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Using an instrumental method book to teach vocal literacy

Everyone always says that singers aren't usually as good readers as instrumentalists.  Conversely instrumentalists often don't hear as well as vocalists because they're buried in the book.  
However, the method books do a good job in my opinion of teaching kids to read music.  Has anyone ever tried to use a method book, say Standards of Excellence, to teach either a choir or a general music class to read music?  Is this a terrible idea?!  I was thinking of using a beginning instrumental book to teach literacy.  We'd spend 5-10 minutes each class.  I'm an instrumentalist and I think of the voice as an instrument so I think this is why I thought of the idea.  I was just wondering what peoples thoughts are on the subject.  I may try it and realize it doesn't work at all, or maybe it will work quite nicely.
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on October 22, 2013 4:10am
If you're willing to buy books, Ben, I'd recommend that you take a look at "A Young Singer's Journey" by Bartle, Beaupre & Baldwin.  These are all accomplished choral teachers and conductors and the series takes a choral approach.  I've been using it successfully for years on the elementary and middle school level but I'm sure it would work in HS as well.  The books allow for an individual rate of progress because each volume (5 or 6 at this point ) comes with a CD to help the student practice the reading material accurately.  There are also "silent keyboards" and sightsinging booklets in each volume that you can use in class.  I don't use the actual practice material in the book during my choral rehearsal but I use the concepts in my warm ups and address the theory concepts in the music I'm teaching.  The children work on the lessons in the book at home and turn them in to be checked whenever they complete a block of 5 lessons.  I meet with each child once a trimester (3 times a year) to check their progress on the singing material in the lessons they've completed.
Besides providing a unified and graduated method for the children to learn to read and understand music, it also give my students who come from many different music programs run by many different teachers, a common language and a common base of knowledge.  The reading level of my group has developed tremendously as a result of our work in this series.
on October 22, 2013 9:39am
Eileen, I'm not familiar with that book.  Thanks for sharing; I'll try to examine it.
When you say , "Practice the reading material", do you mean that there are examples in the book that are additional to what you study in class?  (I'm thinking that "practice" and "sight-singing" are, in a sense, contradictory terms.  ;)
on October 23, 2013 4:04am
I would like to second Eileen's suggestion - these are terrific books written by experienced choral people and designed specifically for singers.
However, I think you will get farther if you imbed the teaching of reading into your regular instruction in the course of learning the music. I have not used a formal sequential approach to teaching reading with my choir, yet they read really well because it has been imbedded in the instruction. They learn about reading because they have to in order to figure out the music. This creates a "need ot know" about the mechanics of reading music, and then what they are learning really sticks - it's not a random skill. 
For example, take exceerpts from your music, put them on the board and have them solfege them. Take a difficult rhythm from the  music, simplify it on the board, and sequentially work through it with them adding complexities with each go around until the complicated rhythm is learned.  Use solfege to navigate intervals that might be challenging. Use solfege on scales as part of your warm ups. 
on October 22, 2013 5:35am
This isn't the first time I've heard of a choral teacher using and instrumental method.  Personally, as an instrumentalist also, I don't think this is a bad idea.  As a high schooler, my horn lessons always included a singing component....thank you Mssrs. Ressler & Michalski.  For my money it does no harm for a singer to learn music as an instrumentalist. (dynamics, precision, line, technique, ensemble...and a myriad of other ideas come to my mind...) For what it's worth, I'll never forget singing in a choral/instrumental rehearsal with the Phila. Orch & Ormandy....when the Maestro called out in his striking accent..."choroos", he said, "your singing must be as these musicians are playing".  That hurt!  
My days as an instrumental musician, after all, drew the singer out of me....and led me to the world of choral singing!  I thank God for that everyday.  Good luck!
on October 22, 2013 7:44am
While I use the Choral Masterworks series to teach pitch, I use an old percussion method book to teach the complex rhythms .  The one I use has the beats stems down underneath the rhythm, stems up, so my kids can more easily learn the numbers system of counters.  A combination of the two works best for me.
on October 22, 2013 9:12am
If you can teach music literacy to young musicians in a way that helps them synthesize meaningful connections from the instructional method to the selected concert repertoire, then it's *not* a terrible idea. 
:)  Jake
on October 22, 2013 9:33am
Most singers/choral directors are in full agreement that we need to raise our singer's reading ability!  Many have been working in earnest on this for quite some time!  (Currently, it really depends on which program you look at; there are schools in systems where the singers can, with their voice, out-read the instrumentalists using instruments.  Here in Georgia, an All-State Reading Chorus was begun about 4 years ago, and has met with great success.  (This is in addition to the regular/traditional All-State Chorus, which also has rather stringent sight-singing as an audition requirement.)
Since there are so many good books/methods/kits to teach singers sight-singing, [ and most have been created with choral singer's backgrounds/challanges in mind ] I am not sure why you are considering instrumental method books  ...  ? ...unless it is a budget issue.  As you alluded to, while instrumentalists need to learn to places their fingers, embocure, etc. a certain way and the note will magically appear, singers need to learn to predict pitches, tonalities, intervals, chords, etc. and auditate them (specifically imagine what the pitch is before singing it ) .  Those are actually different skills.   (Horn and viola players might justifiably claim exception, as they have to audiate, perhpas, more than some do :)
The methods for teaching these differences are, predictably, different.
I would recommend:
1. "The Independent Singer" - Kjos publishing - great little kit with teacher's guide and already-separated pages  that you can copy for the students.  Comes with copyright permission.  Very inexpensive, step-by-step, singer-friendly.  If a page deals with a concept you've already taught, just don't copy it and skip that page.  Works great for church/community groups as well.  The whole kit (total  - including teacher's guide and pages to copy) used to be $25.  I imagine it is close to that now.  If someone is absent, you can send the page you covered home for review.
2. The Nancy Telfer series is good, especially for groups who are very intelligent, creative, have good ears, and learn quickly.  Each page has highlighted graphics, and each little example has actual poetic words - some are funny, some thought-provoking, etc.,  - just as a well-rounded program of performed choral texts might be.  (This is a consideration about using instrumental books - it might not reinforce the important skill of reading  notes and words simultaneously.  Countless times during the rehearsals I've conducted, and the voice lessons I've taught, the student(s) have stopped, saying, "I was confused about how to fit the words!" )
3. Local systems here have used "Experiencing Choral Music - Sight-Singing" (Hal Leonard/McGraw/Glencoe) It is available in several levels: I think they are "Beginning, Proficient, and Advanced." (Be sure you include the word 'Sight-Singing" in the title when ordering, so they won't send the regular choral book.)  The graphics are good - simple, direct, and effective.  I used it for several years, and really like it.  It begins with rhythm, and immediately adds  pitches [letter-names] and solfege simultaneously.  After teaching each concept, there is a song to apply it.    Some of my students had never seen a page of sheet music before, and after a month, could sight-sing basic melodies.  It begins with "C", then introduces minors and other keys early as well.  I believe you can order a copy [for your own perusal/consideraton] online.  One of my adult voice students did that.
Best Wishes!
on October 23, 2013 5:43pm
Thanks for all the replies! They're very insightful and helpful.  
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