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!