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Sight Singing

I can't sight sing.
I'm an expereinced singer that has been singing seriously since the age 7. I've sang in various school choirs, but my main training comes from singing in a boys choir for 8 years (I was a soprano for 5 years, and been singing low bass since then). I've got a very good ear, and an excellent memory for memorizing music (part of the reason, I believe that I never learned sight singing).
I just began my freshman year, and I'm taking piano and voice lessons, and I am involved in a number of vocal ensembles. Unbelievably, even after my considerable vocal expereince, I still consider myself to be a relativley weak sight reader. I can pick ocasionally pick apart a tune very slowly, but it is very difficult for me to sight read reliably for the first time.
My question is, does anyone have any tips for how I might increase my sight reading skills? It's becoming very frustrating.
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on November 9, 2012 1:25pm
Ethan:  My guess is that your teachers/conductors missed a very important "readiness" period when you were young.  If your ear is good you're halfway there.  Now the goal is to relate what you can hear to the symbolic language that's on the page.
First question:  can you pick out a part on a keyboard (or on any other instrument)?  If not, you have no way of knowing whether you're correct or not, so you'll have to find someone else who is willing to work with you.  And if you can find someone who has a background in Kodaly teaching that would be absolutely the best possible situation, because you need to be taken through the ear-training process that you seem to have missed when you were younger.
So, get yourself a hymnbook, and set aside a time period every day when you can work with it.  Take 5 hymns each day and attempt to sightread the melody (the soprano line, but of course in your own range).  Before singing, LOOK at the page and absorb what's there.  Note where the notes move up, where they move down, and where they stay put for a while.  Now, find a starting pitch and SING it.
Note:  Only the first time counts as sightreading.  Repeating it to get it right is rehearsal, not sightreading, but of course you SHOULD repeat it until you get it right.
There's enough music in that single hymnbook to keep you busy for quite a while, and as you improve (and you WILL improve!!) you can take on more hymns every day, but always look, then read, then listen and rehearse.
At some point start over again and do the same thing with your bass lines.  Different clef, different note names, but exactly the same process.  And if you live long enough  you can expand to the alto parts and eventually the tenor parts.
But having a teacher to work with will definitely be the BEST way to proceed, so see what you can find.
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 5
on November 10, 2012 4:32am
Seek out a coach who will help you apply Kodaly techniques to your sight singng practice.
You have all the requisites necessary for becoming a good sight reader, and Kodaly techniques serve to provide a systematic overview of how you need to proceed in logical steps to acquire the specific skills you need.
Hopefully you will find someone in your current program with enough Kodaly instruction to get you started.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 10, 2012 10:05am
Ethan -- John and Ann have given you great expert answers.  I just want to say:  don't get frustrated; stick with it.  I was in the same boat, about 35 years ago.  I'd always learned pitches from someone else, and since I could play piano, that's how I taught myself my parts.  So when I heard other people sight-singing, I was shocked; it seemed almost like magic.  But if I learned, you can too, and you'll soon get the hang of the basics.  
To repeat terrific advice from ChoralNet and elsewhere that I've taken to heart:  "sing with your ear."  That is, learn sight-hearing or knowing what an interval sounds like from seeing it.  Once you can hear it in your head, then singing it comes naturally.  
There are some great "training wheels" too.  Here's a list of songs for interval recognition posted by Virginia Commonwealth University:  
Go for it!  chris 
on November 10, 2012 10:56am
I have been teaching sight singing for many years, and I often see among my students good singers that are weak readers.  I think that many singers learn to sing at an early age by ear and the brain doesn't learn how to make the connection between sound and visual perception.   You need to create that connection.
Practice makes proficience.  The more you do it, the better you get at it.  Any sight singing book will help you if you practice every day, at least 15-20 minutes.  Using solfege syllabus for pitch and conducting for the rhythm are helful.
Good luck!
on January 7, 2014 9:21am
Hi Ethan,
You got some great replies above. I actually just took 3 months out after directing and teaching at a University to try to write an iPad app that would help with this, because it was such an important issue for my students. Sight-singing books are great, but mostly you still need to be able to play the piano to keep checking your notes. So instead, I put a whole series of excercises onto an app that plays the notes when you touch them so you can check how you're doing, and don't need 5 years of keyboard lessons.
You can find the app here :   At the moment it's listed at $1.99, but I'd be happy to mail a promo code to you Ethan, or to anyone reading this thread who would like to try it out. It's really new, so I'd appreciate any feedback about it.
I would absolutely second everything Malcolm Gilbert says in particular, in trying to gather a good vocabulary of common three or four note groups. I would also add that actually composers love surprises! Sometimes we sing wrong notes because the composer has set us (or the audience) up to expect one thing... and then turns a diferent way on purpose. And often, these moments will turn out to be the most fun in performance. So back to Malcolm's point 4 :-)
All the best with your singing,
on February 6, 2014 9:15am
I would like to just share I was in the same boat as you when I started college.  I came from a very musical background and in fact our family had our own Barbershop quartet!  Even at that I was a poor sightreader.  I'll never forget one day I was singing in choir at school standing next to a friend who was an excellent sightreader and I was listening to her and watching the music and it was like all of a sudden a light bulb came on in my head and it made sense!  My point is to clarify Malcolm's comment about singing with confidence even if you miss some notes.  Singing out is one of the best ways to build your confidence and also find someone in your choir who is a great sightreader and stand next to them if you can.  That was a great help to me!
Keep at it! It will come!!
on February 6, 2014 3:43pm
Hello Ethan,
Just wanted to add in from my own experience of learning and teaching: don't ignore rhythm. I've co-written a method for reading rhythm, You've Got Rhythm: Read Music Better by Feeling the Beat, that integrates reading, vocalizing, and kinesthetics. We've found that developing rhythm-reading skills independently from pitch, and feeling it in your body as you read, can really help to improve overall reading. Our website has a lot of information on how you can do this on your own.
I studied sightsinging with a master in NYC, Liz Fleisher. There is a cohort of New Yorkers who have been regulars at her classes for years, mostly to have fun, I think--and that's great to remember, and is closely related to Malcolm's # 3 and #4. Practicing sightsingin can be an entertaining and even exhilarating game.
good luck and enjoy,
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