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What is a Sight Reader?


What may we reasonably expect from a sight singer? The term is often used loosely; people who really cannot read music rapidly fancy themselves sight singers although they sing by ear. They say they cannot get along without the notes; neither will they attempt anything until it has been played or sung to them. On the other hand it is sometimes supposed that a sight singer can perform anything at sight—a quite impracticable demand. Choirmasters know only too well that there are many singers, especially men, with good voices, who can never be depended upon to read promptly and accurately at first sight; and what is worse their second and third attempts often show little improvement. In such cases it is first of all necessary to appeal to their pride; a man who sings, even in a chorus, should be above guessing easy intervals and dragging after the accompaniment. If he plays whist or sails a yacht he scorns to be found ignorant of rules; indeed, his ambition is to know all the fine points. And so it should be in chorus-singing. Let us now consider the essentials.

There are numerous “methods” of sight singing, and while they differ considerably, especially in the names of things, they all demand a good working knowledge of staff notation, and the ability to read intervals in any key, in both the G and F clefs. The singer must be able to count time mentally, and to sing all commonly used intervals as he reads them, provided they are free from complications of time and rhythm. With these qualifications a simple passage will be sung very well at first sight, but if a florid or chromatic passage occurs the singer will often show good judgment by studying it mentally and not attempting to vocalize it until the second or third reading. A phrase of unusual difficulty may require to be carefullly (sic) memorized before it can be properly sung at all. The test of sight singing, therefore, lies not so much in courageous and prompt attack at first sight, but in the rapid improvement on the second and third readings, showing that the singer is alert and resourceful and quick to apply special methods to special difficulties.

The singer who can do this will with practice become a reliable and valuable member of a chorus; but having accomplished so much he should not be content to stand still; for there are better things within easy reach. By knowing more he will often save himself time and trouble and he will find it much more interesting to study a musical composition as a whole instead of confining his attention to a melodic reading of his own part.

Practice in reading other parts is conveniently acquired by following them carefully as they are separately rehearsed, noting the choir-master’s comments and corrections, and so far as possible mentally anticipating them. When some proficiency has been attained it will be found possible for the singer to read one other part beside his own, and from this he may gradually work up to the reading of all the parts when printed in short score. Since anthems and services are usually in open score, with a separate accompaniment, a complete reading is not to be expected, but it is of the greatest use to be able to read whatever is most essential to the singer at the moment. In fugal choruses or wherever the flow of a part is interrupted by rests, then the time and intonation of the subsequent attack will often be conveniently suggested by some other part, or by the accompaniment. Even when the singer is fairly sure of his time and pitch, from independent calculation, anything which serves as a confirmation of his melodic reading enables him to sing with increased confidence; and without confidence, based on accurate knowledge, really good singing is impossible.

When a singer has attained some proficiency in reading the several parts both separately and together he will become aware, practically, of the fact, already known in a general way, that music consists largely of chords, not of isolated sounds. He will in addition become familiar with the appearance and musical effect of common chords, and will recognize them as definite combinations even without knowing their names. At this stage he will gain much by a study of the elements of harmony, and he should not be deterred by the fact that many brilliant performers neglect it. It is not necessary to enter upon a long course or to incur great expense. In a city it will often be possible to find a harmony class, or if half a dozen members of a choir would get together they might form one, and the choir-master would be only too glad to give them an hour a week for a moderate fee. Lessons by mail are also available, but in any case there is nothing to prevent a serious and intelligent singer from getting a suitable primer on the subject and attacking it singlehanded. He can at least learn the names of the primary tonic and dominant chords, and by steady application he may be able to recognize them and analyze the harmony of any simple work. In working out exercises he will need the corrections of a master, but even here self-help will go a long way. To work out a short study, and then a week later to examine and revise it is splendid practice; too slow, perhaps, for a man working for an examination, but to the amateur it has this advantage, that what he learns by hard digging will stick: the man who “crams” and who leans upon a professor or a coach often forgets the best part of his work in a month or two. Besides, there is always a special satisfaction in acquiring knowledge that may be put to immediate use, and even a theoretical knowledge of harmony is of great use in sight reading. Let us take a few examples.

All music abounds in modulations and transitions, some of them smooth and conventional, others abrupt and startling; a temporary change of tonality involves the use of some accidentals; even where the notes are unchanged they enter into new relations. To attempt to read every note from the basis of the original key is bewildering; it is really much simpler to frankly recognize a new tonality no matter how transient, and the main essential is familiarity with the appearance of the common chords of the various keys. When, in addition, the singer is able to recognize the chord as a definite combination of sounds, and to produce the one called for by his part he will find himself well repaid for the time and trouble necessary to attain thus far.

Converse cases occur where the melodic intervals of a part are simple and offer no difficulty when the part is rehearsed separately; but when all the parts are performed together certain innocent looking notes are found hard to sing. Even if the singers get them right they have an uneasy feeling that there is something wrong. The commonest cause of such a difficulty is the occurrence of a discord, and since in many cases the alteration of a single note will change it to a concord, singers are prone to make the alteration. Here then it is a convenience for the sight-reader to promptly recognize a discord, and to be prepared for the relatively harsh effect; he will then feel satisfied and not slide flat or sharp in search of a more comfortable note.

While admitting certain advantages, many singers will probably say that the foregoing suggestions demand too much of a voluntary chorus man; and that choir-masters are thankful for a good voice combined with a very slight knowledge of music. This is true, but it is equally true that the possessor of a good voice owes it to himself to be something more than a mechanical producer of sound; he should strive to be, within certain limits, a musician, not only because it will improve his work but because it will enhance his enjoyment of the good work of others.

When thoroughly sure of his reading, and able to follow intelligently and comprehensively any work that is performed, the voluntary choir man, or honorary lay clerk, or whatever he calls himself, will find his interest in music steadily increasing; every rehearsal will teach him something; and if he sometimes fails at “first sight,” he will assuredly not fail after he has made a careful study of his score.


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You are reading What is a Sight Reader? from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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