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Reading Music & Sight-Singing - Is it really all that important?

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

I’ve often been dismayed by the number of voice students who do not read music. For them, learning a piece of music requires having someone play the song for them, or hearing a recording of someone else singing it. Unless they’ve learned to play an instrument or sung in a choir, many singers have never been instructed in music theory, music reading, or sight-singing. And even some very gifted instrumentalists learn to play “by ear”, yet struggle to read music unless they learn from the beginning of their studies.

person holding sheet music

“The voice is the only instrument that God made” is a favorite quote from one of my most beloved, most divinely gifted musical influences, Derric Johnson - composer, arranger, author, founder of the group “Regeneration” and later, Disney’s a capella sensation, “The Voices of Liberty”, with whom I sang for 6 years, and who still perform at EPCOT to this day. God has gifted some singers with a special talent, known as “perfect pitch”, which comes in really handy when applied to reading music and staying on pitch. But only a very small portion of the population have this rare ability. And even they must learn to read rhythms. But the rest of us must learn to sight-read and sing on pitch by instruction, drilling intervals, and practicing rhythmic & melodic exercises.


When I started singing as a toddler, my mom immediately recognized my passion for music and enrolled me in piano lessons at the tender age of 5. I had a toy piano that I pounded on before I could walk or talk, and that was soon replaced by the real thing when lessons began in earnest. I took piano lessons throughout my entire school grades until it was time to go off to college. There were some intense struggles during my teen years, when Mom insisted I practice for an hour before I could do ANYTHING else on my agenda. That included watching tv, going out with friends, even talking on the phone! I know I gave Mom a hard time back then, but I cannot overstate how grateful I am now that she stuck to her guns and didn’t give up the fight.


Learning to play the piano AND read music gave me better aural acuity and helped set the stage for learning to sight-sing, which ultimately made me a better singer. While a pianist sees the notes on the page and presses the keys, the singer must be able to use relative pitch and their knowledge of intervals & how the notes fit (or not) in a particular scale, making alterations based on the accidentals (sharps & flats) used.

When I lived in Los Angeles from 2002-2017, I had the great fortune to meet and work with sight-singing expert and stunning vocalist/coach/pianist Gerald White, who helped open doors for me into the world of session singing for motion pictures. Gerald’s amazing voice can be heard on hundreds of soundtracks for movies, TV shows and commercials. He is “The Man” in L.A. for all things in the commercial vocal realm. In one of his regularly held sight-singing classes that he teaches for SAG-AFTRA members, Gerald explained how specialized sight-singers really are. He explained that out of the many singers in Los Angeles with truly exceptional voices, there are only a handful who are good sight-readers, which is a requirement for gaining work in the studio session world. This is why I always saw the same 30-40 people at nearly every recording session I did in Los Angeles.


Personal satisfaction and achievement aside, the monetary rewards for sight-singing proficiency are considerable. I still receive residuals (royalties) from every movie I sang for during my time in L.A. so many years ago. Every time those movies are played or re-released in any format, ALL of us who sang on those soundtracks receive a check. Not bad for a half-day’s work, eh?


So it is definitely worth the effort to learn – not only to READ music, but also to train your ears well enough to SIGHT-SING. And how does one learn this skill? It does take a lot of practice. There are quite a few good resources out there (see below), some available online with a subscription. And of course, many voice teachers work on sight-singing with their students, as do I and the teachers in my studio, who understand its importance and believe in developing well-rounded musicians who can hold their own among their instrumentalist friends & colleagues. I like the one-on-one in-person approach better myself, because you get more personalized feedback & instruction about where you need to improve.


Even if you never have any intention of going to Los Angeles to do TV, commercial or movie soundtrack session singing, learning to sight-sing is a skill that is thrilling and liberating. With this ability, one can look at any piece of new music, “hear” it in your head and sing it without assistance of an instrument. If your plans include becoming a professional singer, you must become a proficient sight-singer to be taken seriously and be competitive. It takes a lot of practice, but it’s well worth the effort!


RESOURCES:


EarMaster - An excellent comprehensive ear-training, sight-singing and music theory training app for singers and instrumentalists with a free version and a low-cost monthly or yearly subscription for the full version. Compatible with Windows, Mac, IOS, Android and Chromebook. Works with most computers, phones and tablets.


Sight-Reading Factory - An online sight-reading practice site with multiple levels of difficulty that progress with more complex rhythms, larger leaps, expanded ranges, and increased accidentals. Anyone from beginning level students to the most seasoned musician can generate music appropriate to their abilities. They offer a free version and a more expanded paid version. Teachers can purchase subscriptions for their students for a nominal fee.


LASightSinger - A comprehensive online course for those who are serious about becoming excellent sight-singers and working as a professional session-singer. Led by industry specialist Gerald White in Los Angeles.


90 Days to Sight-Reading Success - Book with online audio access to rehearsal tracks. This sight reading workbook targets the secondary choir student preparing for vocal sight reading auditions. The eight-measure exercises are a combination of original compositions and prior sight reading audition examples used for All-State Vocal Adjudications.


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