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Music reading in community choir

Hi All,

Here is a compliation of responses to my original message regarding sight
reading for my community choir...

Hi All,

It has been a while since I have sought the infinite wisdom of the members of
choralist but it is time again. I belong to a 30-40 member community choir.
Just recently, the number of non music readers vs. those who can read has
dramatically. In the past we used to create practice tapes and have
decided that
we will have to do this again.

I was hoping to get some feedback on how you work with non music readers to be
able to get them to learn their parts well.

Thank you for your input,

Mitchell J. Sharoff

Not to be pendantic, but why not devote a part of rehearsals to
teaching music reading
Been there. Done that.
Robert Jordahl


Hello, Mitchell--

I am now lucky enough to have a choir which I audition for sightreading, but
I have heard from a number of directors variations on the fllowing technique:

Admit people, and support their learning with the tapes, but require them to
attend a weekly pre-rehearsal notation and sight-reading class (20-30 minuts)
until they pass a skills test. Their participation in the concerts is
conditional upon their attendance in the class--and to be scrupulously fair
and non-threatening about learning a new skill as an adult (which many people
feel threatened by), make it clear it doesn't matter how long it takes them
to get up to the standard, just so they keep coming to the class.

It's people who refuse to try to learn who are the problem.

If you can integrate the lesson of the day into the subsequent rehearsal, the
people who've had to show up for it will be thrilled when their brand-new key
signature, or interval, or whatever, leaps right out of the music at them.

In short, for adults who happen to be ignorant but who are not stupid, create
a non-threatening environment with lots of positive reinforcement--big
carrot, small stick.


Hello Mitchell,

Our rehearsal tapes, called Song-Learning Tapes™ have only piano on them, with
the singer's part played at foreground level, other parts and accompaniment in
the background. This makes it imperative that the singer is working from their
score as they listen to the tape, thus reinforcing the choices of notes,
intervals and rhythms that all sight readers make, just as when they are
listening to a rehearsal piano in the practice room. As I was developing
Song-Learning Tapes™ I experimented with them with my high school choirs for
many years, and found that proper use of the tapes -- having the singer
following along in the music as they worked with the tape -- actually enhanced
note reading skills.

There are commercial rehearsal tapes available with singers on them, but we
think that those are mere rote learning devices which tend to suppress note
learning skills because people end up listening to the tape in their cars, or
wherever, without trying to follow along in their music. This effectively
kills any benefit the tapes might have as a note reading aid.

Tapes with only piano give the singer a solid foundation of having learned the
"nuts and bolts" part of learning their music: notes, intervals and rhythms
are learned at home, and they arrive at rehearsals ready for the director to
deal with nuances right off the bat. Not only do our tapes work like a charm
to teach the specific part and enhance note reading skills, but they help to
make the singer aware of all the interacting harmonies and rhythms in the
other voice parts and accompaniment.

I will be happy to send you a complimentary Song-Learning Tape™ demo package,
consisting of a demo tape, score excerpts of the two examples on the demo
tape, catalog and info/price sheet. OR, you could choose one of the major
works (the alto tape, perhaps?) in our catalog (which I will send as a
separate e-mail). Just let me know which you would like to hear. If you are
considering singing one of the shorter, more accessible major works, receiving
a complimentary tape of that work would give your choir a way to preview the
work as well as listen to how easy our tapes are to follow along.

If you would like to receive the free demo pack or a complimentary tape of a
major work -- no obligation, of course -- please let me know where you would
like me to send it. Feel free to play an excerpt of it for your choir and see
what they think.

Best from,

Gary Hammond, Owner, Hammond Music Service - Song-Learning Tapes™ for choirs
A retired choir director (32 years) who is enjoying serving his art in a new
grhammond(a) or songtape(a)
Toll-free: 800.628.0855
FAX: 909.659.0798
Hammond Music Service
P.O. Box 585
Idyllwild CA 92549-0585


Please contact me if I can help you with practice tapes. I make such
tapes for many choirs in the Cincinnati/TriState region.

Tom W. Sherwood, bass-baritone,
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA


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1. Try a little sightreading "drill" at every rehearsal, at least early
in the season. This should include singing from number patterns in
various ways. The eventual goal is to connect sound of familiar
intervals (M6ths, m3rds, etc.) with specific scale numbers and, then,
with specific melodies in the music under study.
2. If you rehearse 1x/week, set aside half the rehearsal for PART
REHEARSALS in separate rooms, at least men in one room & women in

I KNOW the problem with non-readers; they increased five-fold at
Brooklyn College over the past 20 years!

Best wishes,
Bruce MacIntyre
Brooklyn College/CUNY


Hi Mithell,

First get them to learn hw to read (the sooner they can read, the better it

In the meantime, I give them tapes sung by voice leaders : first just their
part, then the 4 (or ???) parts together.


Francis RAMA [mailto:francisr(a)]


I'm vocal director for Guys and Dolls at a Performing Arts Magnet. I've
sequenced individual parts for Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat, Follow The
Fold (easy right? - wrong!) and The Oldest Establishment.

If some have a "good" ear and will listen to the tapes - great! The tone death
people don't seem to bother with the tapes.


My best advice would be to silence the piano as often as is possible.
The singers tend to "lean" on it for pitch, rather than looking inward
to the inner ear. The real key to this approach is the ability of the
director to "hear" in this way.

Tom W. Sherwood, bass-baritone,
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA


Dear Michael,
They will never learn to read in accordance with the demands of the printed
page. The gospel choirs have taught us that the non-reader does not need to
read to learn the music. That may be hard for some of us to swallow. What
worries me about the non-reader is that the person singing feels stressed to
follow the printed page. If a copy of music is held, the reader needs to know
that the notes go up, or down, or repeat and the the wider the interval of
the note, the wider the sound of the music. The singer learns by rote and
make reference to the page.
Best,Charles H. Matz


Dear Mitchell:

When I first took over my church choir, I instituted a voluntary sight
reading class 45 minutes before the usual rehearsal time. We started with the
very basics: recognizing and naming notes, learning the scale, drilling
intervals and rhythmic patterns. Those who attended were soon astounded and
pleased with their progress, and they had great satisfaction in deciphering
the hitherto mysterious symbols that accompanied the words in our anthems.
Their enthusiasm and better musicianship raised the level of the choir as a

Jeannine Wagner


If you only focus on "learning their parts" you're only treating the
symptom. For the long term, your strategy should be to teach them to sight
read. A few workshops (before rehearsal, on weekends, or in between
sessions) on the basics will help those who are totally clueless, but much
of it has to occur during the rehearsal itself. The director should
constantly refer to notes (and other musical symbols) by name, point out
half and whole steps, always point out errors in rhythms or pitches by
mentioning the note values or intervals involved, and so on.

Non-readers tend only to look at the words; you must force them to look at
the music notation. Sing the music on "la," or counting. All of this will
take a lot of time; but in a couple of years the chorus will be much
better, and director, singers, and audience will find it a more rewarding

I don't recommend getting a sight-reading curriculum, however; those assume
you're having daily rehearsals. The before-rehearsal sessions I mentioned
are only for teaching the vocabulary on a "this is a whole note" level.

Allen H Simon
Bay Area Lutheran Chorale -- changing our name to Soli Deo Gloria in June 1999


Mr. Sharoff:
I suggest you come at it from the other direction--make the study of
vocal sightreading a condition of their membership. When they
reaudition the following year, if there is marked improvement, they
maintain their membership; if not, . . .

This has worked for the 175-voice community chorus which I conduct. I
should also mention that we take a developmental approach to auditions,
i.e., we have a list of seven voice teachers who are affordable,
well-trained and whose teaching has made a difference in voices that are
part of our chorus. I also have two musicianship teachers on the list.

Thomas Sheets
UMS Choral Union
Ann Arbor, MI



My advice about your non-readers is to teach them to read music. It
will be time well spent. In my church choir, I handle this in the
Fall by holding 1/2 sessions before the regular rehearsal for 5-8
weeks (depends on the needs) on notation. I also cover some basic
terms & dynamics. Those who still need help I sometimes send to the
section leaders.

Timothy Brown
Mountain View United Methodist Church
Boulder, Colorado


There is a new text book out for Texas Schools that has excellent short sight
reading exercises. Available in three levels with a teacher wraparound book
that has lesson plans already done! There are even CD accompaniements.

"Essential Musicianship" levels 1,2,3

It's sequential so you can start from where you are and progress.
Earl Presley
Dir. of Choral Activities
Burkburnett High School
Burkburnett, TX


"The Folk Song Sight Singing Series" published by Oxford University
Press is an excellent source of sight reading material. The book itself is
compact (5"X7"), inexpensive ($3.50, though a dealer could probably get it
for you for less), and all of the exercises are actual folk melodies from
all over the world. They are short one liners, which is nice because I
believe the best way to learn sight reading is to do just a little bit each
day. Too much at one time can easily become drudgery and, frankly, hated by
your choir. There are 10 levels, each one is a book. For beginners, Book
One is an excellent place to start. It even indicates where "Do" is for the
first 50 exercises. As you progress through the levels (Book 2, 3, 4,
etc.), greater chromaticism is introduced, and, in later books there are
duets. Any other questions feel free to e mail. I have had real success
with them in my first year at this high school with a bunch of students that
previously did not know the difference between a note and a coffee stain.

Matthew Wanner
Director of Choral Activities
Brown Deer High School



I do about 20 minutes of sight-singing before my community choir rehearsals
for anyone who wants to turn up. I use Nancy Telfer's Sight-Singing book,
volume 1, published by Kjos. The texts are really silly, but the adults
don't care, and most of the time I make them sing with moveable "do" anyway.
(I'm a died-in-the-wool Kodaly person.)

Kathy Bowers

Kathryn Smith Bowers
St. Louis Missouri USA



My opinion is that any kind of regimental training (i.e. a textbook) may be
balked at. My suggestion would be to incorporate as much theory as you can
into the warm up and actual rehearsing of your repertoire. This has the
nice benefit of keeping the choir thinking instead of just doing what you
tell them. The idea is to ask questions and lead the choir to figure things
out instead of just telling them. For example: a final chord-- "who is on
the root of the chord?" then "what pitch is the third of the chord?" and
then you can move to higher-level listening-- "what note in the chord needs
to be louder (or softer)?" or "which note in the chord is the least
important?" I am not suggesting that you have them raise their hands, but
just to answer out loud and presumably to themselves (if they are shy or

Another example (in a warm up): sing a unison note (e.g. A) on "oo." Move
up a perfect fourth. Now down a whole step. Etc. putting in as much theory
as you wish.

Our community chorus has a class we have called "Music Reading For Dummies"
that we crank up every semester (usually 4 weekly classes) to aid those who
are willing to work on thei skill on their own time. My concern is that is
you start doing rudimentary theory in rehearsal, you will lose the interest
and motivation in your more experienced singers.

My two cents!

Steve Mulder
Concert Singers of Cary


Dear Mr. Sharoff:
If you'll send me your postal address, I can mail you a brochure about our
publication, "Music Reading by Intervals". This can be used in rehearsal, and
it can be used independently by your adult chorus members to improve their
skills at their own pace.
Brichtmark Music, Inc./SBrailove


I've had good luck with choirs of all ages using Nancy Telfer's "Successful
Sight Reading." And you only need about 10 minutes a week due to the
nature of the exercises.


Deborah Bradley


Are you familiar with the Kodaly sequence which appears in the Choksy book?
I've found that a pretty solid knowledge of how people learn to read music is
invaluable. The Choksy book will be helpful here. Also, I've found that
taking time for an actual "reading lesson" will be viewed as a waste of time
by many of your people. I'd suggest that you try integrating it into the
rehearsal as a normal part of learning a piece. I'm in a church with a
committment to several pieces each week and several new anthems each month.
My people read like troupers. They've gotten that way by working on problem
spots from a reading perspective rather than a quick "fix it by rote"
approach. You may also want to think about how kids learn to read words, I
think there are a lot of parallels.

Good luck with your emphasis on reading. You're definitely on the right track.

Dick Stromberg


I really love Nancy Telfer's "Successful Sight Singing". It was designed for
anyone grades four through adults of any age. It starts with the
basics--notes, pitch, clefs, etc. and you can spend as much or as little time
per rehearsal with it as you like. The books are around $6.00 each, and the
teachers edition a bit more, but worth every penny!
Martha Springstead
Director of Music
Community United Methodist Church
VA. Beach, VA.


I've used Nancy Telfer's book from Kjos. There are other good ones out there,
I'm sure.

David McCormick


I can speak from personal experience, having tried it--a little bit once a
week WON'T be very effective. Sight-reading curricula tend to assume daily
rehearsals. Better to take advantage of the music itself. Hint: non-readers
tend to look at the words. Foil this by having them sing on neutral
syllables or counting the beats.

Allen H Simon
Bay Area Lutheran Chorale -- changing our name to Soli Deo Gloria in June 1999


Hi Mitch,

I've been teaching a sight singing course and use A New Approach to Sight
Singing by Berkowitz, Fontrier, and Kraft published by W.W. Norton. It's a
most comprehensive tome, but quite expensive. However one of my students
covets his copy and uses it regularly. He has progressed from a non reader
to an accomplished musician in just over a year. Another one that comes
highly recommended, although I haven't used it yet, is Nancy Telfer"s
sightsinging series, and that's about all I can tell you about that!. The
Oxford Folk Song Sight Singing series is also useful if you don't have a
lot of time, and each volume is reasonably priced.

Good Luck,

David Stewart
Music Dir. Nelson Choral Society
Nelson BC Canada


I would skip the text and look for passages in the music you are learning to
illustrate the concepts you are teaching- do, re mi/ do, mi, sol./quarter
notes etc. You could also incorporate them into your warmups.
David Douglas


Hi Mitch,

I missed your original question regarding sightsinging and your
community group. I would, however, like to offer a suggestion regarding
materials to assist you. I have found that the most practical
materials/literature for use in teaching sightsinging are those pieces
which you are preparing for performance. If you utilize a system for
sightsinging (I am a diehard proponent of solfege), than those 10
minutes each rehearsal could be used to get your singers familiar with
the use of the system. You may agree that once singers are familiar with
the distance, in sound, between two notes in any given interval, the
interval becomes more familiar and easier to sing. So if you want to
"create" warmups which will aid in sightsinging, simply expose them to
certain sections from the literature. Your singers will gradually
improve their reading skills, and time is saved teaching literaure
because they will recognize having sung the exerpts from their warmups.
Good luck. I will be glad to provide any other info on this for you. I
love!!! sightsinging. I love teaching it as well!


Scott R. Buchanan, Ph.D.
Director of Choral Activities
Armstrong Atlantic State University
Savannah, GA



I find that it works well to isolate places in the music where singers have
trouble and create a learning tool designed to address that
difficulty. For example, if the choir is having difficulty reading the
rhythm in a spot, I create a sing-count sheet that basically breaks down
the problem and shows them how to 'count' it. After they have practiced
this (in unison), I have them open the piece and go to that spot, and most
will recognize this as the same as the drill they have just sung. Now I
have them sing through the trouble spot and ask them to locate other
incidences of this same problem in the piece: We then sing through all of
those occurrences.

This may not be clear, but basically, I try to use their music as the text
for teaching.

Hope this helps.

Ouida Taylor


Hi. How about doing a handout of the things you feel are most important at
Time signature and how to count the beats in a measure
Fermata and what it means (draw one so they know what it looks like)
Repeat signs and explain endings (again, drawing required)

I don't know at this point if knowing where the "a" falls on a staff is
necessary since they have been singing without that knowledge, but repeats,
time signatures and other musical terminology (directions, i.e., "p" means
soft) would be very helpful.

Nancy L.


Mitchell J. Sharoff
Programmer/Systems Analyst
Publishing Systems Operations
Phone: (732) 562-6598 Fax: (732) 562-1745
E-mail: m.sharoff(a)
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on January 16, 2005 10:00pm
Dear All: While I used a sight-reading element to my college/university auditions, I often do not for my adult civic chorales. Sometimes when needing a particular voice that cannot sight-read, I take them anyway. During rehearsals, and especially first or second 'read-throughs' I ask everyone to sing everything; i.e., sopranos join solo section tenor lines, and altos join basses, etc. I also often ask singers to sing, using doo (other similar syllabilizations, using many articulations) in the piano part -- i.e., pick your part, or sing its implied harmonizations. Some can, many try, but several purposes are served including sight-reading itself, function of more parts than merely their own. Admittedly, some pieces work better for this than others. I use this approach especially in first run-throughs with foreign languages, making notes and rhythm our first concern (Language Lessons Later -- but not much later).

I frequently mention sight-reading as an essential literacy -- and most of the group are better than average college sight-readers.