Developing Sight-Reading Rock Stars in Orchestra
By NAfME Member Kelly Thomas, Ed.D.
I started playing violin in the fourth grade and was, at best, an average sight-reader. In the eighth grade, I learned solfege and sight singing in my chorus class. Suddenly I was a sight-reading rock star in orchestra! I was able to connect the intervals I sang in chorus class with the intervals on my instrument and everything made sense.
I’ve been so obsessed with this connection that I have put it into practice in my own classroom and will be presenting on it at the 2016 NAfME In-Service Conference in November. Through my experiences with sight-singing in the string classroom, I have tips for you to implement it at your own school.
Creating a positive environment in the classroom is the best way to encourage your students to sing. In my classroom, we have talked about how we are not trying to win “The Voice” but are just showing what we musically know.
Raise Your Voice!
Singing is the simplest way to translate what you see on the page to musical sound. By having your students sing, you eliminate any technical difficulties on the instrument. You will have to lead by example so get ready to belt out some tunes (or at least some do-re-mi’s)!
Creating a positive environment in the classroom is the best way to encourage your students to sing. In my classroom, we have talked about how we are not trying to win “The Voice” but are just showing what we musically know. We don’t discuss vowel shape, we don’t even talk about tone, we are just singing for pitch and accuracy. Singing in orchestra is a no-pressure environment. I sing with them to show that it’s not a big deal and they have followed my lead. Our running joke is that they are not allowed to tell the chorus teacher across the hall how good they sound. Speaking of…
Ask Your Chorus Teacher!
You might not be 100% confident with solfege and that’s okay. You probably have an expert nearby! Choral pedagogy breaks down sight-reading in a sequential manner using solfege and we need to steal it for our string classrooms. Ask your chorus teacher to give a basic overview of solfege to your class and lead some singing exercises using common patterns. These could be scales, tonic triads, arpeggios, etc.
Are they teaching a class at the same time you are? Not a problem—have them bring those singers in! Mix up the chorus and orchestra students together and do some simple sight-singing examples. The orchestra students will have vocal help (and don’t we all sing louder when someone is singing loudly next to us?) and the chorus students will get to show off their solfege prowess.
Need more incentive? Invite your administration in to show off your department collaboration!
Seriously, You Won’t Lose Any Playing Time!
Once solfege is introduced in the string classroom, it is easily incorporated into the daily routine. In my orchestras it has simply given us a new vocabulary to work with.
An example from my classroom: My freshmen orchestra is comfortable playing in D Major and we have talked about the half-step between “ti” and “do” as C# to D. (That’s why you have that high second finger on the A string, violins and violas!) Now we are working on a piece in A Major and the cellos are struggling playing G# on the D-string high enough. In solfege speak, G# is “ti” so it has to be a half step to “do.” They know what “ti” to “do” sounds like, they can sing it right back to me. When they can connect the music to their sight-singing and solfege, they play a high enough G# every time.
For sight-reading examples, sing everything before you play it. Start easy with scalar patterns, but gradually progress to lines with skips and leaps. By the time you sing it through, you have eliminated errors that would have caused you to repeat the line anyway if you had only played it through. You will save time up front. When playing mistakes do occur after singing, it’s easier to identify technical problems because you know the students know what it should sound like and there was a disconnect from their brain to their hands.
There’s No Time Like the Present!
This doesn’t have to be a beginning of the year thing, you don’t have to wait until the concert is over, you can do this now. Give your students the chance to make connections between what they think and what they play and everyone will benefit. Go have fun and sing a song!
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About the Author:
Kelly Thomas teaches high school orchestra at Kell High School in Marietta, Georgia. She previously taught high school chorus at the same school and elementary strings in the Sharon and Braintree Public Schools in Massachusetts. She recently presented at the 2016 NAfME Music Research and Teacher Education National Conference and will be presenting at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference in November.
Dr. Thomas received her B.M. in Music Education from Boston University, M.M. in Music Education from Boston Conservatory, and educational doctorate from the University of Georgia. The focus of her doctoral dissertation was sight singing for string students in the high school classroom. Beyond teaching, Dr. Thomas is an active violinist and vocalist with the Georgia Symphony Orchestra, Uncommon Practice, and Keltic Kudzu.
Kelly Thomas presented on her topic “Sight-Singing in the String Classroom” at the 2016 NAfME National Conference. Register today for the 2019 conference!
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