Square one: An Introduction to Sight Singing

By accident, I joined my high school choir program, after listing choir as my 3rd option on my preference sheet for electives. On the first day of choir I remember singing Jingle Bells in unison with the non-varsity men’s choir. The choir director circled the room listening in to our individual voices and I remember the director’s face when hearing me (she later commented that I had a strong voice). I knew how to sing in tune, I was a pianist after all, but I did not know the first thing about singing. 6 weeks later, I was moved into the junior varsity mixed ensemble (the next highest ensemble), and by my sophomore year I was a soloist on my High School Varsity choir’s UIL program.

Although I quickly rose the ranks of my High School choir program, I got by without the fundamentals and learned music by ear, in other words, by listening over and over and imitating the intervals and language I heard. I did not think twice about actually learning music without the aid of a piano or practice CD. Why bother?

Fast forward to my region choir audition my sophomore year. I did not attend a summer camp to learn the music. Auditioning for region was a requirement for everybody in the top choir and I managed to get 2nd chair. I had a competitive spirit and sang my region music most every day. I was excited and proud of my accomplishment.

At the second round (Pre-area), it was a requirement to sight-read in order to make it to the next round. My directors explained the process, and spent a couple sessions coaching me on competitive sight-singing. I did not think sight-reading would make a big difference in making it to the choir, as sight singing was only 20% of my audition. At the day of the audition… I tanked… my sight singing score was only a 35 out of 60 which dropped me to second alternate to the final round… I had not advanced. My singing scores, however, WERE good enough (I was 2nd chair after singing). I had not done the proper preparation and did not the take sight singing element seriously, and I knew it.

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We know how important sight singing really is…but how does the audition work?

  • On the music stand in the audition room there is a folder you open or flip over when the sight singing prompt tells you to do so. DO NOT look at the music until told. (The sign on the folder will say so, too.)
  • The prompt will then play the tonic arpeggio (Do-Mi-So-Mi-Do-So-Do). Sing along with this – you are allowed to and it really helps! (This is different from Choir UIL where you are not allowed to sing along!)
  • Singers then have 30 seconds to practice, during which time the track will be silent. This practice can involve anything from chanting, singing, audiating , hand signs,  etc. Literally whatever helps…even if that involves doing yoga on the floor!
  • When the 30 seconds are up, Do-Mi-So-Mi-Do-So-Do plays again (sing along!) and everything following will be judged. You sing through the entire exercise and are judged for pitch (30 points) and rhythmic accuracy (30 points). Your overall sight-reading score is out of 60.

I recommend all singers use a method they are comfortable with. While most choirs use “Movable Do” (where Do is the tonic in any key), some use other methods such as “Fixed Do” (where Do is always on ‘c’) or Numbers. Singers can use whatever method they choose (even a neutral syllable like “la-la-la”) and are not graded on accuracy of the method, ONLY pitches and rhythm. For singers with perfect pitch who know what all pitches on the staff sound like, I STILL recommend a student use a system (Do-Re-Mi) over a neutral syllable (la-la-la). We encourage the use of hand signs to help reinforce the pitch.

Integrate interval study into your warm up every time you sing. These can include thirds (Do-Mi, Re-Fa), fourths (Do-Fa, Re-So), and triads (Do-Mi-So, Re-Fa-La) and more. Intervals are the backbone of your knowledge for knowing intervals by ear when seeing an interval in sight singing.

Purchase a practice sight-reading book of your own so you can do daily practice to hone your skills. The first book starts with more basic intervals and progressively gets more complicated with intervals and rhythms.

The second edition of the book organizes the exercises based on concept or interval and uses the week to master a specific skill, for example “ascending thirds”.


Last, but certainly not least, sight sing daily, even if you don’t have time for a full practice session, so you can begin building your abilities and confidence with your method of choice. If you are not ready to do the entire process of practicing and performing end to end yet, focus on perfecting your practice time and getting through the entire exercise on pitches. If you are a master at efficiently using your practice time, the performance portion will be a breeze.

If you struggle with rhythm, you can also practice chanting rhythms only in each of the 90-days books, or purchase a book specifically for rhythm practice.

Why practice sight singing if it is such a small portion of your audition score? Well, if you are like me and have low confidence in your audition, practicing will calm your nerves when you do the real thing. I strongly believe consistent practice will help channel nerves into a positive mindset as well as focusing on YOUR individual and daily process. Start practicing NOW so you aren’t cramming at the last minute!

We will come back soon with some more advanced tips on sight singing…stay tuned!

“It’s not the will to win that matters…everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” – Bear Bryant


Happy Practicing!


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