Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How to Practice Sight Singing

To be able to hear internally the music you see on the page is one of the most valuable skills that a singer can develop. This skill can shorten the time that it takes to learn music and it makes you a valuable addition to any vocal ensemble. Professional and semi-professional vocal ensembles require some level of sight reading ability to be considered for entry into the group.

Sight singing is a skill that develops over time. It requires practice on a fairly consistent basis and it requires one to continue to challenge oneself with ever increasingly difficult tasks. It also requires combining a number of skills. You must know some basic music theory. Theory encompasses time signatures, rhythm, key signatures, as well as chordal structure and other elements.

Of the theory elements needed to sight read, I find that rhythm and key signatures are the most helpful. In my own sight reading practice and in teaching others, I have also found that systematizing your process is very helpful. The systematic process eliminates anxiety around the task. For myself and for my students, I try to do the following:

1. Start with very easy snippets of pieces. Most sight reading books start with easier exercises which get progressively more difficult. Pick an easier exercise to start with.

2. Determine the pulse or tactus of the piece. This task necessarily requires that you can understand the meaning of the time signature. For instance, in 6/8 time, there are six beats in each measure and the eighth note is getting the beat or pulse. In 4/4 time, there are four beats in each measure and the quarter note gets the beat or pulse. Is the quarter note getting the beat? Is it easier to give the eighth note the beat if there are many eighth notes? Determine what note value is going to be getting the beat and start to pulse that by tapping with your hand or foot. Is all this gibberish to you? Then a basic music theory work book would be the place to start. Then start to look at other sight reading skills. First basic literacy, then advanced skills. I think of sight reading as an advanced skill.

3. While keeping the pulse by tapping your foot, clap the rhythm. In doing so, see if your inner ear starts to "hear" the notes on the page in front of you. Often singers find that they can hear some of the notes, and often singers will get a sense of the musical line and the chromatic alterations of notes.

4. Determine the key signature. I use solfege syllables: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti and do for the major and minor scales, with altered syllables for chromatically altered notes. (A word for those in the know, that means that I use la based minor. I find it is easier to use only one set of solfege for both major and minor keys) The name of the key signature indicates where do is. So if the key of the piece is G major, G will be do, A will be re, B will be mi, etc.

5. Notice the beginning solfege syllable that you must sing. Notice the ending solfege syllable, notice the highest and lowest solfege syllables. Finally, notice any chromatic alterations. If you are a beginner, try to select pieces that have no chromatic alterations. Stay with simpler pieces until you feel comfortable with the solfege.

6. Do not write in any of the solfege syllables. Writing them in defeats the purpose. The purpose is to read the notes, not the solfege, so resist the urge to write them in. Sing the scale of the piece from low do up to high do and then back down to low do. Play the opening pitch on the piano if you have one, then avoid playing any more notes on the piano. Then go ahead and slowly attach the solfege syllables for the note in your mind and sing the appropriate solfege for each note. Take the piece out of rhythm if you must, but try to hear each note in your mind before you sing it. Once you have gone through it several times, then go back and tapping the pulse, try to sing the solfege in rhythm. Do not worry if the pitches or solfege are elusive. If you miss a note, go back and sing the scale to find the missed note and try again. Remember to do this all from inner hearing rather than from the piano.

7. Practice daily. You can practice the same piece over and over as your mind begins to learn the interval associations. When you get bored with the one piece, go on to a slightly more difficult one, always following the same system. Over time you will determine your strengths and weaknesses and then it becomes easier to work on them.

Have fun and happy singing!

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