Five tips singers can use to improve sight-reading skills

Sight-reading can be a very rewarding skill for any singer. Professional vocalist and pianist Dr Joel Clifft reveals how a singer can improve their sight-reading using these five top tips. We’ve all heard the jokes about sending the singers into battle first, followed by the musicians. The incendiary implication is two-fold: first, singers are not musicians.

Second, singers are more easily replaced than musicians. The grain of truth that causes these jokes to ring true is the fact that many singers read music at an elementary level, especially compared to the reading chops of serious instrumentalists. Well, it’s time to change all that.

Mastering the art of sight-reading will take a considerable amount of practice but, once you start to gain fluency, the reward is immense and will save you lots of time in the long run. I cannot fully describe the satisfaction that comes from fluently reading music, bringing printed music to life instantaneously.

Here are my five tips to get you on the road to sight-reading:

1. Learn how to count
Rhythm is listed first for a good reason: this is music at its most fundamental level. It’s also the most common weakness among singers. Try this: feel the biggest pulse and the smallest pulse simultaneously. You can do this by tapping your foot on the big pulse while tapping or clapping the smallest pulse.

Take this dotted rhythm as an example:

Dotted rhythm






Now try stomping your foot on each big pulse (quarter notes) as notated below. The third pulse is particularly helpful.

Stomp on the main pulse






Now look at this syncopated rhythm:





This becomes infinitely easier to execute if we superimpose the smallest pulse (in this case, 16th notes). Try tapping the smallest pulse while speaking the rhythm below. Notice the five times that you’ll tap the pulse without speaking it and make sure to keep the tapping regular throughout.





2. Look Ahead
Before you begin, scan the music for two things: those that help, and those that hurt. Helpful things include repeated passages and recognisable melodies. Hurtful things include big leaps, page turns and key changes. By identifying these before you begin singing, you’ll know where trouble is likely to crop up and, hopefully, how to avoid it.

When you actually sing the piece, force your eyes to get ahead of your voice. In other words, don’t look at the note you’re currently singing. Looking ahead will give you time to interpret what you’re seeing.

Experiment with how far ahead you can manage. The further ahead you look, the more processing time you will have. A safe driver is constantly looking ahead so they’ll have time to react. Pro singers read ahead. In this way, they see challenges early enough to successfully navigate even the most difficult music.

3. Use theory
When we learn to read words, we quickly begin to group letters together. Nobody can read fluently if they’re thinking of C-A-T as three separate entities. However, we all too often read music in this fashion – one note at a time. By using theory, we can recognise chords, scales and chord progressions. This is a critical component to becoming fluent as a musician. Many melodies are simply broken chords or scales, so try to back up far enough to see the bigger patterns rather than each individual note.

4. Hear it before you sing it
Audiation is the act of internal hearing. It’s possible for the brain to find the pitch before audibly singing it. Try sitting at the piano with a piece of music. Hear the note, sing the note, and finally play the note. This gives you a chance to find the pitch with your brain, then find it with your voice, then verify your accuracy with the piano.

5. Make music
This may seem obvious, but often it isn’t. Sight-reading is much more than correct notes and rhythms. A pro sight-singer will connect with the feeling behind the song. This is what really gives the sense that the piece is internalised, even on the first reading. Here are some useful books to help you learn more about sight-reading.

Studying Rhythm by Anne Carothers Hall
Folk Song Sight-Singing Series by Edgar Crowe

Here are some great iPhone/iPad apps: Music Theory Pro (in my humble opinion, this is the best app out there for theory and ear training).

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The Director of Keyboard Studies at Azusa Pacific University, Dr. Joel Clifft also teaches piano, music theory, accompanying and ear training courses. He has extensive international performance experience, appearing in 13 countries. In addition to his performances in the classical genre, Dr Clifft frequently performs in musical theatre, ballet, sacred music, jazz and popular music and works as a studio vocalist, performing for clients such as Universal Pictures, The Paramount Group and Dreamworks. As a software developer, he created the Music Theory Pro iPhone app. MTP teaches music theory and ear training using cutting-edge technology. To date, the app has received more than 130,000 downloads from over 100 countries. A complementary app, Music Theory Professor, was recently release.