From the Vault: The Secret to Sight-Singing – Relax, it’s not your fault!

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You just got a D on a sight-singing test, and the instrumentalist is treating you like you’re “just another stupid singer.”

You’re at the rehearsal and suddenly the aria that was cut is back in. You’re expected to sing it NOW…only you can’t sight sing. Everyone is staring as you sing wrong note after wrong note. Finally, the conductor asks the pianist to work with you later.

That job could have been yours. They loved your voice but you couldn’t pass the sight-singing requirement. That’s $100 a week down the drain.

It takes you forever to learn every new music score and you have to pay a coach to teach you a role at $60 a shot.

You’d like to audition for the Met chorus but sight-reading…

Learning to sight-sing, like learning to drive, has little to do with talent. It’s a skill set open to anyone who can hum a recognizable version of “Happy Birthday” and, like driving, will invariably improve over time, through practice and experience. Why, then, do so many musical singers, highly motivated and prepared to succeed, experience such difficulty learning to read? The answer clearly lies in the training.

Instrumentalists, many of whom begin music study when they are quite young, may require little formal training in beginning sight-singing. Presented with written music from their earliest lessons and exposed to its correlating sounds, it’s common for these youngest instrumentalists to absorb the essentials of the musical language much the way children assimilate language in bilingual households, with no pressing need for formal instruction. Even in cases where instrumentalists may have little innate musicality, the purely visual aspects of sight-reading are reinforced from the earliest years of study.

Singers may present a very different picture, beginning training later, often in their teens, as their voices mature. First voice lessons may be confined to the all-consuming task of building and refining a vocal instrument. Unless these young singers have been immersed in choral singing from the earliest years or have some instrumental training behind them, they may be tackling sight singing for the first time, well past an age when these skills can be acquired without conscious thought.

This is the ideal time for intensive musicianship instruction, with an emphasis on visual coding, enabling teens to prepare for higher training with confidence, but these support services are seldom available to young singers prior to entering conservatories and college programs, where they are likely to be combined with instrumentalists who are far more visually prepared.

Many of these programs stress interval reading, music theory and dictation over intensive visual coding, forcing as-yet-unprepared singers to rely on little more than interval-association tricks that will invariably fall apart under pressure, exhaust them in the process, and may even lead to the appearance of severe pitch or rhythm problems, a product of moving haltingly, unsupported, through a vocal line.

A reasonable solution to problems created by combining visually sophisticated instrumentalists with untrained readers would obviously be to separate the two groups, leaving those voice students who have benefited from more visual coding experience to join the instrumentalists’ classes. A number of music schools already provide for this, but grouping alone will solve very little if a serious attempt has not been made to provide singers with the skills they so desperately need. A “D” in ear training/sight singing, vaguely embarrassing for a trombone player, can be devastating for a singer who really needs these skills to read through new materials, memorize scores efficiently or hold on to a church job.

Moveable vs. Fixed “Doh”
(Stifle that yawn…)

At this point, it’s probably helpful to take a look at the two sight-reading systems conventionally offered to music students, the fixed “doh” and the moveable “doh.” Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but as we’re concerned with singers past their teens, it’s essential to judge each by its ability to train singers quickly and effectively.

Fixed “doh,” streamlined and straightforward, has few labels or classifications to remember. C is always “doh,” F is always “fa,” etc, regardless of the key in which a piece has been set, and regardless of any recognizable key changes. Despite its clear presentation, progress is often very, very slow, since teachers make no effort to acknowledge whatever may be unfolding in the musical story line. Tensions, resolutions, long transitional passages—all get equal treatment in a system that doesn’t recognize melodic and harmonic tensions. Many of my most accomplished readers have fled fixed “doh” training, unnerved by its failure to record obvious, strong resolutions, and for its lack of support in musical problem solving.

Moveable “doh” is organized around the key in which a composition has been written, following the piece through its many musical excursions, changing classification labels whenever necessary to capture novel melodic phenomena. The system provides tremendous support in the early stages of reading, when melodies are confined to the natural tones, tensions and resolutions of the scale. As repertoire becomes more sophisticated, however, with frequent key changes, and many additional accidentals, the moveable “doh” reader is required to flexibly switch labels to match the ever-changing phenomena.

This approach, so useful for developing strong reading and inner hearing early on, eventually places a great burden on the reader, often requiring extensive analysis of a composer’s musical intentions before assigning a label to a note, or group of notes. This analytic excursion can be very absorbing, and ties well into studies of music theory, harmony and analysis but, for repertoire of any complexity, it can be mentally exhausting. More important, from the standpoint of efficient reading, this application of moveable “doh” is no longer fast and seamless, as it was in its basic stages, but simply distracting.

Clearly, neither of the orthodox reading approaches is ideal. I have found, however, that a strong base of moveable “doh” in the early stages of reading will provide most singers with a strong enough foundation to drop inflexible classification systems altogether. As repertoire becomes more tonally complex and ambiguous, new and more flexible solutions can be found for the musical idioms and tonal conventions of each musical era.

These added solutions require only that singers develop strong enough visual discrimination to spot revealing tonal pictures and apply musical solutions. This composite approach, which requires reading through a vast selection of solo and ensemble materials, permits singers not only to strengthen their interval reading in context, but also to gain greater familiarity with elements of music theory and compositional techniques.

The Singer’s Secret Asset

As musical and technically well-trained singers finally connect with a reading system that works, skills acquisition can be astonishingly rapid and surprisingly permanent due to a factor that is often overlooked. Most of the singers I’ve worked with over the past 30 years have had good to terrific ears, with few genuine pitch and rhythm problems, but it’s really the contribution of muscle-memory that gives singers an enormous advantage in assimilating sound patterns.

Highly developed muscle-memory enables trained voices to quickly assess, record and reproduce new skips with precision and confidence, requiring only clear visual cues to get the process moving. To take full advantage of this significant support, however, it is important for singers to read through all repertoire in full voice, preferably as legato as possible, to reinforce distances accurately.

Liz Fleischer

Liz Fleischer’s sight-singing program has been featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Town and Country, The Choral Singer and Sing Magazine, and on PBS’s City Arts. She has taught at Barnard College, Circle in the Square Theater School, and the Lucy Moses School, and has led workshops at Sarah Lawrence College, Amherst Early Music Festival, the Manhattan School of Music, the Dalcroze Society, the NYC Board of Education and the Bank Street College of Education. Her sight-singing classes are offered throughout the year at the Kaufman Center/ Lucy Moses School in New York City.