Sight Reading is Difficult, Can My Young Students Do It?
Yes. A thousand times yes. However, students who have never tried sight singing cannot be expected to dive in the deep end and sing long complicated exercises or sight sing entire pieces in harmony. Approach sight singing as any good teacher would approach new material. Break the elements apart and scaffold the content so that when the ultimate task is to be done, it seems easy in the eyes of the student. If you've just started at a school you may be thinking "there's no way these kids will go for this". If you're worried about buy-in and motivation, check out this page for some ideas on getting the students on your side.
When it comes to sight singing, the most important things are:
- Use a system for both rhythm and pitch
- Sequence and pace the introduction of new content
- Be creative and keep it fresh
- Sight sing your repertoire
Do these four things and you'll be on the right track to developing smart choirs full of musicians rather than just singers.
Why Sight Singing?
Use a System for Both Rhythm and Pitch
This is incredibly important. Most people will say that it doesn't matter which systems you use, as long as you use one. I don't quite agree with that. I have seen many choirs sight sing and have judged MEA festivals that involved sight singing and this experience has taught me that the system does matter. Let's look at each separately:
There are about as many ways to count rhythm as there are choir directors in the world. After experiencing many different systems as a choir member and director, I developed a list of criteria that a good system needed and went in search of a system that fits the criteria:
1. The system needs to name the beats by number
There are a lot of systems that rely on syllables only in an effort to make rhythmic patterns easily recognizable and keep things simple. This can be effective for elementary general music classes, but in a choir it becomes necessary for everyone to know where in a measure the group is. If your choir is counting rhythms for a 32 measure section of a piece, students need something that will help them realize where the group is if they miss a beat or make a mistake. Counting systems that call the beat "ta" or "du" can lead to confusion.
Additionally, most music has phrasing that is linked to the position of the beat. For example, if your choir is preparing a Baroque piece, letting them know that beat 4 almost always leads into beat one as the beginning of a phrase (rather than beat one being the beginning) will not only help them count more accurately, but they will begin to think about phrasing long before you add text.
2. The system needs to address compound meter and triplets
Compound meter is usually taught too late. My 6th grade choir always sings at least one song in compound meter by the end of the first semester. It is simply too common in good repertoire to delay teaching. Simply singing in 6/8 or 12/8 is not enough. Our students need to recognize the difference and internalize rhythmic patterns before they learn the piece.
A good counting system will use different syllables for compound meter and triplets to ensure that difference is internalized. If students can hear, see, and perform these patterns accurately, learning a piece in compound meter will be a breeze. What's more, having the different syllables for each will be a boon to the intermediate or advanced choir that is learning repertoire in mixed meter.
3. The syllables used must be percussive
I long abandoned the system I was taught to use throughout my middle and high school days. Most of us are familiar with the "one and two and three ee and a four" counting. Many choir use this. It almost seems to be universal.
So what's wrong with it?
The issue is that every syllable begins with a vowel, which results in two problems:
- Students can cheat. In a large group, it is very simple to "ease" into the syllables a split second after the go-getter next to you has done the rhythm correctly. You may be thinking "I'm a great musician. I'll catch that!" You are a great musician, but what about when you're not just listening for rhythm, but also scanning the room to ensure participation, answering the phone because little Sally has to the office, conducting, and visually cueing Mark that he needs to wait until after they're done to go to the restroom? All at the same time. Our jobs are incredibly complicated. We need a system that doesn't make it more so.
- These syllables can lead to encouraging glottal stops. Yes, the dreaded glottal stop. Because these syllables begin with vowels, it is likely that students will put glottal stops on them when we ask for accuracy. As a student to make sure the eighth note is exactly in the middle of the beat, and nine times out of ten you'll get that hard "a" at the beginning of "and".
The solution? A system that uses hard consonants at the beginning of each syllable. So what is this system that uses beat numbers, addresses triplets and compound meter, and starts each syllable with a consonant? The Eastman System. Since I began using this system, my choirs have improved immensely in accuracy and unity. When I first made the change, there was some push back from my high school students. However, the middle school students took to it quickly. If you currently use a different system and wish to switch, simply explain the rationale to your students. They'll get it.
For the most part, you have two choices here. Some will argue a third, but to be blunt, the third option is completely insane. We'll start with the ones not to use:
1. Scale Degree Numbers
In this system, the tonic is called "one", the supertonic "two", and so on to the leading tone, "seven". Here's why I would never use it:
- seven has two syllables. Singing this on rhythm will be awkward and lead to mistakes.
- We're using number to identify beats. We should not use the same for pitch. I want to eliminate every chance of confusion.
- There is no simple, natural way to incorporate altered tones. What exactly does one call "4" when it is sharp?
This is the one that I think is insane. Not only does it share a lot of the same issues as using numbers, it doesn't give the student clues about each note's function in the scale. This makes it much more difficult to teach voice leading in a simple, direct way (for example, "Ti" leads to "Do").
3. Sol Fege or Solfeggio
This is the one! It's fantastic. It addresses the function of each note in the scale. It addresses raised and lowered scale degrees easily. It's (for the most part) universal. There are only a couple of decisions to make:
- Fixed or Moveable "do"?
I say moveable, and here's why: We are not trying to instill perfect pitch. We are trying to make sight singing as easy and accessible as possible. In moveable do, the function of each note is predictable and altered syllables are minimized. It's that simple.
- "La" or "do" based minor?
This one is up to you. I have found that middle and high school student not only respond to "la" based minor more easily, but it helps them understand the concept of major and relative minor when learning key signatures. It is true that most colleges will use "do" based minor, but we teach that in our music theory class that most all of our music college bound students take.
Be Creative and Keep it Fresh
The last thing you want to hear when you tell your choir it's time to sight sing are groans and moans. How do we avoid that? Make it fun! I love sight singing. I view it as a game, and I try to instill that in my students. How?
- Do it differently every day!
Don't use the same materials day in and day out - pull from as many resources as possible. Switch parts. Only read the down beats (that will make sure they're paying attention - no one wants the accidental solo). Read from copies on day and project it on the screen another. Clap rhythms. Sing 4-8 measure examples in rounds, even if they're not to develop independence. The possibilities are endless. Sing the example yourself and make a mistake, asking the students to identify where you flubbed.
- Be enthusiastic!
"Okay kids, we have to sight sing" or "We get to sight sing this!"
Definitely the second. It may be tiring, but your energy will be reflected by your students. If you treat it like a chore, so will they.
- Sight sing with your kids!
My students visit the room all the time. Before school, after school, during lunch. Pick up something crazy (I reach for Ottman) and say "Sight sing this with me!"
Sight Sing Your Repertoire
Isn't this ultimately the goal? To have a choir that can read their own music rather than having to have it banged out on the piano? It may seem tough at first, but persevere and they will rise to it. Again, don't jump in too deep too quickly. Follow a process, making sure you don't move on to the next step until the previous one is mastered:
- Count rhythms (use your system - NO SINGING yet)
- Chant Sol Fege (again, NO SINGING yet)
- Sing Sol Fege (you may need to take difficult passages out of rhythm)
- Sing Fol Fege on Rhythm
- Sing parts on neutral syllable (pick something appropriate for the performance style. Some songs need loo, other ta, etc)
- Sing text
- Add expression
The first few pieces might take some time, but it's worth it. As the students get used to the process, they will improve and speed it up. Don't falter from the plan!
The Big Music Education Idea
We are creating musicians for life! Our students don't need to be music majors, but hopefully they continue to sing. Whether they go on to college choir, church choir, or community choir, we as music educators are responsible for maintaining a culture of singing through our students. If we prepare our students with the best technique, skills and knowledge we can, the quality of all of these groups will benefit.
What's most important is to be consistent and persist. Things won't be perfect at first, and even if they improve greatly off days will still happen. There was a day when my advanced choir couldn't count half notes to save their lives! Keep at it!