sight reading tips

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 sight-reading 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.  

You may hear the argument that singers who mainly do stage productions or recitals don’t need to be good sight-readers, because 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?  

Where Should I Look First?

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 a lower-order concern when sight-reading.  Sure, look at it, if you have time; note what language it is in, etc.  But generally, text should be near the 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.  

Two Main Goals:

  1. KEEP UP.
  2. Don’t dwell on your mistakes.

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.  If you take time to dwell on it in the moment, you will get hopelessly lost.  

The Main Musical Priorities:

Accurate rhythm. 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.

Anticipating the next thing. 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.  

General pitch direction.  If you’re really good, then your goal is specific pitch direction.

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.

Just a Heads Up:

Sight-reading can be mentally tiring.  It takes a lot of brain power and mental multi-tasking.  

Sight-reading can 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?

Sight-reading is hard, and the only way to get better at it is to do it more.  There are tons of sight-reading methods, solfege books, and ear-training apps out there.  As with anything you want to get better at, consistency is key.  Do a little bit of reading practice every day.

Once you’re comfortable, try sight-reading anything you can get your hands on.  It doesn’t even have to be a vocal piece.  Gather your three pieces of crucial information about whatever you’re reading (time signature, tempo marking, key signature), and give yourself 20-30 seconds to look it over before singing it.  Once you start, try to go straight through without stopping.

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.

How To Ace a Choral Audition

Congratulations – one month of school year down!  Only… 8.5 more to go?  But who’s counting.  

In addition to being a time of new routines and new beginnings, fall is also when many school music programs hold auditions for their various choral ensembles.  This post will provide some tips and advice for your next choral audition, whether it’s a school group, Districts/All-State, or a community group. 

What’s a Choral Audition Like?

A choral audition can be a tricky thing to prepare for.  This is mainly because: 1) choral auditions come in all shapes and sizes and 2) at the non-professional level, they are usually different from solo auditions.

A choral audition will typically consist of the following things:

  1. A warm-up/vocalization period with the director.  This is to test the student’s range and vocal comfort zone.  This may not occur in every audition, but it is something to expect nonetheless.
  2. Singing a prepared piece.  This is either a choral piece that has been assigned by the director, or a solo piece that the student has chosen.
  3. Sight-reading – that scary process where you get 30 seconds to silently look over a few measures of music, and then sing it cold, preferably without stopping.  Check out this post for sight-reading advice!

Choosing Your Own Piece

If you have the benefit of choosing your own piece, do so well ahead of time.  Choose something that highlights your vocal strengths and minimizes your weaknesses.  You should be able to sing it musically accurately, and connect to it emotionally.  Additionally, it should reflect the voice part you’re auditioning for (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass).  For example, don’t sing a belt piece if you are auditioning as a soprano, no matter how strong your belt is.  This will give the director zero idea of how you sound singing in your head voice, which is the primary vocal mechanism for female choral singers.*

*Unless you are auditioning for an a capella group.  In that case, the director probably wants to hear all the different sounds your voice is capable of producing, and what musical style(s) you sing best.  In this case, a contemporary selection usually is the way to go.

How To Practice

If you’ve been assigned a piece to prepare, set to work right away.  Use every resource available to you – the practice track (if one is provided), your teacher, your friends (it can be helpful to practice with others!).  Sing it every day, several times a day, to ensure that you become confident.

I would approach the different elements of the piece in this order:

  1. Rhythm.  Speak it, clap it, tap it – whatever helps you to feel it accurately in your brain and body.
  2. Pitches.  It’s often helpful to sing the pitches on a neutral syllable of your choice (like da or doo) first, especially if the piece is in a foreign language.
  3. Text.  Speak the text first, even if it is in English – this will ensure that you pronounce everything properly, and can find and express meaning in the text.  If the piece is in a foreign language, look up a translation and write it in your music.  The director wants to see that you know what you’re singing about.
  4. Musical terms and symbols: dynamics, articulation, breathing/phrasing markings, tempo markings, etc.

What Is the Director Looking For?

During auditions, choral directors look/listen for the following main things:

  1. Vocal tone. Choral directors look for voices that will blend and balance with the other members of the group. This does not mean that you should completely change the way you sing to make it sound bland.  Rather, it means that you should be aware of your own vocal tone.  Directors won’t accept someone if they think he or she will “stick out.”  
  2. Your ability to learn music accurately.  In a choral audition, musicianship is key.  You must sing with accurate pitches, rhythms, and text, with good intonation and at an appropriate tempo.  You must follow all other musical markings in your score and any and all other directives you were given.  
  3. Your teachability – i.e., your ability and willingness to take instruction and make instant corrections. If the director asks you in the audition to change something about the way you are singing, do your best to comply. If you don’t understand what’s he’s talking about, then ask.
  4. Your attitude. Choral directors are looking for open-minded team players who will follow instructions reliably. They do NOT appreciate divas. Diva mentality works against the musical, vocal, and social aims of a choir. Granted, your attitude will have no bearing on your score at Districts or All-State, and it may not even be a deal-breaker for your school’s choir if you’re really talented, but that doesn’t excuse a poor attitude.  You will make everyone’s lives easier – including your own – if you check the diva stuff at the door.

If you are auditioning for something like Districts or All-State that uses a scoring rubric, try to get a hold of the scoring sheet ahead of time (your school choral director can probably help with this). As you get closer to the audition, do a “trial run” of sorts with your teacher or director. Have them score you with the rubric sheet so you know what to improve on before the real thing.

So, to sum up: be as prepared as you can, find out as much as possible about the audition before going into it, and have a good attitude. Pretty basic rules of thumb for any singing situation, really.

singing tips

In Singing, There Are No Shortcuts

Have you ever seen those sketchy-looking Internet ads that pop up on those less-than-reputable websites?  The ones that entice you with titles like, “Get rid of belly fat with this one weird trick!” or “The secret about preventing [health problem x] that doctors don’t want you to know!”

It’s obvious to anyone with even a shred of common sense that these ads are total bunk.  As most intelligent people know, there is no “one trick” to losing belly fat, and doctors are not hiding valuable information about disease prevention from us.  The creators of the ads are obviously looking to make a quick buck on some weird gimmick.  Let people think they have been duped by [whatever/whomever] all along, and they will surely buy into our stuff! Read more

good performing techniques

The Mixology of a Good Performance

Have you ever sat there in the audience, listening to a singer who maybe *sounds* good enough, but whose stage presence is just… awkward?  I’m talking hapless, seemingly random gestures, a deer-in-headlights look, a wild lack of visual focus, and/or an obviously huge emotional disconnect from what they are singing about.  Yes? Read more

theater camp Beverly MA

The Ten Commandments of Rising Stars Week!

Summer is our favorite season here at Rising Stars – it means our camps and theater intensives are just around the corner! This year, we’re very excited to run THREE musical theater programs – the first, our Musical Theater Intensive for Homeschoolers, runs June 11-15 in Beverly, MA; the second, Rising Stars West, runs June 25-29 in Gardner, MA; and our traditional Rising Stars Camp runs July 23-27 in North Reading, MA.

(These programs all have different names but are essentially the same.  They just have different titles because of boring legal reasons that I won’t go into.  All you need to know is that, no matter which of our programs you are enrolled in this summer, your experience will be fun, awesome, educational, empowering, and probably – no, make that definitely – very sweaty.) Read more

choral singing tips

The Ten Commandments of Choral Singing

When it comes to choral singing, I’ve found that there are two types of singers out there: those that love it, and those that hate it with a white-hot passion.  No matter how you feel about it, though, ensemble singing is an inescapable reality of being a singer.  Virtually every vocalist finds him or herself in some kind of choir at some point in time, whether it be by force, by choice, or for money.  School chorus, a capella groups, chamber choirs, community choruses, church choirs – there is a choral ensemble virtually everywhere you turn, performing a myriad of styles and genres of music.

Personally, I think every singer should sing in some kind of chorus at some point in their lives.  Provided that the director is competent and the rehearsals well-run, it can be a very valuable experience.  Singing in a chorus can really improve your musicianship – you become a better sight-reader, develop a keener ear, and become more adept at singing harmony (yes, even the sopranos have to sing harmony sometimes!).  It’s also a good place to work on your technique, provided the director doesn’t make ridiculous vocal demands of his singers.  It also trains you to be a real team player, a trait that every musician should have (let’s face it, no one wants to work with a diva).


In case any of you are wondering, I really enjoy choral singing.  It has its unique challenges and rewards.  I also really enjoy choral directing – in fact, one of the aspects of my job is directing a small girls’ chamber choir.  Being on both sides of the podium has given me a pretty solid perspective over the years about what makes for a good choir and a well-run rehearsal.

So last year, as I was preparing the semester’s materials for my girls’ choir, I thought to myself: what are the cardinal rules, so to speak, of being in a choir?  What actions, traits, and attitudes are absolutely essential to building solid musicianship, good camaraderie, and ultimately, a good performance?

And so I give you: the Ten Commandments of Choral Singing.

I. Thou shalt attend every required rehearsal with a good attitude.  Regular attendance at choir rehearsals is absolutely essential.  It does not matter if there are twenty singers in your section, or two.  Every member is important.  If you miss a rehearsal, your section, and therefore the rest of the choir, is compromised.  While you are there, you must put on a positive attitude, even if you are having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.  Negativity spreads like wildfire in a chorus.  One cranky person can totally ruin it for everyone else.  So don’t be that person.

II.  Thou shalt be attentive to and compliant with the director’s instruction.  This means that, for the love of all that is good in the world, do not talk when the director is talking.  It also means that you follow the conductor’s musical directives to the best of your ability.  This is entirely your responsibility, and there is no excuse not to do it consistently.  If he has told you to crescendo in measure 5, you must crescendo in measure 5 every single time.  It doesn’t matter if you think the directive is dumb.  You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but alas, you are not in charge, so you must keep it to yourself. 


III. Thou shalt raise thy hand if thou hast a question.  If you don’t understand something, ask.  Just do it in a polite, orderly way.  It is better for everyone that you ask, rather than simply guess (likely incorrectly) what the conductor might mean.  Conductors have strong intuitions, but we are not mind-readers.  We may not be aware that we’ve just used a term you don’t understand, so in that case, it is your job to make us aware.  Politely.

IV.  Thou shalt watch the conductor as much as possible while singing.  We conductors are used to being ignored, but that doesn’t mean we like it.  Especially when that ignoring leads to the choir dragging or rushing the tempo, singing at the wrong dynamic levels, or a section missing a cue that was handed to them on a silver platter.  Yes, it means you have to take your eyes out of your score.  If you are singing the piece for the third, tenth, or one hundredth time, you should be able to do this easily.  I promise you the world will not come to an end if you take your eyes off your page for an instant or two (or three or ten).  You must get used to multi-tasking, and you must watch the conductor.

V.  Thou shalt do thy best to sing with good posture, and to hold thy book up high.  In addition to the basics of good singing posture, good choral posture also means holding your music up high enough so that you can look back and forth between your score and the conductor without looking like one of those bobble-head dolls.  If you hold your book too low, there is no way you can execute Commandment IV.  If you’re holding it right in front of your face, there is *also* no way you can execute Commandment IV.  (Not to mention that holding it right in front of your face completely blocks your sound.  Why would you want that.)

 This choir is breaking Commandments IV and V.  Don’t be like this choir.

VI.  Thou shalt bring thine own sheet music to every rehearsal.  Forgetting your sheet music is obviously inconvenient for you, but it’s also inconvenient for your neighbor who has to share his music with you.  Also, if you forget your music, you won’t be able to mark in any directives, which means you’ll probably end up breaking Commandment II at some point.

VII.  Thou shalt bring a pencil to every rehearsal.  If you forget a pencil, it is your responsibility to procure one at the beginning of rehearsal.  As one of my past conductors would say, “Beg, borrow, or steal.”  You are just as likely to break Commandment II by forgetting a pencil as you are by forgetting your sheet music.

VIII.  Thou shalt not point fingers at someone else’s mistake.  Oh, you can hear that the altos are singing an F-sharp in measure 52 instead of an F-natural?  Well, I applaud your ability to discern this error, but it is not your responsibility to fix it.  That means no passive-aggressive comments like, “Um, I’m hearing *a lot* of people doing Thing X instead of Thing Y” or “Can you tell us again how to pronounce Foreign Word X?  I thought you said it was [whatever] but I’m hearing a lot of people singing [whatever else].”  This kind of behavior is insulting to your fellow choristers.  It’s also insulting to the conductor, because, NEWS FLASH: We always hear the mistakes.  If we’re not addressing it, it means we’ve chosen a much more worthy battle to fight at that moment.  We will get to it later, I promise.

IX.  If thou art absent from rehearsal, it is thine own responsibility to catch up, on thine own time.  If you miss a rehearsal, you must approach the conductor or a fellow chorister and find out what was covered that day, including any directives that you should mark in your score.  Just like your teachers in school, the conductor cannot backtrack and review every time there is an absence – we would never get anything done.

X. Thou shalt review thy music at home at least once between rehearsals.  You don’t have to sing your music at home, per se, but you must at least look at it with your eyes and mentally/visually review anything that was covered at the last rehearsal, and/or any spots that you personally are having trouble with.  If everyone did this, imagine the progress the group would make.  And don’t think you can blow it off without the conductor knowing.  Just like your voice teacher knows that you haven’t practiced, the conductor will be able to tell if no one has reviewed their music at home.  She might not let on that she knows, but boy does she know.

And so there you have it.  May your choir rehearsals be efficient, productive, and harmonious – in more ways than one.