It may seem like instrumentalists have it much easier when it comes to sight reading music; by simply pressing a key or a string, the notes are immediately available to them without any additional thought, and all that’s left to them is to work out duration, dynamics, and tempo. Singers, on the other hand, don’t have an instrument to rely on.
Taking a song previously unknown to you and delivering a reasonably accurate performance the very first run-through isn’t a talent that everybody has. However, there are plenty of strategies you can employ to make yourself better at sight singing.
Learn Your Intervals
With the advent of smartphones and tablet devices, there are a wealth of music apps available to put a keyboard in front of you whenever you need it. Better still, with a pair of headphones, you can study your intervals throughout the day. As you have breaks in your day, listen to intervals until they become familiar to you. Your ear will learn what a minor third, perfect fifth, and so on sounds like, and with time you’ll find it easier to translate your sheet music to singing!
Also, don’t forget to put the bookwork in on your printed music – analyze your songs, and while you’re learning what an octave sounds like, learn what it looks like as well. The more work you put into combining the look and the sound of an interval, you’ll find your sight singing improving on its own.
Remember to Count
The best thing you can do to lay the groundwork for your sight singing is to reinforce your knowledge of music theory, and how the notes on the page turn into music. The more you learn about keys, harmonic structure, time signatures, common Italian musical terms, and note lengths, the easier it will be to translate those. The quicker you can work out the note lengths and intervals, the more fluent your reading will become. Pay special attention to more complex time signatures, and don’t ignore dotted notes and any articulation markings. Think of your printed music as a map – make a note of any landmarks, such as changes of key or time signature – and treat reading your way through it as a journey. Read through your words before you tackle the music, note where phrases are going and the shape of them, and make sure you observe any accidentals.
Practice Makes Perfect
Sight singing is like riding a bike – for a while, you may need to take extra time and work out the notes slowly. But after a while, you’ll find that your sight singing skills have developed to the extent that you’re only looking a bar or so ahead as you read. Practice your new skills as often as you can. Set a steady tempo when you’re sight singing, and stick to it – don’t stop to correct mistakes or to work out intervals.
Being a fluent sight reader is a valuable skill for a singer. Vocalists who can sight sing well are quite rare, and are in high demand, especially for good choirs and small ensembles. Improving your sight singing will open all kinds of new opportunities!
Photo by donald judge