Sight-Reading Is Stupid

Before you freak out over the title, let me put this into context…

I teach four semesters of sight-singing (not at the same time) at Five Towns College. I also direct an a cappella ensemble, for credit.

The a cappella ensemble is a non-auditioned choir. By the laws of the school, I’m not allowed to audition for it (don’t ask…long story) so anyone can register and start singing a cappella. This is actually a great way to promote a cappella, and it gets as many people singing as possible, but the quality suffers in specific ways. For most of these ensemble members, the black dots on the page are just that: black dots. They can’t read music at all.

One day, a student comes up to me after rehearsal and asks: “Why do you make us sight-read when we’re clearly going to learn the notes by ear anyway?”

My answer: “Because you are getting a music degree in a music school and you should be able to learn how to sight-read.”

His response: “I’m a film major. (Yes we have those too...) I’m in this group because I enjoy singing, but I don’t know how to sight read and I will never use that skill.”

My response: “You don’t think sight-reading is a valuable skill for musicians?”

His response: “Sight-reading is stupid.”

This begs the question…is sight singing a valuable tool for all a cappella singers?

Let’s discuss…

1) Yes, you idiot. Sight singing is important.

Let’s pretend that you meet a scientist on the street. You ask him/her what they do, and he/she says “I’m a rocket scientist.” Then you ask him/her if they know the periodic tables, and he/she says “No…what’s that?”

You’d probably think he/she wasn’t a very good rocket scientist, right?

The same goes for professional musicians. If you are going to graduate with a music degree, you better know the ins and outs of music to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. That includes being able to sight-read. There are numerous advantages to sight-reading:

-Sight-reading helps you learn music faster and more efficiently, thus giving you more time to work on expressive musical attributes

-Sight-reading helps you tune chords, because you know what note you are currently singing within the harmonic structure

-Sight-reading helps you identify pitches that are incorrectly sung/played by other members of the ensemble

-The ability to sight-read will give you an edge over other musicians who cannot learn music as quickly as you can

I think the reason more people don’t know how to sight-read is because of three factors: A lack of consistency, a poor sight-singing method, and a “why should I care about this?” attitude.

Consistency simply means that we, as educators, don’t reinforce these skills enough. Now, this does not apply to many music educators, including a cappella friends of mine, who I know for a fact incorporate sight-reading into every lesson. But how many of us have forgone the day’s sight-reading lesson because the winter concert is coming up and we are pressed for time? That small gap snowballs into a bigger absence of sight-reading. Sure you forget to do it one day, and then maybe two days, and then maybe three days…sooner or later you haven’t done a sight-reading lesson in months and picking it back up again is too difficult because you’re not even sure where you left off.

A poor method is the one I blame the most for a lack of sight-reading practice. I HATE sight-singing books. All of them. Berkowitz, Ottman, Melodia, Bauguess…in my mind, all these books, on their own, are terrible.

I’ve found that to really train a class in sight-reading, you need to give them multiple examples of the same concept. These books introduce new concepts too quickly, without leaving time for a student to master the previous concepts. For example, maybe a chapter that introduces a DO-SOL skip will have two or three melodies with that particular jump. Then all of a sudden, the book starts adding in new concepts to the next few melodies OR they put it in a different clef OR they put it in a difficult time signature…

When I introduce my sight-singing classes to a new concept, new interval, etc. I give them 24-32 examples (you read that correctly) before adding something new to their plate. Granted, that’s easier to do when the entire class period is just devoted to sight-singing, but the same method holds true for choral classes. If you want your students to master something, you need to give them a lot of practice first.

Speaking of practice, I have found that when approaching a new melody, the students often stare at the example like a deer in headlights. Why? Because I’m asking them to read complicated rhythms PLUS use solfege words PLUS sing the correct pitches in tune.

The most success I’ve had teaching sight-reading is with a method I developed. We practice this method in class with every new concept until the students feel comfortable enough to skip a few steps in the method and go straight to singing the example. I call it the “7 steps method.” (And the award for most clever name of anything goes to…)

Step 1- Write the numeric counts out for the rhythms above each note.

This is so they understand which rhythms fall on the beat and which ones fall on upbeats.

Step 2- Read the counts out loud, in tempo.

Use a metronome. This is non-negotiable.

Step 3- Speak the rhythm on a neutral syllable while counting in your head.

DON’T CLAP RHYTHMS. You can’t hold claps out. Clapping a whole note sounds exactly like clapping a quarter note with three rests.

Step 4- Write the correct solfege for each note under the staff.

Solfege requires its own mental process, as it is a musical language. This needs to be isolated until the students can speak the language fluently.

Step 5- Speak the solfege in rhythm, in tempo.

Step 6- WITHOUT rhythm, sing the example, one note at a time.

Go through the example and hold each note. Make sure the students understand what each interval jump sounds like and don’t let them move onto the next one until they sing it perfectly.

Step 7-Sing the example, using correct pitches, correct rhythms, and solfege.

This method helps isolate each obstacle in sight-reading. Obviously, the goal is to eventually eliminate some or all of the steps until step 7 is the only one they need.

If you are going to use a sight-singing textbook…I’M BEGGING YOU... find multiple textbooks and use multiple examples, OR write your own. Don’t move on to the next concept until the students have mastered the first one.

The third factor, that students often wonder why they even need sight-reading, is its own challenge…

2) No you idiot. I don’t need no stinkin' sight-reading.

In 2013, I attended the a cappella festival Singstrong DC, where one of the big headliners was Maxx Factor, the female barbershop quartet featured on The Sing-Off, and, at the time, the number one ranked barbershop quartet in the world.

During a Q&A session, they were asked the following question by someone in the audience:

“How do you learn music? Do you know how to sight-read?”

Their answer was (and I’m paraphrasing here):

“We learn everything by ear. None of us read music. We learn our notes with learning tracks or someone teaches it to us and we work solely on musicality.”

This answer got me thinking…If the number one ranked barbershop quartet didn’t know how to read music, then why did any of my students have to?

Take a look around your choir. How many of those students do you think will go to college/grow up to be musicians in some capacity? Unless you teach at a very specific school, the answer is definitely not 100%.

Why are we teaching students, who will most likely never sing again once they graduate school, to sight-read? Better yet, since most college a cappella groups are partly made up of non-musicians who don’t know how to sight-read anyway, why do we care so much?

The argument against sight-reading is this: Music is much more than black dots on a page. Notes and rhythms are important, but we spend too much time on them. What we should be doing is working on everything else, from dynamics to articulations to lyrical meaning to emotional expressions.

If your group learns much faster by ear than it does trying to read, then that shouldn’t bother you or anyone else.

True, sight-reading speeds up the note learning process significantly. That just can’t be argued, but it takes an incredible amount of time to teach a skill like that. And to teach someone who, after they graduate, will never use that skill again…that doesn’t make sense to me.

As a former high school choir director, I was much more focused on getting kids to enjoy music than worrying so much about the musical skills that most of them will probably never use. I wanted them to realize there was a world of great music out there that wasn’t popular radio hits, and that often took so much time and convincing that sight-reading was not even on my radar. Plus, I worked mainly on vocal technique.

If you believe that sight-reading is important, then great. Go forth and multiply. As a college professor who teaches four semesters of sight-singing, I agree that sight-singing is absolutely vital…to anyone who wants to be a musician. The rest of us who sing in a cappella groups for the fun of it…here are some learning tracks you can use. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Marc Silverberg

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