How do you get a singer to stop singing? Put some sheet music in front of him/her.
As singers, we tend to rely on our ears rather then our eyes. Most of us would greatly prefer to sing back a melody after hearing it a few times rather than sight read it. The thought of getting a call to come and do a background vocals session, where you must sight read harmony notes right on the spot, terrifies most of us.
But in order to make that giant leap from "good singer" to "first-call musician," it is important to practice sight reading music on a daily basis.
Here are a few tips that are intended to remind you of the most efficient ways to improve as a sight reader.
Rhythm is key.
Arguably the most important aspect of sight singing is performing the correct rhythms. If you sing incorrect pitches but sing the proper rhythms, you at least will not have lost your place within the music. Before you go on to master the melodies of a new song, your rhythm reading needs to be rock-solid.
When you first learn a new exercise, it is helpful to at first forget about the pitches and clap through the rhythm. You may even sing the rhythms on one note. Once the rhythm is mastered, the melody will become that much easier to read through.
Forget about the mistakes.
When we sing a wrong note or miss the correct rhythm, our natural tendency is to go back and fix the mistake. While this is our human nature, you must fight this urge and continue to chug on through the piece of music. Stopping and rewinding to attempt to correct your mistake throws off the entire piece of music, especially when you are performing in any type of group setting. In fact, your mistake will be much less noticeable to your audience if you continue to sing through the piece instead of stopping.
It is crucial to learn how to keep singing through mistakes. Doing so will help you keep up with the ensemble, your judges will regard your musicianship as higher than if you had paused, and your audiences will enjoy the music much more if it is uninterrupted.
Choose a comfortable tempo.
While the composer will always provide suggested tempo assignments to his or her piece of music, remember that in a practice setting, you are always in control. Singing the correct rhythms, melodies and expressions is far more important than the speed in which you practice the piece, especially as you are in the beginning stages of learning how to sight sing.
A great tip is to locate the most difficult passage before you attempt to sing it. As you read it in your head, think about the most comfortable tempo for you to perform that passage. Base your starting tempo off of that tempo.
A common mistake singers make is briefly scanning over the first few bars of the passage, noticing there are just a few simple rhythms, and then immediately begin singing. Often times, more complicated rhythms and melodies appear later on in the piece of music. Locating those passages and picking a comfortable tempo based off of them will allow you to deliver the music more accurately and confidently.
Always look ahead.
It is always helpful to be scanning ahead, at least one measure in advance. As you sing the notes of your current spot in the melody, keep your eyes moving ahead to the next group of notes. This will ensure that you are prepared for the upcoming twists and turns. You must always think like a chess player: one step ahead. Doing so will allow you to comfortably deliver the correct melody.
In conclusion, if you have a powerful, beautiful tone, and can fly through killer runs with the greatest of ease, that's fantastic. You're a great singer, and you will have many great opportunities because of your voice. But if you're a great singer that can read music, the opportunities are endless! You will get the call for recording and performing sessions at a much higher rate than someone who can't get to the studio or stage and read right on the spot.
While all of the coordination involved can be tricky at first, practicing this skill daily will be a worthwhile investment of your time. Do it!
For more information, take a look at Anthony's "Sight Singing 1" at the Berklee Bookstore.