I’ve seen many Facebook posts asking the question of whether Sight Reading Factory or Smart Music is preferred for sight-singing. I am a huge fan of Sight Reading Factory as I believe their program is unparalleled in many ways; with that said, Smart Music plays a equally important role in my students’ sight-singing development.
Sight Reading Factory is sleek, clean, easy to use, and does exactly what it is supposed to do 100% of the time. Smart Music is overwhelming, quirky, and provides its share of technical issues, but for me and my students, it’s value is significant as well.
Many of us think of sight-singing as an in-class activity but I believe the bulk of the growth that most students can potentially gain occurs outside of our rehearsal; how they practice at home will have a tremendous impact on their confidence, performance-level, AND desire to sight-sing in class.
Sight-Singing in Rehearsal
In class, there is no doubt that Sight Reading Factory is the best tool on the market. With Sight Reading Factory, you can customize and save all parameters (meter, key signatures, range, leaps, types of notes, etc) and then have endless examples. From there you can click through unlimited exercises in a row with no lag time. There is virtually no learning curve to using their website; the free demo on their homepage shows you how simple it is. I wrote a blog post on a two-minute rapid-fire Sight-Singing drill using Sight Reading Factory.
The In-Class Handout Assignment
Frequently, I have teachers ask me what they can do with the majority of the choir when they need to work specifically with a small group of students (voicing students, giving vocal assessment, etc.); this is the perfect time to print out some Sight Reading Factory examples that are custom-tailored to what you want. You can quickly customize an exercise such as the following:
I’d like an eight-measure exercise in 3/4 time, D Major, starting and ending on “Do”, leaps no greater than a fifth, and notes no faster than eighth notes.
There is no doubt that Sight-Reading Factory is the best tool on the market for printing out exercises, just as it is the best tool on the market for in-class use. I use these print outs in conjunction with my sight-singing developmental rubric, where students are required to label the solfege below the notes and rhythms above the notes. I also give written quizzes this way; as I introduce new time signatures and rhythms, I generate new Sight Reading Factory examples for quizzes.
Many choral directors believe the concept of sight-singing begins and ends with an 8 measure exercise at the beginning of class. Chris Munce has a wonderful Choralosophy podcast episode on ripping the bandaid off and allowing our choirs to sight-sing all of their music rather that being spoon-fed the notes.
Similar to Chris’ philosophy, my students performance a significant amount of in-class choir-music reading; there are times, however, where the music we are working on is far more advanced than the skill-level of my students’s general reading level. In those cases, I opt to use a mixture of reading while gently assisting with piano.
Since in-class sight-singing examples and choral music reading cannot be personalized to each student, I believe choral students need to continually improve their individual sight-singing skills outside of the rehearsal. The best way for this to happen is by tracking students and individualizing their curriculum by level; in many choral programs, this individualized attention can best come in the form of homework.
In my high school program, the overwhelming number of students are given their weekly homework assignments on the Smart Music platform while the most advanced sight-singers receive their homework assignments on the Sight Reading Factory program. Each program has specific strengths when it comes to giving individualized homework.
Smart Music Homework for beginning & intermediate sight-readers
As one of its many online resources, Smart Music offers the book, “90 Days to Sight Reading Success”, which has what they perceive as 90 days worth of sing-singing development/exercises. Believe it or not, I use this one book for 3 or more years with my students. I own a physical copy of the book, which allows me to easily sift through all the examples, which would otherwise be a massive undertaking.
While I generally move in the order of the book, I do not use every example on every page. Next to the examples in the physical book, I number each exercise that I choose to use. (the book doesn’t have numbers next to the exercises; instead it has exercise A,B,C for each day of the week).
I choose all the examples that I wish to share with my students over the course of their 4 years and number them 1-135. From there, I have 4 levels of assignments, mainly intended for four grades of students. Each level has 30-35 assignments per year. Here is a downloadable link to all the assignments I give, as it aligns directly with the book.
While I only assign 1 exercise per week, I open up all of the assignments for the year at once in an effort to motivate students to move ahead. Should they complete all of the exercises for the year, I invite them into the next level. This allows motivated students to progress at a more rigorous pace and, in turn, is designed to make each level appear to be a minimum skill requirement or expectation, rather than the ceiling of what a student can or should accomplish.
Why Smart Music Works & Why Smart Music Quirks
Smart Music offers some amazing tools but also falls short in a few ways. Over time I have come up with solutions to combat most of it’s shortcomings.
Why and How Smart Music Works
Until students develop advanced skills, Smart Music has been the best choice for homework because it grades them. When a student sings their assignment, Smart Music marks their incorrect notes red and actually draws the note that they sang above/below the intended note. It also marks their incorrect rhythms in yellow, showing if their pitch came early or late. Smart Music also gives an overall grade for their performance, so students know exactly what they earned before submitting their chosen take to me.
Students can sing the same assignment over and over again until they are happy with both their performance and their graded score. Only their submitted take appears graded in my grade book; I have the ability to listen to their performance and override any computer-generated score.
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Why Smart Music Quirks
Smart Music’s self-grading system is very sensitive. Students who are slightly pitchy or slightly early/late will be marked wrong. Since the computer generates a right/wrong score, anything that isn’t deemed correct is penalized. As a result, students who are on the right track may still earn some super-low grades. While this is annoying, it encourages many students to try the same exercise over and over again and in turn improves their skills. When a beginning student sings the same exercise 20-30 times, their sense of pitch and rhythm and overall musical sense improves greatly.
I have a simple grading policy that ensures all students can be successful: An 80% or better earns a perfect score. 50-79% earns 80%. Anything under 50% will earn at least half credit. A setting like this can automatically be created within Smart Music.
I also tells students that I will listen to every assignment that isn’t 80% or better to ensure they receive the proper score they deserve. There are many, many times that I give students who received a computer-graded 40% a perfect score after hearing their actual performance. We must remember that a computer is grading right/wrong and that does not substitute for a teacher’s ears with a developing sight-singer.
Lastly, Smart Music is a lot of work to set-up from the back-end. While creating assignments is tedious, I still believe the time investment is worth the outcome. If I were implementing this for the first time, I’d suggest creating 20-30 assignments for the year for all students to complete. The following year, I would add another 20-30 for the continuing singers and give the original 20-30 to the new members. Follow this pattern for a third and fourth year, and you will have 4 years of assignments, each already formed in levels.
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Why Sight Reading Factory is awesome for homework
Sight Reading Factory is definitely the way to go for advanced sight-singers. It is waaaaaaaaay easier for teachers to use on the back-end.
Once students are fully self-aware and understand when they are right and wrong, they no longer need a computer to grade them. As a result, they are now focused on singing musically and giving a great performance; computer-generated perfection is no longer an aspiration.
When completing an assignment, similar to Smart Music, students can get endless tries; HOWEVER, unlike Smart Music, each try will give the student a brand new example to sight-sing. A student who needs 10 tries will experience 10 different sight-singing examples. They can hear their performance after they sing, but they will only know if they are right or wrong by using their own ears.
In essence, an advanced singer will grow tremendously by never repeating the same example (in Sight Reading Factory) more than once while a weaker sight-singer will grow tremendously by repeating the same example until they sing in-tune pitches in exact rhythm (in Smart Music).
One other important thing to note is that Sight Reading Factory does not provide a progression of exercises; they do offer their own levels along with many state levels/parameters for sight-singing, but it is up to the teacher to decide which parameters are going to be used for each assignment. In my advanced group, the first 15 exercises are NYSSMA Level 6 exercises. This means all 15 assignments are the exact same level of difficulty. Compare this to Smart Music where the exercises progress in difficulty throughout the “90 Day” book.
Sight Reading Factory & Smart Music: Sight-Singing Summary
If you are looking for an in-class tool, I recommend spending $35 (10% off using code: choralclarity) and purchasing a teacher subscription of Sight Reading Factory. All you will need is a projector or smartboard to maximize it’s value in class.
If you want your students to improve exponentially as sight-singers, I highly recommend giving weekly homework assignments. I recommend Smart Music for beginner and intermediate sight-singers and Sight Reading Factory for advanced sight-singers. Both products are just a few dollars per students, provided you are buying in large-group quantities and have a teacher’s subscription.
IMPORTANT: Some Students MAY NOT Be Able To Successfully Sight-Sing!
Sight-singing success at any level is dependent upon the development of underlying skills. Before any singer can successfully sight-sing, they must have well-developed Aural Training Skills and also be able to accurately label pitches and rhythms.
Without a decent level of achievement on each of these skills, a singer is likely to experience frustration with their sight-singing development. It’s important to note that skills such as matching Pitch are not “all or nothing” skills, as there are clear baby steps every singer can take to get from the perceived “tone-deaf” stage all the way to fully matching pitch. This is the case with all of the prerequisites including singing a scale in tune, aural training, note-reading, etc.
As a result, I strongly recommend assessing those skills independently in all singers prior to, or in addition to having them sight-sing independently.
By developing the underlying sight-singing prerequisite skills in all of our singer, reinforcing sight-singing exercises in class, having students sight-sing their choral music, and giving them weekly, individually tracked homework assignments, we will be setting all of our singers up to become true musicians.