How Important is Sight-Singing?
It’s a question many singers ask themselves, especially right before their chorus audition. What are conductors really looking for? Is it perfection?
Singers everywhere know the feeling. You’re next up to audition for your chorus and suddenly it feels like the breath has been sucked right out of your body. And then it gets worse. You’re handed a line of notes and asked to sing it—right there, on the spot.
“My brain just flatlines,” one singer says of the experience. “It’s like everything I thought I knew about reading music goes out the window. And I always feel this is going to be the deal breaker, as far as whether I get in or not.”
But is it a deal breaker during the audition process? We asked a number of choral conductors and singers to weigh in. Their responses ranged from “It is very, very important” to “It’s a nice perk, but not necessary for the job.” Some conductors feel that sight-reading is most important as an indicator of a singer’s overall level of musicianship—and some singers say that, because of that fact, having a good ear has helped them work around their so-so sight-singing. Here are the results of our informal survey.
“It’s very important.”
A number of choral conductors and teachers said good sight-reading ability was a must for their groups. “I will take a reader over a voice any day,” Gisele Becker, director of Cantate Chamber Singers in Maryland, says. “If you have a great voice but cannot use it because you don't read, this is a problem. It is also more rewarding for you and those around you if you can read adequately.”
Hilary Apfelstadt, professor and director of choral activities at the University of Toronto, says the best readers, given equal voice talent with their peers, get the nod for the more advanced groups. “In all choirs, however, we work at reading and aural skills,” she says. “It’s my responsibility as a conductor to develop students’ musicianship skills…The goal is that everyone's skills grow during the course of the year in choir.”
Deborah Simpkin King, artistic director and founder of Schola Cantorum on Hudson is also an ardent proponent of sight-reading skills and aims to grow those skills in her singers every time she introduces a new piece of repertoire. “We very deliberately do our two-minute trot through a new score,” she says. “It always provides a refreshing challenge for the singers and usually a few good teaching points along the way.”
“Having seen what is coming in the score,” she says, “the singers are then better able to bring as much of what is implied in the score in terms of meaning, sensitivity, and phrasing along for the read as possible.”
“Can you sight-sing with others?”
A couple of choir conductors said that they favor having singers audition in quartets or in double-quartets because it provides more information about singers’ ability. In fact, Adam Wurst, a vocal music director at Allendale Middle School in Michigan, noted in an article for Choral Directors Magazine that singers typically do much better sight-reading in an ensemble.
When reading by themselves, he says, “performance anxiety and basic musicianship skills often come together in a perfect storm of questions like ‘What do I do first?’ ‘How do I find my first pitch?’ and ‘How do I know I did well?’”
Liz Frazer of Atlanta conducts two community choruses—one is open-enrollment and the other is an auditioned a cappella ensemble, Just Voices. Applicants for Just Voices are given a short written test of their knowledge of music notation. They sing a solo of their choice, and then sing two pieces of unfamiliar music as part of a quartet with current members of the choir. The quartets sing without accompaniment so that Frazer can be sure the applicants are independent readers. Usually the pieces are a simple four-part hymn first and then a Bach chorale.
“I like this method much better than auditioning individuals alone,” Frazer said. “Folks who do not read well enough to keep up with the pace of the auditioned choir are invited to sing with the other choir and may opt to take an eight-week class I offer that covers the fundamentals of music notation and introduces them to sight reading. Students begin reading from the staff in the first class and by the end of the eight weeks most classes are able to read simple four-part harmony. All reading is done with no accompaniment.”
“Inability to sight-sing is not a deal-breaker.”
Aaron Humble, who sings with the professional ensemble Cantus in Minneapolis, says sight-singing a vocal line in a quartet and then as a solo is part of the audition process—but it’s not a deal breaker. “As a full-time ensemble, we expect folks to know their music on day one of rehearsal,” he says, “so we actually do very little sight-singing.
“Sight-singing comes in handy when we're programming a concert and digging through music or on the rare occasions that we add a piece at the last minute,” he says. “So good sight-singing is a nice perk, but not entirely necessary for the job.”
Humble says that sight-singing is often more significant as an indicator of a singer’s overall musicianship. “If you can sight-read, you understand the intervallic relationship present in a melody,” he says. “You probably also understand that these relationships mean something harmonically. Especially in an ensemble setting it's vital that a musician of any kind approach the music both vertically and horizontally.”
Melinda McLain, who has led several church choirs in the San Francisco Bay area, also says that a singer’s overall ability is more important that simply being able to sight-read well. “I've had folks say, ‘Oh I read really well’ and it turns out they can sight-read at the piano, but cannot successfully sing intervals when sight-singing. So ear training might be more important than reading notation.”
"You can get by with a good ear."
One semi-professional singer confessed that she had never been a great sight-reader. “And this is after two music degrees, both with sight-singing requirements,” she says, “so I tend to think that sight-reading is something that people easily gravitate to or don’t.
She’s been able to compensate by learning a lot of music by ear, even on the fly. “If I can hear the key and some accompaniment, whether it’s the piano or the rest of the choir, I can read a piece pretty easily,” she says. “And after hearing it correctly once, then I’m good to go. So I’ll arrive at rehearsal early to glance through the music and plunk stuff out on the piano that looks funky. You also just learn the musicality of certain pieces and rely on that a bit.”
Another singer says he also relies heavily on his ear and has not found that to be a hindrance—even during auditions. “I think I'm more than decent at contextual sight-reading—that is, singing my part when other parts are being played or when singing with accompaniment,” he says. “I don't think it's hindered me at all because I think most conductors take a holistic view of an audition: sight-reading is only one part of the process.”
He also noted that that there are an abundance of resources these days to help mediocre sight readers. “Recordings and scores are readily available and quite portable,” he says. “If you or your music director know you're going to be doing something that might be above your ability to sight-read during rehearsal, then you can and should study up before rehearsal so you're able to be on the same level as others in the room.”
Another singer who reads music very little asks her church choir’s pianist to play her part so she can record it on her iPhone. “Also YouTube can be very helpful,” she says. “I have a good ear, so I rely on that.”
Looking to Improve?
You can learn to be a better sight-singer. Check out "Improve Your Sight-singing Before Your Next Audition" on this website as well as these free or low-cost resources.
Eyes and Ears: An Anthology of Melodies for Sight-Singing: A book of melodies to use to practice sightsinging. Available for download free.
On the Web
Musictheory.net Click on "Lessons" to find lots of help for ear training and identifying key signatures and intervals. Mobile access to the lessons is available for a fee.
Learn to Sight-Sing Lots of tools here, including lines of music that you can sight read, and then listen to to see how you did.
Online Ear Trainer 2.0 Designed by a trumpet player, this resource is geared more toward instrumentalists. But it does allow you to hear melodies, intervals, and chords and test your ability to sing them back. Play by Ear app also available free for iPhone and $1.99 for Android devices.
Teoria Music Theory The site offers an array of exercises and tutorials to help learn musical rhythms and intervals.