Unless you’re a career-chorister, the concept of sight reading music is probably going to at best make you slightly nervous, and at worst paralyze you with fright. However, at some point, probably when you join a choir or perhaps go to an audition, you’re going to have to face that hurdle.
Sight reading comes easier to some singers than others, but it’s not some mythical task akin to retrieving a golden fleece; sight-reading, even for the more able, is a learned skill, and there are several sight reading exercises you can practice to improve.
Here are five sight reading exercises that will make a difference and help calm your fears:
Familiarity – Pick an octave that comfortably covers the middle of your voice. Sit down at a piano and play up and down that octave; as a major scale, harmonic and melodic minor scale, and as a chromatic scale. Listen carefully to each of the notes, and fix them in your mind and your ear. Next, play intervals to yourself within that octave and memorize the sound of the interval. The final stage – a friend will be useful here – is to play the home note, and then sing back a specific interval. Check your work thoroughly, as this sight reading exercise has as much to do with memory as anything else!
Ear and Eye – Once your ear has established what those intervals sound like, train your eye to recognize them on paper, as you’re going to struggle in any sight reading exercises if you can’t translate that knowledge from ear to page. Be aware that intervals don’t always look how you might expect on paper, so use this as an opportunity to improve your general music reading skills as well.
How Do You Eat an Elephant? – The answer should always be “a forkful at a time”! It may feel overwhelming to be faced with a whole page of tricky music during sight reading exercises, but dealing with it one bar at a time will make it seem much less scary. If the whole page fills you with panic, put the brakes on for a moment and just deal with small sections at a time.
Map Reading – Think of a piece of music like a roadmap. Take careful note of key and time signatures, and pinpoint interesting “landmarks” like accidentals or key changes. Look ahead, and fix “rest spots,” i.e. half or whole notes where you can take stock and plan your strategy for the rest of the piece. Don’t be afraid of sight reading new pieces a little under tempo – better to do this and keep going than practice with an error that you can’t shake.
Self-sufficiency Rules – Nothing will give you greater confidence as a singer and a musician than being able to prepare your music yourself, and to know that you’ve prepared it accurately. There are many singers out there – even working within the classical industry at the very highest level – that can’t read music, and need a voice coach to teach them every single note. Being able to read songs as easily as you would a newspaper is a valuable skill that will carry you far.
Now that you have all these tools to make you a confident and capable singer, there is one final, important thing to bear in mind over and above any exercise or other preparation rule: Without a well-trained, properly-produced instrument, all of your work will be pointless.
Finding a good voice teacher is essential to take you beyond being a talented, untrained amateur singer with natural ability. Since we can’t hear our own voices accurately, it’s important to find a good teacher to help you identify and correct bad habits as they happen, and show you the right exercises to practice to improve your skills.
Good luck with your singing, and don’t forget to have fun!
Photo by Dave