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FEATURE First steps to sight singing

Caroline Diffley

Caroline Diffley is an experienced teacher, examiner and piano mentor on the CT ABRSM panel.

Learning to sight sing can be rather like walking in the dark – familiar objects (notes, rhythm patterns) loom alarmingly as you grope around for the light switch (a sense of pitch) in a strangely unfamiliar environment. But it does not have to be like that, as long as you move from the known to the unknown, a small step at a time.

First let’s consider the entwining strands of sight singing. We hear music in our heads easily; both the musical and the less musically able have no trouble in remembering the melody of Happy Birthday to You. Try this: tap a pulse and then sing the opening phrase of the song, asking your pupil to continue the song in his head until the final line, ‘Happy birthday to you’, which he then sings out loud. Does the sung phrase coincide with your own mental sense of pitch and rhythm? This useful exercise in internalising melody is easily extended into instrumental practice. Ask your pupil to remain silent in a particular section of a piece, simply hearing the music in his head, before picking up the playing again at the end of the internalised section. If this seems too complicated at first, many nursery songs build up the required skills by leaving gradually increasing gaps between words – silent, internalising spaces. Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, John Brown’s Baby and My hat it has three corners, all found in A & C Black’s excellent Okki–tokki-unga, are useful examples.

Secondly, how important is it to have a fixed sense of pitch? A few children are born with perfect pitch and some others, usually string players used to tuning regularly to A, acquire it fairly easily. When I worked with Yvonne Enoch on her piano group teaching project, she would ask one of the children to sing an A at the start of each lesson before a note had been played. She would then ask the other children whether they thought this note was too high, too low or just about right. Gradually a consensus A was reached which was finally checked on the piano. These children did not necessarily develop perfect pitch, but they did get a sense of relative pitch – an A is about here.

A third sight singing strand is simply to make sure that children have a large fund of well- known tunes, jingles and rhymes to draw on so that they have some sense of how a melody is likely to sound or behave. Nursery rhymes and traditional songs, although at the moment out of fashion, do give children a strong sense of melody, harmony, rhythmic pattern, phrase shape and form. An aural memory bank of early songs will strengthen all aspects of musicianship, including sight singing.

Now to the practicalities of incorporating sight singing into a short instrumental lesson. We must start by making sure that pitching a note can be achieved easily and accurately. This is best done in the very earliest lessons by asking your pupil to sing a comfortable note before trying to find it on the keyboard. When this is understood, let him copy pitch from your voice, and only later sing straight from the piano sound. At the same time, it is a good idea to establish up and down securely. Try ‘sing me a really high note’ or ‘a low, growly note’. Later he can learn to sing a little higher or lower from a starting note.

Once the idea of high and low is established you are ready to start out towards a scale. Try singing Frère Jacques and Three blind mice at first. It is a good idea to play them by ear on the piano as well, accompanied as soon as possible with a simple I – V – I bass. How many keys can he do this in? Build on this by making some simple flash cards:

These can be used for singing or playing; a mixture is ideal. Consolidate here with practice of the Grade 1 Aural Test B, which uses these particular degrees of the scale. Specimen Aural Tests Grade 1 – 5 (ABRSM) has plenty of examples.

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