How Can I Be in a Choir if I Can’t Sight Sing?

SBO Staff • ChoralMarch 2020Vocalize • March 18, 2020

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I know choristers who cannot sight read because they may be visually impaired or have other physical/educational challenges. Fortunately, many choirs provide mp3s with SATB parts (and music, both guide vocal and karaoke) so members can listen. There’s no shame in the game of not being a sight singing champ. As my illustrious voice teacher–I call him Vocal Yoda–used to say, “Don’t tell me how you can’t, tell me how you’re gonna…”

(FYI: “Sight singing” is the same as “sight reading”; we use “sing” when referring to singing. Musicians “read”…got it?)

But if you’re going to sight sing, as Rodgers and Hammerstein said, “Let’s start at the very beginning…”  See what I did there? I took you back in time, when Maria (Julie Andrews) crooned to the Von Trapp kids. So, here’s “Do-Re-Mi”, mes amis:

  • Solfège 101 are, of course, the keys to the kingdom:
  • DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL (yes, it’s sol, like the sun, not so), LA, TI…which will bring us back to DO.

There are other syllables for different notes and scales depending on what country you live in, whether you’re using fixed DO vs. movable DO, etc. You can learn more about this in a sight singing/ear training class you can find at your local two-or-four-year college.

For solfège, let’s look at what’s important when looking at a choral selection:

  • Pitch
  • Meter/Rhythm
  • Lyrics

Yes, it is a lot. So, listen to Maria and start at the very beginning. Literally.

Your first glance can tell you a lot. What is the time signature? How fast is it? How loud is it? How many sharps/flats in the piece, i.e., what key are we in? If you don’t know all the music theory yet, that’s okay; do what you can…and maybe you’ll decide to do more very soon. For now, ask for help from your fellow singers. Choristers are an extremely friendly and helpful bunch and they love assisting their newbie choir mates, especially if the newbies bring chocolate. Choristers love chocolate.

I always tell my students three extremely important words: look for patterns! Does a particular passage happen often? Does it happen with a slight variation? Do the same number of rests occur at certain points? Do volume changes repeat throughout? Recognizing patterns straight away can put a newer singer at ease, feeling like they have a bit of control…and eventually, they put together that they can have even more control if they study (Ahem, I hate to nag, but that’s okay, I do it anyway.).

By the same token, I also tell them to look out for musical, lyrical, and rhythmic potholes that would trip them up: time/key signature changes, fast rhythm patterns, difficult runs or riffs, hard-to-pronounce words. A new chorister’s mind and mouth can shut down quickly if confusion abounds, so scanning the piece and seeing the road ahead is smart and savvy choiring. (Is that a word?)

Having solid pitch and being able to read (and keep) rhythm is the most important elements to being a great sight singer; learning lyrics and pronunciations can wait. Since everyone’s learning style differs, decide which you should work on first, but I will say that you should work on one at a time. (For the record, rhythm seems to be the area most of my students begin with.)

Tips for Improving Pitch

And for all you boomers and boomer-wannabes who like books, this is the one we all used in music school:

This is one of the original sight singing textbooks. Get it used, new on Amazon, for Kindle, for book learning, there’s none better!

Tips for Improving Rhythm

  • Use a metronome
  • Use a metronome
  • Use a …you see what I did here?

Getting a metronome and practicing with it is one of the loveliest early Christmas/birthday/Groundhog Day gifts you can give yourself. Get the fancy kind that sit on your piano, or a cool app. I like the Pulse – Metronome:

Tips for Improving Lyric Memorization/Pronunciation

Acting classes are fantastic; if you can, take one! If not, learn tricks like these:

For pronunciation, find different recordings and listen to them all. Concentrate on vowels first, then consonants. Write lyrics out by hand! Can you find someone who speaks the language? A singer, perhaps?

I know…maybe one of those chocolate-loving choral colleagues can be bribed…

Good luck!

Jaime Babbitt coached voice/performance for Disney and wrote Working with Your Voice: The Career Guide to Becoming a Professional Singer (Alfred Publishing). As a session singer, she’s “jingled” for Coke, Pillsbury, Chevrolet, etc. She’s sung thousands of gigs, toured with Leon Russell and Sam Moore and sang background vocals with George Strait, Courtney Love, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus, Johnny Mathis, etc.

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