Apparently this thing called “sight singing” exists. It’s where a singer looks at notes on a staff and, possibly after hearing a triad in that key, sings the correct pitches and rhythms of the notes on the paper. There’s also this thing called “singing harmony”. It’s where someone sings a melody, and other people sing different notes, generally creating chords and chord progressions.
Okay, most people know what singing harmony is. People do it in choirs all the time.
And true, a lot of people know about sight singing. Most people in choirs or who are even semi-serious vocalists are familiar with and probably at least fairly proficient at sight singing.
Harmony is actually such a well-known concept that it seems like no one ever explains what it actually is. That’s probably why it took me so long to figure it out. I just inferred things about harmony until I came to a fairly solid understanding of what it was.
But sight singing?I had no idea.
The first time my voice teacher introduced me to sight singing, I was astonished that it was actually possible for people to sing notes without hearing them first. She introduced it to me because I was going to have to do it in an audition.
Not surprisingly, I bombed the sight singing on that audition. That was the beginning of a long journey of being horrible at sight-singing.
This brings me to May, 2014, when I had the privilege of being in a selective Men’s Honor choir. I have never sang in any long-term choir in my life. Out of all seventy-three guys from five different states in that choir, I was the only one who did not have almost constant practice with sight singing and singing harmony, since they were all in their school choirs and did those things in their choirs.
You know what else I’m absolutely horrible at?
Yeah, singing harmony. I guess I’m just an aural learner when it comes to music. Mostly how I learn music is by listening to it and repeating what I hear. But this makes me really bad at both sight singing and singing harmony. With sight singing, half the time I have no idea what I’m doing, and when I’m trying to sing harmony I have a horrendous habit of just singing what I hear other people singing. Which generally happens to be the melody.
So I walked into that Honor choir at a serious disadvantage. As we sat in our chairs waiting for our practice to begin, I started to wonder if I was about to just do everything wrong, and I felt like maybe I really didn’t belong in an Honor Choir.
One of the first things our director asked us when he got there was, “How many have you have not even looked at the music?” More than one person raised their hand. Quite a good portion of the choir admitted that they were mostly unprepared for the choir.
We’d had this music for like five months, who comes to an honor choir without having even looked at their music that they’ve had for almost half a year? That’s ridiculous.
On the other hand, maybe some of the people’s unpreparedness would have the same basic result as my lack of talent at singing harmony and I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb in the choir, so I wasn’t too upset that some people were not prepared.
Despite the fact that a lot of people weren’t really prepared, our choir turned out really good. Part of it was the people who actually were prepared carrying the choir, but I think it was mostly because our director and all of the other people in charge of the choir were brilliant. It amazes me how some people can just hear in their head exactly how a chord or progression is supposed to sound, and know if it is even just the tiniest bit off. I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. One of the other guys in the choir, after an instructor had pointed out a tiny flaw in the way were singing something, asked “How can you even hear that?”
The instructor’s one-word response gave me a lot of hope: “Practice.”
People don’t normally get impeccable aural music skills out of nowhere. For most people it takes a lot of tedious time and effort to cultivate this talent. So even though I am currently abysmally bad at both sight singing and harmony, there is hope that both are skills that I can learn as I train my inner ear. I may never be at the point where I catch the minuscule details that a lot of choir directors can, but there is hope for me; I can always get better.