Special FeaturesSpecial Skills: Teach Yourself the Invaluable Ability of Sight-ReadingWith just 10 minutes a day, any singer (professional or amateur) can learn this marketable talent at home.
April 14, 2020
Today, most of us have a bit more time at home on our hands then we used to. Whether you want to bulk up the special skills section of your résumé or just want to try something new, Playbill is here to serve!
The ability to sight-read is not a requirement of the job of a performer; but the skill can certainly become a make-or-break factor in casting or (as we learned from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in their notes about writing the Ragtime score) the difference between being able to add in a necessary new song and not.
“For people who are looking to become or who are professional musical theatre performers, it’s that projects begin with very fast processes,” says Broadway music director Andrea Grody (Tootsie, The Band’s Visit). “If you're coming into a new show, the first reading is 29 hours and you have to learn all the material. And if you can sight-read, it's a huge benefit. It makes it easier for you. It makes it easier for your team and, as someone who hires people for those, it's really helpful for me to hire people who I know can learn quickly. It is absolutely a marketable skill.”
But even for non-professionals, Grody feels sight-reading is key: “If you don't know how to access that music without outside help [i.e. recordings, an accompanist plunking notes for you], you are relinquishing control of your artistry.”
The good news? Anyone can learn to sight-read. “Music is a language and sight-reading is learning to read,” Grody explains. “Toddlers who are learning how to speak and then learning to read, they're connecting the sounds they already know and a structure they already have to a visual. That's just what an adult or an older child or a teenager is learning to do when they're reading music.”
Grody recommends making sight-reading a habit—even 10 minutes a day can make a difference in building the musical muscle. Start with hymnals or folk songs or children’s songs, “songs with straightforward melodies and uncomplicated rhythms,” she advises. Do not listen to the song. Try to read it and sing aloud. Then, after you’ve tried reading, listen and sing along and notice the patterns in notations that correspond to the correct sounds. “It's kind of like when you look at a word in English, you see it and you don't think about the letters that make it up,” says Grody. “That's the goal with reading music, is seeing the patterns enough and to understand what they are as you're learning them.”
The patterns Grody says are most important are intervals—so knowing what a second or a third looks like. And there are digital ways to learn intervals and famous melodies associated with intervals: “A major sixth, for a long time it was [singing] N-B-C. The minor second is Jaws [singing] bu-dum,” says Grody. Still, Grody prefers a more practical approach to help singers learn with context, rather than supplying random building blocks.
Here are some of Grody’s extra tips to help you begin with your first 10-minute practice session: 1. Know some basic music theory. If you don’t know how to use a key signature or how to count up and down the music staff, look up “basic music theory for singers” on Google, YouTube, Coursera, Udemy, etc. and find 10,000 free links and videos that will be scattered but will provide this information. 2. Pitch and rhythm are not the same. 3. Make it a habit to start by looking at a piece of music before you hear it. If you make it a habit of trying to engage with the visual before you engage with the auditory, you'll start gaining that. 4. When you're learning rhythm, focus on proportions rather than absolute values; rhythm is just simple math. It's about dividing things into two and three. If you get used to seeing the two eighth notes of the same as one quarter note, that's really what matters
For more hands-on practice, here are suggestions for digital tools and lessons:
8notes.com The site features an in-depth catalog of simple melodies with the ability to play back audio. Pick an alphabetized section of the Digital Tradition section, read 5-10 songs a day until you finish, and then pick another section and keep going. Limited number of free plays per day or $20/year subscription.
SightReadingFactory.com This is an automated sight-reading exercise generator, catered to your self-described level. Limited free exercises $34.99/year subscription.
Harmony Helper app Though not specifically designed for sight-reading, Harmony Helper can still assist. Upload the sheet music you have in your home—or that you’ve purchased online—select your vocal part (or to simplify, you can select the melody as your vocal part), and sing into the app. It will track your pitch accuracy to a T! Start your free trial today.
Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology Any edition of the book will offer great selections for you to test you sight-reading skills.
Private lessons Grody offers one-on-one virtual sight-reading lessons, currently pay-what-you-can. With a clear passion for the subject, Grody says, “the benefit of having a teacher is having someone to recognize the patterns in your thinking and the patterns in both your mistakes and your successes.” Contact her at [email protected].