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?