Teaching Sight-Reading to Undergraduate Choral Ensemble Singers: Lessons from Successful Learners
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This study was designed to investigate professional choral singers’ training, perceptions on the importance of sight-reading skill in their work, and thoughts on effective pedagogy for teaching sight-reading to undergraduate choral ensemble singers. Participants in this study (N=48) included self-selected professional singers and choral conductors from the Summer 2015 Oregon Bach Festival’s Berwick Chorus and conducting Master Class. Data were gathered from questionnaire responses and audio recorded focus group sessions. Focus group data showed that the majority of participants developed proficiency in their sight-reading skills from instrumental study, aural skills classes, and through on-the-job training at a church job or other professional choral singing employment. While participants brought up a number of important job skills, sightreading was listed as perhaps the single most important skill that a professional choral singer could develop. When reading music during the rehearsal process, the data revealed two main strategies that professional singers used to interpret the pitches in their musical line: an intervallic approach and a harmonic approach. Participants marked their scores systematically to identify problem spots and leave reminders to aid with future readings, such as marking intervals, solfege syllables, or rhythmic counts. Participants reported using a variety of skills other than score marking to try to accurately find their pitches, such as looking at other vocal or instrumental lines, looking ahead, and using knowledge about a musical style or time period to make more intuitive “guesses” when sight-reading. Participants described using additional approaches when sight-reading in an audition situation, including scanning for anchors or anomalies and positive self-talk. Singers learned these sight-reading techniques from a variety of sources. Participants had many different ideas about how best to teach sight-reading in the undergraduate choral ensemble rehearsal. The top response was that sight-reading needed to be practiced consistently in order for students to improve. Other responses included developing personal accountability, empowering students, combining different teaching methods, and discussing real-life applications of becoming strong sight-readers. There was discussion about the ultimate purpose of choir at the university level and whether it is to teach musicianship skills or produce excellent performances.