Sight Reading 101

In our last post, we discussed the ins and outs of choral auditions – what to expect, how to prepare, and what directors are looking for.  We discovered that one common aspect of choral auditions is that experience that virtually all singers dread: sight-reading.

What is sight-reading?  

Sight-reading is when you are handed a piece of music you have never seen before and must sing through it then and there, without having spent any time learning it.  You’re usually given a few minutes to glance it over, which allows you to work out a handful of crucial details and gives you a general sense of what you’re up against, but not much more.  

Why is sightreading important?  

Choruses and other ensembles of virtually every level require their members to be able to sight-read to some degree.  During those first few rehearsals, you are singing a lot of new music, and it helps a great deal if the singers at least know how to muddle their way through something without it completely derailing.  

In some realms of the professional singing world, sight-reading skills are absolutely a job requirement.  Professional church and choral musicians are expected to sight-read all the time.  I had a job for a couple years as a church choir section leader, where I sight-read complicated, classical choral music virtually every weekend, sometimes at the service itself.

You may hear the argument that singers who mainly do stage productions or recitals don’t need to be good sight-readers, because the nature of their work is such that they usually have the opportunity to learn their music well ahead of time.  This may be true, but being able to sight-read – on some level – is part of the skill set of a well-rounded musician.  Instrumentalists are trained to be excellent sight-readers, even if their careers are as concert soloists.  Why should singers be any different?  

Why is sightreading so hard for singers?

Growing up as an instrumentalist, I and my comrades were taught to read music from a very young age, and were expected to be able to sight-read well enough to keep up in an orchestra by the time we were in middle school.  Sight-reading was simply one aspect of our multi-faceted training.

Singers, on the other hand, often don’t start studying voice until much later in life, and don’t always have a background in another instrument.  Sadly, musicianship and theory skills are not emphasized as much for young singers as they are for instrumentalists.  There are a lot of reasons for this, which is another entire discussion, but suffice it say that many singers are disadvantaged from the start.

The other reason that sight-reading is difficult for singers is due to the nature of the voice as an instrument.  On an external instrument, it’s easy, in theory, to play the notes you see in front of you: each one corresponds to a certain finger, a specific key, or a particular string.  You press that particular key or bow on that particular string and – voila – the note happens.  (This is, of course, over-simplified – there is more to playing your instrument correctly than just making notes, and there is plenty of instrumental music out there that is difficult to sight-read – but you get the idea.)  The human voice, on the other hand, doesn’t have keys, strings, or other parts of the instrument to make the note for you.  You have to rely purely on your ear, and create the note from inside you.  It’s much more abstract, and therefore harder to do.

So how do I get better at sight-reading?

Sight-reading is hard, and the only way it gets easier is by doing it more.

First, you need to ascertain your level of comfort with music-reading, in general.  Do you know how to count rhythms?  Are you quick with note identification?  Do you understand what all or most of the usual musical symbols mean?  Do you know your time and key signatures?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, there are some basics you need to learn before you throw yourself into the fire that is sight-reading.  There are plenty of resources to help you learn to read music – method books, flash cards, even apps.

It’s also a good idea to learn your solfege syllables (do, re, mi, etc.).  While solfege is not strictly necessary for sight-reading, it does help in many cases, because it helps to give you a tonal framework for what you are singing.

If you’ve already got a good handle on these basics, it’s time to figure out how good your ear is.  Can you identify different intervals, both visually (seeing them on the page) and aurally (hearing them)?  Can you sing them accurately?

When it comes to interval training, it helps to use “clue tunes” to help you identify certain sounds.  For example, the first two notes of “Here Comes the Bride” are a perfect fourth.  The first two notes of “Somewhere” from West Side Story are a minor seventh.  There are virtually endless clue tunes for all kinds of intervals, so you can choose something you can recall with ease and accuracy.

Start to recognize what certain intervals look like on the page.  A third, for example, skips from one line or space to the next line or space.  A perfect fifth skips two lines or two spaces.  Once you’ve figured out what the interval is visually, use your “clue tune” for that interval to help you sing it.  It may be helpful to use solfege syllables to do this.

This might seem like tedious work, but consistent practice in this way will help you tremendously in a sight-reading situation.  Even if you can’t sing exactly the right notes, you will at least be in the ballpark.

What should I focus on when sight-reading?

When sight-reading, your primary goal is to KEEP UP.

So, to that end, probably the best piece of advice is:

Don’t dwell on your mistakes.

Seriously.  It’s not going to be perfect, so you should just accept that from the get-go.  When you make a mistake while sight-reading – and you will – all you can do is make a mental (or penciled) note of the mistake, and move the heck on.  There isn’t time to dwell on it in the moment, and you will get hopelessly lost if you do.  Again, your primary goal while sight-reading is to KEEP UP, and you cannot possibly do that if your brain is preoccupied with something that blew past you six measures ago.  There will be plenty of time to go back and fix things later.

When you’re handed a piece to sight-read, you should immediately look at the following things:

  • The time signature
  • The tempo marking, if any is given
  • The key signature

Then, glance through the piece to get a general sense of what it’s about.  What is the musical style?  Does the tempo, meter, or key ever change?  Are there any repeats?  If so, where do they go?  Is the piece full of moving notes, or sustained notes?  Are there a ton of accidentals (extra sharps/flats/naturals that are not indigenous to the home key)?  What is the vocal range and tessitura?  Are there any rests to count through?  If yes, what is happening during those rests that you can listen for when the time comes?

Notice I mentioned nothing about the text.  This is hard for many singers to grasp, but the text is definitely a lower-order concern when it comes to sight-reading.  Sure, look at it, if you have time; note what language it is in, etc.  But generally, text should be at the very bottom of the priority list.  After all, what is more important: keeping up with the notes, or dwelling on whether you pronounced “excelsis” correctly five measures ago?  Just sing whatever words come out of your mouth.  No one will care the first time through – I promise you.  

As you are singing, your priorities are as follows:

Keeping up.  This is THE main priority.  Therefore, you should strive for accurate rhythm above all else.  This will ensure that you can start and end sections/phrases with everyone else, handle any meter or tempo changes, and observe rests and fermatas in the right places.

Try to read a couple of beats ahead of where you actually are, especially if there is a page-turn or fancy repeat structure involved.  A lot of sight-reading is about anticipating what’s coming up.

The next priority is general pitch direction – i.e., when the notes go up, sing higher; when the notes go down, sing lower.  After that, the next level of detail is to determine how much higher or lower, and your success with this will be heavily dependent on your level of ear training.  This is where all that solfege and interval practice will come in handy.

If you’re in a choral setting and will be singing the piece again several more times that rehearsal, have your pencil at the ready so you can circle things that you mess up the first time.  This way, during the next run-through, your eyes can tell your brain to zero in on that spot and hopefully fix whatever it is you botched.

Two more important things:

Sight-reading can be mentally tiring.  Your brain has to be on at all times.  If you go on auto-pilot for even a second, you could get lost, and getting lost is the anti-goal of sight-reading.  So yes, this process takes a lot of brain power, and involves a lot of mental multi-tasking.

Sight-reading can also be vocally tiring.  Since you’re in survival mode just trying to keep up, there isn’t a lot of brain space left to worry about technique.  Try the best you can, obviously, and avoid over-singing, but the technical issues will have to be worked out later, on your own and/or with your teacher.

How do I practice sight-reading?

As I said before, the only way to get better at sight-reading is to do it more.  There are tons of sight-reading methods and solfege books out there.  You can also just try sight-reading anything you can get your hands on.  It doesn’t even have to be a vocal piece.  I once took a theory and ear-training class where we sight-read Bach’s Two-Part Inventions for keyboard (although I would not recommend these when first starting out).

When you practice, gather your three pieces of crucial information about whatever excerpt you’re reading (time signature, tempo marking, key signature), and give yourself 20-30 seconds to look it over before you sing it.  When you sing it, try to go straight through without stopping.

Keep up with your theory and ear training skills.  As with anything else you want to improve at, consistency is key.  Practicing interval training a little bit each day will help your ear and thus your sight-reading.

Just remember, it takes time to get good at sight-reading.  Unless you’ve been blessed with stellar pitch and rhythmic accuracy, it will take lots of practice to build this skill.  Be patient and remember to cut yourself some slack.

Any questions or comments?  Leave us a comment below!