When I was studying music in college, my most-feared class was sight-singing lab. Ten or twelve of us students would sit in a music lab with our professor and be graded on sight-singing a line of notes from a book. In solfege. You’ve never heard as many warbly notes and vocal slides (us) or seen as many disappointed head-shakes (the professor) as we did in that class. But the skills I began developing there have served me well over the years, and if you’re an aspiring singer, they’re an essential part of your training as well.
Why Study Sight-Singing?
Singers who can sight-read a line of music hold a distinct advantage over their peers in several situations:
Auditions—Whether you’re auditioning for a part in the school musical, a place in the choir, or an actual singing job, you’ll most likely be expected to do some sight-reading as part of the process.
Rehearsals—Choirs, ensembles, quartets, solos—whatever singing goals you have, sight-singing skills will help you contribute more to your group and cut down on rehearsal time.
Landing Tough Jobs—Professional singers often have to crank out large amounts of music in a short time—recording background singers for an album, for instance. No one has time for the background singers to spend hours learning each song. You’ll be expected to sing accurately right from the start.
Building Your Sight-Singing Confidence
You can’t always count on having a pianist around to plunk out your musical line for you, so how can you make sight-singing skills a part of your musical toolbox?
Become a Rhythm Expert—Practice sight-reading rhythms by tapping them out on a table until you can get them nearly perfect the first time, every time. Don’t be thrown by changes in tempo, syncopated rhythms, or unusual time signatures.
Memorize Interval Sounds—No matter what key you’re in, every interval has a unique sound in relation to the tonic. You can use memory hooks to help you memorize what these intervals sound like. For instance, the first two notes of “Amazing Grace” are a major 4th, while the first two notes of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” are a major 6th. Practice these intervals until they become second nature.
Master Music Theory—In college, we used to joke that the voice majors didn’t have to know any theory; they just had to listen to their accompanists. Unfortunately, the habit of relying too heavily on the accompanist is an easy one for singers to develop and a hard one to break. But in order to sight-sing well, you need to have a clear understanding of major and minor keys and the chords that make up each key. It’s much easier to sing a harmonic part when you see it as part of a chord rather than an independent line.
Becoming a proficient sight-singer takes time and consistent practice, but when you nail your first audition—or in my case, get a satisfied nod from a picky professor—you’ll be glad you put in the effort.
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