A wise man once told me to never believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.

Your weakest sight-singers may be hiding above-average skills for sight-singing. They may already possess most of the skills necessary to be great sight-singers. They may in fact be just one prerequisite skill away from success. 

Here are the 6 prerequisite skills that strong high school sight-singers have mastered:

A. Matching pitch – which is not an all-or-nothing skill

B. Singing a scale in tune – singing a major, diatonic scale in tune

C. Accurately singing patterns of Do, Mi, Sol and Do, Re, Mi

D. Mastering the Aural Training Sheet (detailed in blog post: The Best Ear-Training Exercise You Will Ever Use)

E.  Accurate and speedy note-labeling

*F. Accurate rhythm-labeling

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While most students are proficient in many of the prerequisites listed above, they also possess deficiencies. Even the strongest sight-singers will have certain prerequisites that are not as developed as others. When a student’s weakest deficiencies are still at a passable level, they can still demonstrate competency at sight-singing. But when a singer has a glaring deficiency in any one of the prerequisites, it is quite possible all of their strengths will become hidden.

*As mentioned in The 8 Steps to Prepare ALL Students to Sight-Sing, 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. You may also also notice that this blog mentions 6 specific prerequisites while the fore-mentioned post provides 8 Steps to prepare all students to sight-sing. Both blogs draw upon the same fundamental concepts, but this blog is intended to guide you toward developing the skills to properly diagnose deficiencies and provide the necessary baby steps needs to help each singer confidently improve their skills.

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Assessing each independent skill-set

When a student sight-sings, they may demonstrate a specific weakness, but it could be nothing more than a symptom of a more serious, but completely unrelated issue.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, one of my students with perfect pitch frequently sings incorrect pitches when exercises have challenging rhythm; this student usually gets the tricky rhythms right and the moderately tricky intervals wrong. Why is this?

This is because this student is so focused on their weakness that their inherent strength is compromised.

One Skill Away

On a scale of 1-5, 5 being proficient, an average or above-average sight-singer is likely to have 3s and above in every prerequisite skill. They may be all 3s and 4s, meaning there is a clear understanding in every category, even though they have not perfected any one skill. On the other side of the spectrum, a weak sight-singer might have 4s and even 5s in some prerequisites along with 1s or 2s in at least one prerequisite.

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I recently had a student in my program who really struggled to match pitch. This student sang out with confidence and almost never sang the same pitch as the rest of their section. When we began the year, this student could not match pitch at all. After a few brief extra help sessions (5 minutes at a time), this student was able to match pitch within her limited 5 note range. Two months this student was able to sing the portions of the choral music that fit into their limited range but still couldn’t accurately sing their part along with the members of their section. When asked to sing by herself, she could correctly sing a line in the music, but as soon as their section joins in, she would drop down to a drone.

At that time, two months into the school year, this young woman still didn’t have the range of an octave and couldn’t access her upper range. When I asked her to sight-sing, it was completely wrong, yet this singer could sing “do, mi, sol” and “do, re, mi” perfectly. This student was able to label pitches at an acceptable speed and proved to have average competence in rhythm as well.

While it has was a very challenging journey to get this student to not stand-out from the rest of the entire choir, she was only one technical skill away. Once a student like this can access her head voice, even slightly, and develop enough flexibility to reach a full octave without strain, they will be able to sight-sing at a respectable level. Until then, they will sound completely off. Even her adequate prerequisites got thrown off by their lack of vocal flexibility (measured by singing a scale).

When a weak sight-singer can’t match pitch, they may be so lost with their lack of tonal skill that they can’t accurately perform rhythm.  

When a weak sight-singer is so focused at decoding the written pitches on the staff, they may lose access to their ear and sing all pitches incorrectly.

We may be focused on a symptom and not the actual problem. This is why we need to individually diagnose the independent skills.

Self-Assessment Rehearsal Participation Rubric(s)

Misdiagnosing the problem mainly affects the weakest sight-singers

When it comes to the average and above-average singers, we can misdiagnose an issue and they will still be ok. The students with perfect pitch will still improve if we point out their wrong pitches, even if that wasn’t really the problem. They are already focused on their rhythm, which is why they missed the pitches in the first place, hence their natural improvement in rhythmic skills.

This misdiagnoses doesn’t bode as well for students with a major significant prerequisite deficiency. If we misdiagnose their primary weakness, they are unlikely to demonstrate significant improvement. They won’t improve because their hidden strengths already exist. If a student can’t consistently sing a scale in tune and we are focusing on their note and rhythm reading, we will continue to improve these hidden strengths but these skills are likely to remain hidden when they sight-sing; since they will be lost in their tuning or without a tonic altogether, they are subconsciously focusing their energy toward solving their own problem of intonation and not trying to accurately read notes and rhythms. Keep in mind, they have no skill-set to be able to solve their own problem, so their energy is likely being wasted, leading them to frustration, and lack of confidence.

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How do we properly diagnose?

I have created a Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric, that allows choral directors to properly assess each individual prerequisite. It will guide you in knowing the steps toward growth in each individual area. These are small, tangible steps that will build confidence in your students. I use this rubric with all of my students and as a result, I am aware of the underlying skills of each students and properly guide them through their sight-singing journey. Matching Pitch, for example, is not an all-or-nothing skill. There are 5 steps to mastering this skill and many singers are somewhere in the middle of that skill development. As a result of this approach, no student is left behind in my choral program.

Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric – for developing students who lack the underlying sight-singing skills