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Sight-reading -
Symbol and Memory

Now we've looked at why sight-reading ability is desirable, we can study some specific techniques.

Symbols to sound

The fundamental technique of sight-reading is to equate symbol to sound. To begin this process it is vital to associate the two and to achieve this we mustnít get lost on the page!

So your choir needs to learn a few basics about music geography - how to find your way around the page - and a few music symbols and signs. Most sight-reading books start off with a little theory. The lines and the spaces, names of notes, roughly long and short music signs (crotchet - quaver, minim - crotchet, etc). Start off by using a finger on the page and follow the notes along ... very slowly.


Text is an "extra" bit of sight-reading for the singer, but it's also a help. Read the text first, then the rhythm, and then the pitch of the music. The text picks up the natural rhythms in any case and we are used to these from normal speech and reading.

As musicians and singers we learn to think more about speech rhythm, and to spot and predict patterns. In a sense we think more like poets. It's also worth reading text through in advance (however briefly) of any new piece so that you can concentrate on "the dots" when you get to the music. You can ask your choir to go through the text at home, as this is an area where we're all experts!

Sight-reading for the non-instrumentalist

In a way, sight-reading is more difficult for the singer than for the instrumentalist, as there are no technical, visual or physiological factors at work aiding the mental process. On the other hand it 's easier as there's less music to take in - literally one melody as opposed to chords and counterpoint. But the singer has to create pitch entirely through the mental process and through his musical memory.

Memory through listening

Memory through listening plays an extremely important part in music-reading and therefore sight-reading.

As we listen to lots of music we gradually memorise the sound of the scale - both major and minor - with the pattern of intervals. When we come to estimate an interval between notes - one of our principal tasks! - we rely upon this memory. Moreover, we learn to hear several sounds simultaneously and can select the interval and pitch we want by a process of exclusion.

Guesswork plays an important part with every sight-reader. When the music is accompanied, the harmonies also help us to guess more accurately, as there will be more limited solutions to any situation.

Harmony and melody work together in music vertically and horizontally to form an overall musical shape.

Andrew Wright Master of Music, Brentwood Cathedral

Now see how Rhythm and Aural Training play their part in Sight-reading and Sight-reading - Rhythm and Aural Training.

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Read Andrew Wright's further articles on Sight-reading, then you can go back to Music-for-Church-Choirs.com Home page for more topics of particular interest to church choir musicians.

Sight-reading - Rhythm and Aural Training
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