How the class Sight Singing Demystified Came to Be

I’d like to share with you a bit about how this class came to be.  To be succinct, I’ve known ever since college that I had some holes in my music education.  There are some things I’m very good at - reading complex rhythms has not been difficult for me.  I probably owe that to my dance experience.  Some things, however, have always been a challenge.  I was not taught how to read tones properly.  I could sight read playing clarinet just fine.  But singing?  No.  I had to hear it first.  I would play it on piano first and that is how I learned my music.  I was terrible at taking dictation.  Dictation, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is hearing a section of music and writing it down.  This is a standard expectation in a college music program and I was lost.  

Now, keep in mind, I still found a way to learn and perform very difficult music.  Bach, Handel, Stravinsky, John Adams, Conrad Susa are just some of the composers I remember from my undergraduate days.  

When I went to graduate school, this sight reading and dictation business became an issue once again.  The assumption was that this should be a review.  I should know this already.  A snarky comment from an instructor led me to walk out and drop the class - the only time I have ever done such a thing.  So I started searching for a better way.  I’d heard of a sight singing class in New York City taught by Liz Fleischer.  I took her class and it helped a lot.  It certainly went a long way to patching up a very bruised ego.  It did not, however, give me a framework for continuing to work on my skills or helping others to do so.

So a couple of years ago, I knew that I wanted to get back to conducting choruses.  I was starting a job assisting with a youth choir and part of the position was instruction in musicianship skills.  I was also noticing that many of my private voice students didn’t have the skills to learn music by themselves.  I started looking for resources and found Dr. Carol Kruger’s book Progressive Sight Singing.  The reviews of her book stated that it was a great resource, but her workshops would really teach you how to use it.  I was expecting to have to travel and pay an arm and a leg, but when I searched I found an affordable workshop with her here in Raleigh!  Jackpot!  

That first workshop was a bit like drinking from a firehose.  It was an absolute deluge of information.  Much of it was familiar from music education classes, but I had not seen it applied.  Dr. Kruger gave me the framework I had been looking for to work on my own skills, but also to teach these skills in different settings.  

These skills are not limited to singers.  Truthfully, all musicians need these skills.  I’m starting with the singers first because there are so many of us, and so many of us feel at a disadvantage because we must depend on someone else to teach us our part.   

Yeah, we’re going to fix that.  

Voice lessons: what high school students need

Voice lessons are not one-size-fits-all or even one-size-fits-most.  Private lessons for singing usually begin in high school, though some can begin in middle school.  What is most important for high school students who are studying voice?  


Flexible Vocal Technique


High school singers are experimenting, as well they should!  It’s not unusual for one of my students to sing in their school chorus, a church choir, and want to audition for a music theatre production.  I’ve had students who put together rock bands and sing with the school jazz band.  In order to try out different styles of singing, one must cultivate a healthy and versatile vocal technique.  As a teacher, I help students learn what their voices can and cannot do in order to avoid vocal injury.  There used to be a popular misconception that if you were classically trained, you could sing anything.  Fortunately, this idea is fading away because it is most definitely not true.  


Vocal Health


First order of business is learning how to warm up your voice before using it and how to cool down afterward.  I also emphasize the idea of a “vocal clock,” an idea I learned from Duke Voice Care Center Speech Language Pathologist Leda Scearce.  The idea is that we all have a certain amount of time we can use our voices each day safely.  Some vocal behaviors, like singing in a comfortable range, take only a little time off the clock.  Singing loudly takes more time off the clock, as does talking over noise.  Some vocal behaviors like yelling or screaming at a game should always be avoided since the chance of trauma from even doing it once is so great.  Each student must learn to be responsible for his or her vocal well-being.




I strongly advocate trying out different styles of music at this age - who knows what may fit like a glove?  To that end, I also encourage singers to listen to a wide variety of singers.  We have our favorites, and we tend to want to sound like our favorites.  Imitation is a stage that all artists go through.  But it is important to not get stuck in wanting to sound like your idol.  Each singer must find his or her unique voice and learn all the colors that it is capable of producing.  


Who are your favorite singers?  What moves you about their voices or the way they sing? 

What really happens in a voice lesson?

Is it what you thought it would be?

I meet so many people who want to sing, or who want to sing better than they currently do.  I always ask the beginners after a few lessons, “Are voice lessons what you thought they would be?  Has there been anything that surprised you?”  The answers are often interesting.  Here are some common responses (paraphrased):

I didn’t really know what to expect

This is more enjoyable than I thought it would be

I thought you would tell me there was one right way, but you’re showing me choices

I’ve never paid attention to my breath, or my tongue, or my posture.  It’s kind of weird. 

Every voice teacher is a little different. 

Other teachers may have different approaches, and that’s really a good thing since there is so much variety in what students need and want.  So much of teaching is filtered through our own experience, and everyone's is unique.  

A lesson with me:

  1. We check in with how you are making progress on your goals.  What is feeling easy?  What is feeling difficult?  Is there something in particular the student would like help with?
  2. We warm up.  The purpose of a warm up is to get the body and brain ready for more difficult tasks.  A warm up reminds the student of the coordination we want.  
  3. I guide the student through some exercises.  Many people confuse warm up and exercises.  They are two different things.  A warm up reinforces an easy, good coordination.  It gets you lined up.  Exercises are designed to help you work on a specific coordination that you haven’t mastered yet.  An exercise has the potential to get you out of that good coordination.  So we go back and forth.  We do something that shows the student the coordination that we’re looking for.  Then we do something that is similar, but a little more difficult.  Repeat.  
  4. We apply the skills the student is learning to repertoire.  This varies greatly from student to student.  One student will work on a musical theatre piece for an upcoming audition, another student will bring in a song they are learning in their school chorus to get help with a difficult section, another may bring in a pop song to sing for fun just for themselves.  I show the student several ways to practice sections of the song that are difficult.  We will play with how to connect emotionally to the text and how to bring that alive as a performer.  
  5. Throughout the lesson, I’m teaching the student how to practice.  At the end of the lesson, I’ll often point out a few things to focus on during the week.  We may also agree to work on a specific thing in the next lesson.  

Throughout this process, I’m asking questions such as:

  • What do you notice?
  • Can you do that again and let it be easier?
  • How have you been practicing this at home? 
  • What felt easy about what you just did?
  • What felt difficult?

The best word to describe what happens in a voice lesson with me is collaboration.  The information goes both ways! 

Goofball Island: The pedagogical power of silliness

You may have seen the film Inside Out this summer.  If not, I encourage you to see it.  In it, we get to see the inner workings of eleven year old Riley’s emotions.  Aspects of her personality are represented by islands in her brain.  There is family island, friend island, hockey island, honesty island, and my favorite - goofball island.  I remember considering what my own islands would be.  Friends and family would certainly be there along with music, and most definitely a goofball island.

There wasn’t much communication between music island and goofball island for a while.  This was especially true when I was earning my degrees.  I wanted to be taken seriously, to be acknowledged as a “real” singer - whatever that means - and I was terrified I wouldn’t measure up.  In retrospect, I can see that many of my favorite and most effective teachers displayed their own playfulness and so gave me permission to do the same.  

Let’s face it, singing in front of another person - especially if that person is a supposed expert - is a terrifyingly vulnerable thing to do.  Put on the added pressure of adolescence, perfectionism, or too many episodes of American Idol with Simon Cowell and the simple act of singing becomes truly daunting!

As a teacher, the first thing I have to do is create an atmosphere in which learning can take place.  That means connecting with the student(s) in a compassionate way and creating a sense of safety.  A little visit to goofball island usually does the trick!  Animal noises, ghosty noises, exaggerated emotions, going too far on purpose - all of these things keep teacher and student in a state of play.  Play is fun.  Play is not scary.

Can a person learn while “keeping one’s nose to the grindstone” with the “learning is hard work” philosophy?  Probably.  By why on earth would anyone prefer that?  If practice or rehearsing is becoming drudgery, do something to mix it up and make it fun again.  Some teachers and conductors are great at this - but it is not all their responsibility.  Students would do well to ask themselves, “How can I make this process more fun and enjoyable for myself and the people around me?”  I should also add that this needs to serve the quality of the music making.  Silliness that distracts from the task at hand is never appropriate.  Should the process be giggles all the time?  No.  The learning process often requires a great deal of patience and attention.  But a little goofball is the perfect antidote to taking yourself too seriously!  

In the comments, tell me:  Do you have a goofball island as part of your personality?  If not, why not?  How do you foster a sense of play in your music making?  

Putting First Things First

On May 8, 2015, I gave notice at Wake Tech Community College where I had been teaching for five years.  I wanted more control over how I spend my time and the projects I take on as a musician.  One of the things I was looking forward to the most is having time for own music practice.  I want to get my voice in peak condition and improve my piano skills.  This prompted me to think a lot about how to approach practicing.  Here are three strategies  I’ve found to be essential when beginning a practice habit, or hitting the restart button after a hiatus.

Schedule it

When you haven’t had control of your time for a while (that’s me) it is very tempting to say, “I’ll do it when I feel like it.”  It’s the old “wait for inspiration to strike” idea.  In my experience, this does not work.  We get involved in other things, time gets away from us and the next thing you know, the day is over or you just have no more energy to give.  Scheduling time helps you be more realistic.  Can you really manage an hour of practice in the evening consistently when there is so much to be done?  Better to schedule thirty minutes and be consistent with it.

For me, I know that I’m at my best in the morning.  My best time to practice is 9am to 11am.  I’ve been up for awhile, I’m focused and ready to go.  I find that top priority tasks have to happen earlier in my day.  This may not be the case for everyone, however.  How can you make scheduling work for you?

Track it

It is such a simple thing to keep a journal of what you do, but it is so powerful.  People have found that journaling helps them be more aware of their thoughts and emotions, how much they are eating, exercising, etc.  Keeping a journal of your music practice does two things.  First, it’s a way of keeping yourself accountable.  If you skip a few days it’s right there in black and white.  If you are skipping many days, you know you need to do some problem solving there.  Second, it can help you track your progress and acknowledge it.  When you write down what you’ve done and what you notice it becomes easier to see the progress you have made.  Progress often happens so slowly that it is hard for us to see it.  Acknowledging the progress you’ve made is a powerful motivator to keep going!


When you are just beginning a practice again, keep your expectations open.  Actually, this is an excellent practice wherever you are in your study of music! We can get overly focused and rigid, “I will get that passage right!”  That kind of dogged determination usually does not get good results.  Instead, observe without judgement.  You may notice that one exercise is easy, but another is not; that your concentration is better at particular times; that a note sounds pleasing when approached one way, but in another context, that same pitch is difficult.  Learn about where you are first, then make a plan to reach your goals and implement the plan gently.  

Let’s get the conversation started!  Do you implement these strategies in your practice?  What have you found to be most effective?