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:
- KEEP UP.
- 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.