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Sight singing help

Colleagues --
I am interested in soliciting from the membership HOW one learns to sight sing. I believe for myself that playing an instrument for four years prior to be asked to sight sing helped in my sense of a home tone, and a lifetime of singing prior to high school helped with my intervals. My 14 year-old daughter is having a tough time with maintaining DO and also with her intervals. She currently plays bass clarinet in band. Any insight to how I (or her voice teacher) may help her would be appreciated.
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on April 30, 2012 8:46am
Craig, you raise an interesting question concerning the difference between reading as a singer as opposed to an instrumentalist.  I also entered the choral world after several years in band, and I believe it helped form my reading abilities as well.  But the fact is they are two different worlds.  An instrumentalist has a physical component there to help him/her as they learn to read.  A given pitch only has one finguring, for instance.  Even the difference in embrochure in producing different octaves is a physical element.  Of course the best players do develop a sense of pitch in their mind, but they are rarely asked to sing their part.  The singer lives in the psychological world, which, IMO, is much more difficult and complex.  You could coach your daughter to sing her instrumental parts, which might connect those worlds.  A real danger there relates to the register of the sounds she is hearing from her bass clarinet being too low for her young female voice.  In my case I was becoming a very good baritone horn player at the same time my voice was changing into a baritone.  This may a factor in her having a difficult time holding a home pitch, or matching pitches in general.  She may be trying to connect her vocal instrument with the other instrument with which she experiences music.  That's a can of worms.  It may also be an issue that her choir director (voice teacher) has not considered.
There's more to be considered.  I'm assuming you are referring to movable DO, not fixed DO.  If you're trying to develop fixed DO, think hard about the above issue.  Also, she may have a difficult time producing pitches in her high register, and is trying to keep everything in her chest voice.  That is tricky, especially in the area around middle C.  I've had better experience getting young singers to start high and come down through the register break than the other way around.  All of a sudden the "ear" (really MIND, of course) could produce matching pitch and scale passages that way.  (Top down, rather than bottom up, I mean).  
Also, try to find some physical activity to tie into this, hand movements with pitch changes, Kodaly hand signals, that kind of thing might be a help.  There's a lot of stuff to consider.  Bottom line, be very, very careful in dealing with such a young voice and ego.  Don't be overly concerned, as this is something that may develop on its own.
Hope this is helpful.  Nice to see a loving Dad being involved.  All the best, Glen
on April 30, 2012 9:08am
Hi, Craig.  I don't teach sightsinging (thank goodness!), and neither my late wife nor I could remember a time when we could NOT read music, so I might not be the best person to ask.  But here goes anyway.
You learn to read music exactly the same way you learn to read language:  by DOING it, and by doing it over a period of time.  And the learning sequence is about the same as well:  first listen and imitate (yes, there's a REASON for nursrey rhyms and childhood songs!).  That's how infants learn language, but NOT spelling or grammar (i.e. the actual structures of spoken or written language).  Then, and ONLY then, once the fundamentals of communication through language (or music) have been firmly established, go through the very complex process of equating marks on paper with the actual sounds they represent, whether spoken or sung.  The ear ALWAYS comes first!  And finally (and much later in the process), learn to WRITE your thoughts, whether in language or in music, using the marks on paper that you've learned represent the acutal language or the actual music.
Proper music teaching, whether it's done in the schools or at home, will encourage and support that learning at the appropriate ages when the child's mind is open and ready to learn.  Doing it later is possible, but is an effort to play catchup.  A very wise musicians named Zoltan Kodály worked this out early in the 20th century and developed materials and a methodology to make it work.  But the FIRST step is to educate the inner ear, NOT the left brain with its symbolic reasoning, which is why "Sightsinging" classes in college, no matter how well taught, are actually remedial classes for students who had poor music teachers in elementary school.
You mention instrumental playing.  Yes, absolutely, but simply because beginning band and orchestra classes INSIST on students learning to interpret the dots on the page, since they couldn't operate otherwise.  Too many choral teachers are content to teach by ear (which always works because we're wired to learn that way, but which is terribly inefficient).
My advice to someone beyond childhood has always been to buy a decent hymnbook and methodically sing through at least 5 to 10 hymns every day, checking for accuracy AFTER sightreading them.  Start with the melody.  Then go back for another round with the alto part, then the bass part, and finally the tenor part.  There's a wealth of practice material between the covers of that book.  But only the FIRST time through is sightreading; anything after that is rehearsal!!!
One of the workshops provided by Disney for the members of The All American College Singers in my cast was given by a guy who had been a very successful jazz sax player, but who also sang and wanted to break into the world of studio singing.  So he took a year and trained himself so that he could not only sightread anything off the page accurately the first time, but understood the entire gamut of styles that he might be called on for.  And he became VERY valuable to recording producers because he could walk into the studio, ask what style they wanted, and record his tracks ON THE FIRST TAKE!  And he ended up doing the voices of quite a few non-singing actors on film, just as Marni Nixon did for a lot of non-singing actresses.
All the best,
on May 1, 2012 6:46am
Hi Craig,
I will piggy-back on what John wrote.  He is absolutely right that learning to become musically literate (which is more than just than just sight-singing, but that's another topic) is very much like the way a child learns a language (sound ALWAYS comes first, then notation, then theory).  This is where most of us get it completely backwards - we show kids the symbols and then give them the corresponding sound/rhythm for that sound.  Or even worse, we talk about the theory first (this is the circle of fifths, 'do' to 'so' is a fifth, etc), then the notation, then the sound.
Being able to sight-READ is different from being able to sight-SING.  Sight-reading is a matter of learning to decode notation and to press a button/key at the right time.  Sight-SINGING is MUCH more difficult.  It requires being able to internally "hear" a sound before it's sung (also known as "audiation").  You can intellectually understand that two notes on the page are 'do' and 'so' and that they form the interval of a fifth, but if you can't hear that sound relationship in your head first, there's no way of successfully singing those two notes - it's little more than guesswork.  This is the problem with the notation-first approach.  You have to work on building an aural vocabulary first - and that's learned without any notation or theory whatsoever.
I think the Kodaly system is excellent for younger kids.  In its simplest form, the procedure is to teach songs aurally first...lots of them.  And then from those songs (which should be sequenced in terms of their melodic/harmonic and rhythmic content), the teacher begins extracting various elements (high vs. low relationship, one sound per beat vs. two sounds per beat, etc).  Then the teacher gives those relationships a name (high-low=so-mi; one sound-two sounds=ta ta-di...or ta ti-ti, depending on your rhythm method) and THEN, the teacher shows the symbols for those sounds.  Again, most of us try to teach in exactly the opposite direction...a sure recipe for frustration and very slow learning.
My main "complaint" with the Kodaly system is that I have not seen a good demonstration (so far) of how it can work with older students (and adults).  Sure, I could teach them "Lucy Locket" and "Apple, Apple", but songs like that are not really appropriate for older beginners - and I don't really have time to teach them a bunch of songs in addition to our performance literature.  The approach I use is very much like Kodaly (sound first), but it's more based on the work of Edwin Gordon and the work of Carol Krueger.  Basically, rather than teaching songs first, I teach *patterns* first (using solfege and a rhythm system).  This is done in a call and response type manner.  For example, I sing "do-mi-so", the students sings "do-mi-so" back.  I sing every permutation of do, mi and so - and the students sing back on the solfege syllable.  Then I sing those same patterns on a neutral syllable (bah, for example) and the students sing back on the solfege syllables.  If they are struggling with this, then I have to go back to chanting on solfege syllables again.  Next step is to introduce notation.  That's it in a very brief nutshell.  I write about the prodedure in more detail in two articles titled "But I Don't Have Time," located here:
There are also lots of flashcards and things available for free that I've created to help my students (high school AND adult) learn to become musically literate individuals. 
Good luck!
on May 1, 2012 11:37am
And allow me to piggy-back again on Mike's excellent post, with which I agree completely EXCEPT for one thing.
Disclaimer:  I am not Kodály trained, but my late wife had 3rd level certification and worked with some truly outstanding teachers.  Kodály is NOT just sol-mi and NOT just simple children's songs, but too many of our music educators are given a very sketchy introduction to his methodolgy that only emphaiszes the beginning stages.  Of COURSE you do not use children's songs with older students or with adults.  The core of the method is much like Montessori teaching, creating a prepared environment (in this case a prepared MUSICAL environment) from which various aspect can be drawn for teaching.  And that environment can be drawn from the music on which you are working, or which you are PREPARING TO INTRODUCE!  And solfege is fundamental, since it prepares and trains the ear (actually the mind).  That's why Guido d'Arezzo invented it in the 11th century, and why Kodály adopted it in the 20th, because it was designed and meant as an educational tool by both of them.
My wife's book, "Recorder in the Kodály Classroom," introduces recorder playing as just another way of singing, and does NOT use "sol-mi" as a basis because the requirements of acquiring accurate recorder technique need a different approach.  But the Kodály methodology is there, beneath the surface, and make the method usable for teachers without Kodály training or background.
Kodály's materials themselves (and there are TONS of them!) are not restricted to the beginning levels, but are designed to carry through a sequenced program to produce not just professional musicians but literate and appreciative audiences as well.  Which is what we should ALL be interested in doing, right?
All the best,
on May 1, 2012 10:19am
Busy today - giving you the shorthand version:
Kids often dont' know how to sing intervals cause they dont' understand how many notes they're skippng.  (Even though they may sing them perfectly correctly in their fave Adele song..)
If I want to teach how to sing from E to  A (higher) in the key of A, I'll go to the poster on the side of my room.  It has numbers and solfege side-by-side (to infuse/blend their varied backgrounds) in a very large-print, color-coded, vertical representation of a scale.   Like others have suggested, we'll sing the interval first. 
Then I'll say, "Now sing this including the notes in between.  (all sing E,F#, G# A on the syllables so, la, ti. do)  We'll do this several times with the following variations: With my hand pointing to the syllables/numbers, and my voice singing the same, I'll lead them to emphasize the E and A (sung as so and  do [ the one at the top end of the scale] through accenting and elongating, and making the in-between notes (F# and G#) less and less audible, less rhythmically significant (like 8th, to 16th, but it's not strict time) - the goal is to make the skipped notes vocally dissapear, but they still know they have skipped them, because I am still quickly pointing over them.  Now they know what a 4th sounds like, looks like, feels like, and why it's called a 4th.  It's not instant/magic - will need prompting and reminders for several days -  but they do get and apply this concept.  I have taught people who could not match pitch, much less maintain their home key.  After 3 years w/ me, one of my "tone-deaf" (people rarely are) freshman was successfully teaching the others how to sight-sing.  Also, be sure that she understand the notes in-between the staff, (middel C, and the surrounding 4 notes) how they "travel" (are represented on either clef), and every line and space must be counted, even if it is an "imaginary" leger line, or the space between.    (She knows this from clarinet, but has probably memroized the position of each note - not necessarily fully-aware of it's relationship to the rest of the scale.)
We used to use "familiar" songs - "Here Comes the Bride" for a 4th, "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean" for a 6th.  These are totally ineffective in current pop-influenced culture.  (Kids - many adults -  have never heard them, and pop songs change by the minute.)  Twinkle/ABC/BaBa BlackSheep still works for a 5th.
For "Do" maintenance, have her repeatedly sing a note that is upper/mid-range for her - on the syllable "Nah".  While she does, you play crazy chords on the piano.  If she loses the DO, have her sing louder, more assertively (Keep head tone if possible, but you can temporarily sacrifice timebre/technique for note-success.)  Most folks eventully get this.  Then you can have them sing their DO, be silent while you play crazy chords, and sing the DO again.  Teaches them to trust their tonal memory - which they have or they would't be singing.
As others have alluded, the finger-to-brain behavior required for bass clarinet might be confusing her cognitive process for directional high and low...?  (I'm not a wind player..)
Good texts - you can order  online - are 1.  Sight-singing - Hal Leonard, 2. The Independent Singer - Kjos, and 3. the Nancy Telfer books.
Piano lessons are very helpful  in that they visually demonstrate high/low, half-step/whole step, keynotes are reinforced in chords, keynotes look alike in each octave, etc.  But don't learn to play the piano in order to play your part or play your sight-singing.  As John says, that is no longer sight-singing and is counter-productive.  One thing that can be good if you have the self-discipline not to cheat, :) is to try the song, and immediately after singing each note, play it.  Gives immediate feedback/reinforcement/guidance.
Keep at it, gently.  :)  14, in my experience, is a very self-judgemental age, and they make themselves nervous by constant self-questioning.  Start simple - Baby steps - program success for confidence-building.  Gradually add more complexity.  She can do this.  :)
Best Wishes,
Lucy  (I'm in Metro Atlanta, if you are there and wish help)
on May 1, 2012 11:00am
Craig, you might want to use the following resources from two great choral directors that have had tremendous success teaching students to sightsing.  The techniques fornd in these books worked for my students and my own children as well! 
90 Days to Sight-Reading Success Stan McGill & H. Morris Stevens, Jr. Publisher: Alliance Music Publishing,  AND
Another 90 Days to Sight Reading Success. (A Singer's Resource for Competitive Sight-Singing). By McGill/Stevens. For voice solo. Choral, Sight-Reading, Instructional. Book & rehearsal CD. Published by Alliance Music Publications (AN.AMC-2013).
"Another 90 Days to Sight Reading Success is a collaborative effort of Stan McGill and H. Morris Stevens, Jr. to provide students with training exercises to serve as preparation for the competitive sight reading experience. It was written as a result of numerous requests from students who found success using their original book 90 Days to Sight Reading Success. The premise of this book parallels its predecessor. There are notable changes based on feedback from those who have used the original, guided practice with each week organized by theme and the utilization of improved and expanded CD tracks. The helpful hints are a compilation of instructions the two directors provided for their own students involved in individual sight reading and auditions. It is the authors' hope that students and teachers alike will find this book as equally rewarding as their first edition and useful in preparing for sight reading competitions."
The accompanying CD is invaluable for giving the student a guide to the lessons and examples.  Hope this helps! Happy sightreading!
~ Dan Girardot
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