The August 2019 issue of Choral Journal is now available online! This issue was a focus on sacred music and features an article written by Rachel Carlson titled “Sight-Reading Insights from Professional Choral Singing: How They Learned and Implications for the Choral Classroom.” Below is an excerpt of the article, and you can read it in its entirety in the August 2019 issue! Go to acda.org/choraljournal and click “Search Archives.” Choose August 2019 from the dropdown menu.
For many vocal performance majors, professional choral work is an important component of the work load during and after college. Sight-reading is a vital skill, because a strong sight-reader will be able to learn music quickly and adjust to the needs of the conductor in a limited time frame. (1) Despite the importance of being able to sight-read proficiently, many ensemble singers graduate without developing this skill to a level high enough to succeed in the professional choral world. (2) Few studies in the field of sight-reading research have investigated the training and insights of professional choral singers. (3) It is hoped that by exploring sight-reading methods, conductors and teachers can learn what might work best for pre-professional choral ensemble singers and can then prioritize those approaches in their teaching.
Question One: Musical Training and Background
What elements in your musical training prepared you for what you have to do as a professional choral singer?
Participants most frequently received their musical training through instrumental study growing up, aural skills class (usually in college but occasionally in high school or in a children’s choir), and through on-the-job training. Other, less common, answers included high school choir, college choir, participating in a children’s chorus, growing up singing in church or with their family, through a sense of personal accountability or fear (most frequently in a college choir setting), through a lifelong learning process, improving through teaching, through frequent practice and being immersed in it every day, and by challenging themselves or feeling a need to get better in order to succeed at their job. Instrumental training was mentioned frequently in all seven of the focus groups and prepared singers in many ways.
Jay – I started musical training on instruments from a slightly less young age—about age 7 on the piano, about age 13 on the flute—and I would say that training on both those instruments in addition to consistent choral singing in school and church is what built my musicianship skills.
Lynn – All those years of playing scales and playing chord progressions in all different keys kind of helped me translate things and think structurally.
In addition to instrumental training, participants frequently mentioned college aural skills classes as a place where they learned how to use solfège and how to sing and identify different intervals. Several people also mentioned that it was in aural skills class where they learned to “put names on things” that they had learned previously in high school choir or in their instrumental study. Some participants (mostly instrumentalists) found solfège syllables to be more of a hindrance than a help or an “extra step” because they could already sight-read well. Others found solfège syllables to be extremely helpful and still use them in their work today.
Many of the participants mentioned their first church job as their first professional choral singing experience. Several of the singers felt unprepared for the high level of sight-reading that was expected of them at these jobs and felt that they needed to develop better sight-reading skills quickly in order to succeed. Many participants felt that it was during this on-the-job training that their sight-reading skills became proficient.
Kristen – I almost feel like the best training I got for what I do now was Theory I, learning the intervals sophomore year of college… like, getting drilled on the intervals and then, through a church job in grad school, seeing them so often.
Others received training from being held personally accountable in their college choirs.
Mark – I think that it’s not just singing in a choir, because I’ve sung in lots of choirs that did not advance my musicianship, but that individual accountability, you know, quartet roulette, that kind of thing, and just having to be personally accountable for my own musical preparation. And not having somebody play my part for me ever.
Read the rest of this article (and more!) in the August 2019 issue of Choral Journal, available online at acda.org.