meetings with students and we can listen to their progression throughout the marking quarter together.
How to Motivate the students
I open up all assignments for the marking quarter at once. My goal is to motivate students to move forward. Once I notice that students have completed all assignments for the quarter, I’ll open up the next marking quarter. If students complete the entire year, they can move into the next Level.
On the flip side, if a student has been lazy and falls behind, they have the entire marking quarter to complete their assignments. The only caveat is that they are penalized 1/2 point for being late on each assignment, earning a 3.5/4 as a top score.
Students will have roughly 32 assignments per year. Since students will be properly tracked into an appropriate skill level, they will likely submit some, if not many of their assignments, using the full 10 attempts. Assuming the average singer completes their average assignments in 8 attempts, this means they practiced 250 sight-reading examples on their own at home. There is no doubt that 250 examples at home mixed in with daily sight-singing in class will create highly skilled sight-singers over the course of 4 years of training.