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Sight Singing for High School Choirs

I teach vocal pedagogy and am astonished at how difficult one of my student's choir director has set the bar on sight singing. Has anyone noticed this before? How can students run before they can walk? He has material on his high school curriculum page that is very difficult. Is there a reason some choir directors do this? Thanks for any help on this. 
on March 21, 2015 8:47pm
What is the sight-singing like?  Is it four-part, SATB?  Or is the difficulty in the rhythms, key signature, intervals, etc.?
on March 22, 2015 5:15am
I agree with you 100% Marty.  For true beginners who are not instrumentalists, sight singing is incredibly difficult to master requiring so much coordination inside our brains and bodies.  For those of us who've read music since we were four or five years old, we often seem to ask "What's the problem?"  For the beginners, whatever the age, it feels the way an English-only speaker must feel when dropped into Russia and told to figure out how to making a living and survive around only Russian speakers.
When I created S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing program, I had no idea that high school teachers would use it for their beginners, but I often get letters from folks who do.  They tell me they are grateful for the way the skill sets are carefully and methodically presented and mastered to create the best opportunity for success at each level.  
I have this theory that when middle school children don't understand what we are teaching, they behave poorly.  When high school kids don't understand, they just nod as though they do and then graduate without the knowledge they need to become musically literate.  I think that is why singers are so far behind their instrumentalist counterparts in college music education programs in terms of literacy.  We don't always do a good job helping them and engaging them to become literate.  It is very difficult, but it can be done.
Dale Duncan
Creator of S-Cubed
More about S-Cubed: 
The Complete S-Cubed Program
on March 22, 2015 5:34am
Does the student know the purpose of the difficult sight-reading material? I agree with you- "how can students run before they can walk?" I wonder what a sight-reading task might be for the student.
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on March 22, 2015 10:39am
Pretty sure no research has been done on what happens to vocal coordinations during sight-singing. My aural and visual observations of singers during sight-singing has been that vocally necessary muscles of the larynx and vocal tract are recruited with more contraction intensity than is necessary (physically inefficient singing) and many times, unnecessary muscles of the neck and head are recruited, too.
There has been some research into learning unfamiliar music that is inaccuracy-free from the beginning:
  • Sing pitches and rhythms on a neutral syllable or single vowels, and as the spoken feeling-meanings of the words (texts/lyrics) and their phrasings are examined, incorporate expressive phrasing into the pitches/rhythms
  • Speak the words expressively several times while examining them for their feeling-meanings and phrasing [speak the pronunciation of unfamiliar languages, their word-to-word translations, and feeling-meanings/phrasing]
  • When the expressively spoken words flow "trippingly from the tongue," then speak them in the rhythms of the music
  • Finally, sing pitches/rhythms/words together with expressive phrasing
Implications for sight-singing: Sight-sing pitch/rhythm "tone puzzles" on single neutral syllables or on single vowels. Solfege can be used and so can numbers, but speak the syllables and numbers forward and back first, and a good many times, so that they are automatic (suggestion: pronounce the two-syllable number "seven" as "sem").
In about 95% of Western Civ peoples, language processing happens almost entirely in the brain's left hemisphere, and music is processed significantly in the brain's right hemisphere (neither is exclusively one or the other). The probability is increased that pitch/rhythm/word inaccuracies will be learned when all three coordinations are processing at the same time. And we all know about unlearning a learned habit. By separating pitches/rhythms and words/rhythms at first, brains do the processing more easily.
If anyone knows of any research (or a non-researched perspective) that indicates that my perspectives are not wholly accurate, please let me know. Hope this helps.
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