I am lucky to teach in an area where music education is highly valued and most of the area schools have robust music, and even more specifically choral, programs. The students in these programs are often required to take private voice lessons to be in the top choirs at their schools. Rhythm-clapping, tonal memory, solfege sightreading, a cappella major/minor/chromatic scales, and one repertoire selection are standard audition expectations for these top curricular choirs. This is an excellent musical environment for my voice students, but it also means that it can get quite competitive come audition time. That also means there is a thirst and desire for these skills in particular.
Why It’s Important to Teach Voice Students to Sightread
To get better at sightreading you actually have to do it regularly. I always joke with other singer friends that the best aural skills class I ever took were my church jobs. And, I got paid to be there! But truthfully, sightreading through solfege was a skill that I learned much earlier and served me well by helping me land many gigs simply because I could pick music up quickly. Excellent sightreading skills mean that you do not have to be taught the music by someone else. You are able to be an independent learner.
Identifying Patterns & Intervals
Solfege is a system that helps us identify musical patterns particularly through familiarity with intervalic singing. By attaching labels to each tone in the scale (i.e. do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do and the variations for chromatics) singers are able to gain some of the same connection to pitches that instrumentalists gain by attaching fingerings to their figures. Instead of feeling lost in a sea of unrelated pitches, singers can use this knowledge to understand common phrase shapes. I often tell my singers to look for goal posts, such as “do, mi, sol, mi, do,” to aid them through a section. I also find that this has the added benefit of helping my students do better during vocal jazz improvisation. Because they are more familiar with common motifs, they are able to call on them during an improv solo.
Theory During Voice Lessons
Sightreading is my voice teacher equivalent to “hiding vegetables in their food.” When teaching sightreading, my students and I always follow a pattern because I want them to internalize this method before they start singing a piece of music. We begin with, “what key are we in?” Since we sightread each week, this means they are practicing key signatures and recalling the key signature rules each week. The books I use work through key signatures systematically starting with C major then going on to G major and F major and so on and so forth.
The second question, “Do we start on Do?”, gives us a chance to identify letter names on the staff and talk about tonic and dominant relationships. I teach my students moveable do solfege first. Then, we work on la-based minor which is what they tend to use in the area schools. Once my students are comfortable with the various chromatic solfege labels, we’ll use those for minor keys. Finally, I teach them fixed do to work on thorny atonal works or just for another way to think through a phrase.
The third point before we begin singing is to “look for steps and skips.” The entire first book we work through in the studio is simply step-wise motion but this embeds the idea of quickly looking through the musical phrase before singing it.
Finally, I ask them, “What is the time signature?” and after they answer they are required to explain what that time signature means. So, in the span of a few short minutes during voice lessons we cover: key signatures, identifying letter names on the staff, tonic and dominant relationships, conjunct and disjunct motion, and time signatures.
Default Vocal Tone
We jump into solfege sightreading right after technique exercises as a way to drive home technical concepts. In my studio, we talk a lot about letting our ‘default vocal tone’ be our best tone quality. It is important to me that my students demonstrate their best vocal tone throughout an audition experience and not develop a ‘sightreading sound’ versus a ‘real sound’ or other nonsense. It is also my intention that they retain some of the sensations and feelings of our technical exercises while I’m challenging their thought process during solfege. This provides measurable improvements to all areas of solo vocal singing.
In my studio, we begin by working our way through the Samuel W. Cole and Leo R. Lewis Melodia – A Course in Sight-Singing Solfeggio. The First Series in Book I works through “One-part diatonic exercises in step-wise melody – G and F clefs – All major keys to B and to D-flat inclusive. All representations of notes and rests of whole-beat length and multiples thereof – Elementary presentations of the divided beat.” Even if I have more skilled singers, this is a great place for us to start because of the common initial trepidation to sigthreading.
After that, it’s, “Hello Ottman!” You thought you got away from these books once you left school, but now it’s time to put these crazy expensive sight singing books back to good use — on your students! When we’re ready to start practice larger interval jumps during sightreading, I use the Robert W. Ottman and Nancy Rogers Music for Sight Singing.
Skill Building is Confidence Building
Sightreading is such a beneficial skill that is often overlooked in voice lessons in this manner. I truly believe that building confidence is all about building skill. Part of my pedagogy for young singers is to pack as much skill building into a lesson as possible while still making it fun and positive. The students notice a difference, their parents notice a difference, and their school teachers notice a difference. That just makes my day.
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