Sight Singing Tips for Music Teachers

Although I am pretty well versed in music theory, and although for the most art I enjoyed music theory classes in college, ear training was a different story. I struggled with dictation, and struggled with sight singing, although much to my teacher’s amazement, I always managed to end on the right tonic pitch. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that ability to know where the tonic was even when I had lost track of other functions, is one of the keys to good sight reading. Other keys include practicing intervals with solfege, and practicing melodies with solfege. It was not until I began treating my sight singing like my major instrument, practicing it everyday,, that I saw some real improvements. And it all started with a level 1 Kodaly certification course. Let me explain.

I know now that my troubles with ear training were not due to my own deficiency, but were the result of ineffective teaching for me. When a student just can’t “get” something, often the reason is that the teacher is not connecting with the student through the teaching method being used. Such was the case with me in ear training. Others in my class picked it up quickly, others, like me, struggled. The problem turned out to be that not enough time was spent familiarizing me with specific intervals, and not enough attention was given to systematically and consistently labeling those intervals with solfege syllables. Before one can truly sight sing, one must know what the sounds of the pitches and intervals are, and then give the brain a way of remembering specific pitches and intervals. That way of remembering is solfege syllables.

For purposes of ear training, those syllables should be tonal syllables, often known as moveable do. When training the ear for music, as I alluded to before, job one is to be able to audiate the tonic pitch. With tonal syllables, the tonic pitch is always given the name “do,” and the rest of the diatonic pitches follow, re through ti. Once the tonic is committed to inner hearing, other pitches can be audiated in relation to the tonic. One of the first exercises that really helped me was to sing all diatonic intervals above the tonic. I practiced singing, do-re, do-mi, do-fa, do-so, do-la, do-ti, do-do’. I practiced this until I could accurately sing all of the intervals. As I went along, I reminded myself which interval was next. So, for example, before I sang “do-fa” I thought “perfect fourth.”

Next, I practiced the descending version: do’-ti, do’-la, do’-so, do’-fa, do’-mi, do’-re, do. Again, I prefaced each interval by remembering its name. Once I’d mastered that, I began skipping around. I’d sing a major third, then a major 6th, and so forth. That was my new drill for a few weeks, because it was much more difficult. Once that was mastered, I began reading simple melodies from the Ottman sight reading book many of us used in college. Having done all that preliminary work, I now had the tools to recognize intervals, recall the correct syllables which were tied to the correct pitches in my memory. Sight singing started to get much easier. From then on, it was just a matter of practicing melodies everyday. All of this regimen was started and became habit forming while taking the level 1 Kodaly certification seminar. I simply continued doing what I did there after the seminar was over.

Notice the level of detail I needed to learn finally to sight sing, and to accomplish on my own what I was unable to accomplish in a traditional ear training undergraduate class. Also notice the amount of time it took for me to achieve mastery working at it every day. Now consider how we can help our students achieve similar success at sight singing. Most don’t see our students everyday, and if we do, it’s likely to be in an ensemble such as band, choir, or orchestra, where other priorities easily overcome sight singing, especially in instrumental ensembles. But the inescapable fact is that learning to read music from written notation takes time. It is no less of an undertaking than learning to read a language and that takes daily classes of language arts often for two hours at a time. So we must be relentless and constant in teaching music reading to our students. Even if it is only for 10 minutes per class, it must be taught every time we see every student. If it is, progress will be made, though it will take longer than we might wish.

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