Last week I traveled to San Antonio for TMEA, annual convention of the Texas Music Educators Association. It was my first time attending the gigantic event, which hosted 26,000 this year. It was held in conjunction with TI:ME, conference of the Technology Institute for Music Educators, making for several days of energizing music education talk with a technology twist.
Mega-conferences like this are great because people come from all over the world, giving you an opportunity to put faces with names of people in your field. I was thrilled to finally meet many talented music educators who I had previously only known online, including Joe Pisano, Richard McCready, Amy Willis, Jim Frankel and Barbara Freedman. I also had the pleasure of meeting TI:ME president Jay Dorfman, Catie Dwinal, and so many other educators, piano teachers, voice teachers, elementary school music teachers, choral directors and music technology program heads.
There were hundreds of interesting clinics presented at the convention. Four were specifically about sight reading, and I’m excited to share about them here:
Sight Reading Clinic #1: “A Multi-Sensory Approach to Music Reading” by Sally Schott, Denise Eaton and Jan Juneau
The first sight reading clinic I went to was presented by Sally Schott, Denise Eaton and Jan Juneau. They opened with a number of observations about sight reading education:
- There is a tendency to over-emphasize visual learning, at the expense of auditory and kinesthetic learning; they explained this is why they chose the term “music reading” rather than “sight reading” for the title of their talk, to suggest that there are more senses involved than just sight
- Sight reading material is treated as disposable, but there are creative ways to get more than one use out of a sight reading exercise (I agree with this, and it’s part of why SightReadingMastery lets you keep access to all the exercises you’ve sight read in the past by way of your sight reading log)
- Repetition is a necessary evil, but endless repetition is uninspired “kill and drill” – a death sentence to students’ musical inspiration
I have yet to meet a student brought up in the West who can’t tell you when a major scale is wrong. Their ears just know.
They provided a pamphlet, excerpts from their book InSIGHT SINGING, with exercises and diagrams that they used to demonstrate their multi-sensory approach. Their activities were delightfully low-tech, emphasizing simplicity, student participation and involvement of all the senses.
For example, one activity involved having us “play” a paper piano keyboard provided in the pamphlet while singing the notes of an exercise on solfege syllables. The act of doing these things simultaneously reinforces the associations between the sounds of the notes, the tonality implied by the solfege syllables, the visual representation of the piano keyboard and the kinesthetic experience of moving your hand along the keyboard. They stressed the importance of continuing kinesthetic learning activities, which is all over elementary education but tends to get dropped later.
Remember, it’s sound before sight in music – don’t put the cart before the horse.
They also discussed tapping vs. conducting, with a funny critique on “wavers,” conductors who make fancy motions but don’t give a clear indication of the beat. Conducting is so much fun that we often get carried away with it, forgetting the basic purpose of keeping time, said Juneau.
She did an experiment and dropped all the superfluous parts of her conducting, and just simply showed her students the downbeat with a straight up and down motion of the hand. She found that her students were engaged with this than they were with her traditional conducting.
They gave a number of recommendations throughout the remainder of their talk:
- Don’t do all the work for your students – wean them
- Revisit exercises in creative ways; once you’ve sung through the exercises forwards, try them backwards; count through them, sing through on solfege syllables, motion with Curwen hand signs, “play” them on the paper piano keyboard
- Unison singing is highly encouraged – many singers get thrown into three- and four-part singing before they know what their listening for
- It’s important to chant or sing rhythm of melody before worrying about pitches.
Sight Reading Clinic #2: “Building Stronger Sight Readers” by Charlene Dell
Dr. Charlene Dell from the University of Oklahoma presented the second clinic I attended on sight reading. I am very excited about what I learned in this talk. The approach to teaching sight reading that Dell presented here is beautifully elegant and sensible. Her audience was mainly orchestra teachers but most of what she said applies generally to sight reading on any instrument and to sight singing. There are 2 types of readers, she began:
- Reader A: recognizes patterns, hears what they see
- Reader B: reads by fingerings used
And we want to cultivate Reader A’s. She showed the following paragraph on her slides. Have you seen this before? It went viral on the internet a several years ago:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabridge uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.
This was a casual chain letter and probably doesn’t really relate to a specific study at Cambridge, but the paragraph makes its own point well enough. Fluent English readers can read the text with no problem, even though the internal letters of every word are scrambled. In reading English, we don’t read letter-by-letter, but in larger chunks. Yet for some reason music reading often gets reduced to reading note by note. How can we teach students and learn ourselves to grasp the larger musical “words”?
Dell says we need look no further than how language is taught. Language is taught with sight words, by slowly building up a small vocabulary of words, and building associations between their sound, meaning and textual representation.
First we need a tool for labeling pitches as we sing, and Dell discussed (moveable do) solfege vs. letter names. Dell recommends solfege because then the labels are consistent for any key, and it teaches to sing (and eventually to read) with a tonal center in mind. Singing letter names, the role of C, for example, would very greatly depending on the key you’re singing in.
I sometimes have reservations about teaching solfege early on, because it’s yet another system of foreign symbols in music that students have to worry about, on top everything in music notation. I like scale degree numbers as an alternative to solfege, because they’re familiar already, have obvious meaning (“three” is obviously the 3rd scale degree, but what’s a “mi”?) and are also consistent for every key. I asked Dell what she thought about this, and she agreed that numbers are good. Her issue with them is that numbers are a somewhat loaded symbol set already, being used in rhythm counting and in fingerings on many instruments. It can be confusing, she said, to have these numbers that mean so many different things all in the context of music.
What happened next was fascinating. Dell demonstrated how you can seamlessly build up to song reading from simple flash cards. How to start:
- Prepare several flash cards with the five lines of the staff (you don’t need a ton of cards to start, Dell was able to show the whole process with six or so)
- Make all the cards in the same key, and draw an arrow pointing to do (treble or bass clef is fine)
- On each card, write a two- or three- note sequence; for example do-mi or mi-fa-sol
Next, practice with these flash cards individually, showing each one to your student(s) and ask them to sing what they see on solfege. This starts to build a vocabulary of patterns. Finally, once they’re comfortable with the individual patterns, lay out the flash cards in sequence. Together they will make a song that students can practice reading/singing through.
Since they’ve already been practicing the patterns individually, this song made up of the patterns combined is much more approachable sight reading material than a totally new piece. You’ve already created one song by ordering the flash cards in a certain way; just mix them up again to make a new simple song. Isn’t this great?
Dell mentioned that the other exciting thing about this approach is that it makes teaching improvisation super easy. She didn’t delve deeper into this, but it’s easy to see what she means. Once you’re accustomed to playing songs that are just arrangements of these patterns, all you have to do for first steps in improvising is arrange them in a different way!
It’s good to separate rhythmic and tonal concerns at first, so the flash cards described above were for tonality. Follow the same process for rhythm-only flash cards, and over time students will begin to put the two together.
Sight Reading Clinic #3: “Sight Reading: Are You Teaching to the Test?” by Tammy Stallcup
You know you’re a sight reading geek when your family throws you a surprise party and sight reading is the main attraction. Oh, and when you ask to have people sight read at your funeral…
Tammy Stallcup presented the third sight reading clinic I attended, and her love of sight reading is contagious. Her daughter caught the bug, it became evident, when she was entering college and asked her mom if she could major in sight reading. So did her choir students, who Stallcup says think sight reading fun.
Stallcup says that sight reading is a life skill, and she is proud that her kids aren’t afraid of it. She emphasizes that sight reading not just visual, but has a huge auditory component as well.
I appreciate Stallcup’s practical approach, which focuses on helping students understand and progress without getting hung up on perfection. For example, when her kids sign along with their solfege singing, she’s not a stickler for the exact shape students make with their hand. It’s more important, she says, that they be moving their hand up and down with the melody to reinforce their understanding of pitch direction, than it is that they master Curwen’s arbitrary shapes.
Other recommendations from Tammy:
- Practice sight reading rhythm before pitches
- Move do around early on, otherwise students will think it’s fixed
- Simple UIL-style sight reading assessment (out of 3pts): 1/3 pitch, 1/3 solfege name, 1/3 rhythm
- Don’t let students get in the habit of writing solfege syllables in their music; otherwise they’ll be looking at those instead of the notes and not actually reading
Sight Reading Clinic #4: “Sightreading: Tips, Tricks and Traps” by R. Fawn Sorgi and Michael Link
The last clinic on sight reading, “Sightreading: Tips, Tricks, and Traps,” was presented by R. Fawn Sorgi and Michael Link. This conflicted with Tammy Stallcup’s talk so I wasn’t able to attend, but Grant Sorensen has graciously uploaded a video recording of the entire session, so we all get to watch it:
Beautiful San Antonio
I did take manage to take a few photos of things besides people at podiums (is it “podia”? help me out, grammarians) during my time in San Antonio:
The Sound of 568 Men Singing
My roommates at the convention were part of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, and they invited me to come along to the group’s annual Sing on Friday night of the convention. I’m so glad I did, and I managed to catch a bit of video. If you’ve never heard the sound of hundreds of musically-educated men singing before, it’s worth a listen: