By Adam Wurst
Ask most students to sight sing by themselves or in a small group and you are sure to witness a reaction of dread or even terror. Many developing singers admit to feeling inadequate when reading music, let alone reading music unaided, in front of peers, or for an assessment. Compounding the issue for singers includes the psychological effects of the quality of their musicianship reflecting in direct proportion to their ability to sight read. Performance anxiety and basic musicianship skills come together in a “perfect storm” of questions such as “What do I do first?” “How do I find my first pitch?” and “How do I know I did well?”
As teachers, we may spend adequate amounts of time training our choirs to sight sing as an ensemble only to find that students still require additional help when having to read by themselves. In a group setting, it may be easier for students to recall the steps for working through an exercise but quickly forget what to do next when performance pressure and anxiety weigh in. The Internet provides many resources that give developing musicians the confidence needed when preparing to sight read independently. Using these technology resources, primarily through “drill and practice” methods, reinforces the concepts of theory and ear training taught during rehearsals as well as develops independent skills for your singers, which encourages greater confidence and assurance.
Drill and practice methods using quality Internet tools are highly effective in reinforcing theory and ear training concepts from the rehearsal. Research from the Malawi Institute of Education supports this method especially in the development of language learning:
“Drill is the repeated hearing and use of a particular item. This technique is most helpful in language learning. As a form of repetition, drills enable one to focus sharply on particular points…and can be fun if the teacher is lively and enthusiastic about it.”1
Particular strengths of providing drill and practice ear training activities through online resources include increasing pupils’ understanding of previous work, sharpening the skill under practice, and providing a foundation on which higher level cognitive skills can be built.
Before introducing some incredible Web resources for your Theory and Ear Training Toolbox let’s address some caveats:
- For clarity, this article will interchangeably use sight “sing” and “read” for teachers who may use one term over the other.
- The article will strive to provide as many quality resources for a variety of age groups and musical development without entering into an in-depth review of the pros and cons of each website.
- The focus will be geared toward the development and reinforcement of the singer as an individual. While many of the resources may be used in a group setting, the intention is to offer suggestions for strengthening the ability and confidence for each singer independently.
- This article will focus on the Internet resources that provide performance-based ear training exercises as opposed to strictly providing “worksheet” type drills for theory.
One of the most comprehensive music theory resources on the Internet is Ricci Adams’ musictheory.net (Figure 1). This flash-based website offers musicians the opportunity to interact with theory lessons, exercises, and other tools. An added benefit is that students can download a copy for use when they are not online. I have used musictheory.net successfully with both middle and high school students in small group and individual settings. While the lessons portion of the site is very good, the power for developing sight singing skills is found in the exercises area.2 There are 13 varieties of trainers each capable of being customized for student’s specific need of drill and practice. Of particular interest is the ability to customize the sound used in the ear training demonstrations. Using electronic sounds in the ear training of singers has long been known to be less effective than an acoustic instrument. However, using a flute or clarinet sound has produced greater results and much improved accuracy when working with my students.
Perhaps my favorite feature in this rich training toolbox is the ability to show or print a Progress Report at the end of an activity (Figure 2). This feature has proven quite valuable in gauging students’ progress and keeping them accountable in their quality of work. Particularly helpful is the information that reflects how many exercises were skipped in the process of completing the activity.
Learning to sight read is similar to learning a different language. Actually, thinking of the process of sight reading as processing multiple languages at once may be more helpful as we consider why developing musicians struggle with the concept:
“Suppose you had studied a second language. You can read well-formed sentences composed by someone else if they are given to you in writing, but you can’t converse easily. You can understand spoken phrases if you can listen to a recording of them repeatedly and write them out, but you can’t deal with them quickly enough to have a conversation. You can make phrases yourself, but not in real time. You have to write them out and make lots of revisions. Would you call yourself fluent?”3
Sight singing involves a complex variety of musical languages such as pitch, rhythm, melody, articulation, and expression. Add to these musical elements the use of sight singing “language” such as Solfege, numbers, or neutral syllables and it becomes clear why it is important to be able to focus on various skill sets one at a time. JTheory Creations’ eMusicTheory offers a tool for rhythm performance and rhythm dictation that connects what the student hears with what they see as well as giving them a chance to perform the example (Figure 3).
An interesting feature is the ability to play sounds during the exercise or turn all sounds off. Setting the sounds to “No” causes the drill to use a flashing metronome instead of an audible click (Figure 4). When focusing in on this feature there was a group of students in each class that expressed much higher success when concentrating on the flashing metronome rather than interacting with sound.
Finding a quality ear training cloud resource that is fully customizable yet simple enough for developing singers to use independently was not difficult. José Rodríguez Alvira’s Teoria.com is a musician’s powerhouse, which can be fully personalized for the specific ear training areas that need to be developed (Figures 5 and 6). Teoria.com is a web resource that can provide constant guidance in developing and maintaining the musician’s ear through every stage of development. Its robust customization of features allows for skill development and training for intermediate to advanced musicians. Adding variety to drill and practice through timed exercises, limiting tests with a maximum time to answer, focusing on ascending or descending intervals only, studying variations of clefs, and offering a variety of methods for inputting answers, make this an incredible educational resource.
To encourage my students further, as well as vary the theory environment, I have developed small groups or teams to work together in a “competitive” setting using Teoria.com. Having students work together in a timed setting inspires teamwork and imposes pressure to answer quickly and correctly. In an effort to succeed, students will create a peer teaching environment, explaining the theory concept in a supercharged tempo of the game in order for the developing student to “win one for the team.” Similarly, students who become bored with the process of sight reading, dictation, or theory can be reenergized by being paired with another student who is not experiencing success. Additionally, it instills a pride and camaraderie when the singers succeed together.
The Internet has always provided a forum for tools, tips, and strategies to be shared and developed among professionals and interest groups. Having access to free quality tools on the cloud affords the opportunity for musicians to develop skills apart from having to purchase programs and software that can be cost prohibitive. Costly updates are no longer an issue thereby outdating a valuable software investment. Using purchased software in a large group rehearsal environment which is intended for individual application does not promote tailored instruction in the same way that ear training and theory websites support personalized progress.
It is important to realize the goals of assessment in developing singers. When is the point where musicians need to be encouraged for their effort regardless of level of accuracy and success? How can the effective teacher create an opportunity for students who may struggle and fail when asked to sight read individually or in a small group setting? The most important aspect to sight singing successfully, whether in a group setting or in an individual or small group setting, is consistency and frequency. It takes time to develop the skills necessary for successful sight reading. It takes time to reinforce the skills needed to recall things at a quick pace. It takes time to practice developing skills so they become second nature. After all, independent singers make for more confident singers, who make for a better choir.
Online Ear Trainers
The resources listed here are online and, at the time of this article, do not require purchase or membership
Ricci Adams’ www.musictheory.net
A comprehensive resource for beginning to intermediate musicians. Lessons and exercises are available for independent skill development. The progress report is a unique and easy way to track students individual progress for monitoring mastery.
A good tool for beginning dictation, especially rhythm dictation. An excellent option of allowing for hearing the dictation or turning off the sound and only seeing the dictation.
Neil Hawes Learn to SightSing
An interesting and somewhat unique beginning point for sight readers that encourages reproducing a note and actively listening to your voice. This resource would be more powerful with an online tuner so the young singer could visually gauge intonation.
Ear Training Guide
Not a very user-friendly website that provides a moderate resource for cloud-based sight reading tools.
Online Ear Trainer 2.0
A great resource that is able to be customized for very complex interval and chord training. Would have gotten 5 stars if there was a way to view accuracy and progress.
Music Tech Teacher
By the sheer number of resources in the games and music help section, this free resource is a powerful arsenal for the music teacher. Graphics and interactivity keep younger students engaged and entertained while learning fundamental music concepts.
Teoria Music Theory Web
The most comprehensive and customizable cloud resource for intermediate to advanced musicians. Complex ear training drills include basic and jazz progressions with immediate feedback as to the student’s progress. Utilizes melody and chord training.
Adam Wurst is currently serving as director of vocal music at Allendale Middle School, overseeing more than 250 students each day in six curricular gender-based choirs. Adam is an active member of the Michgian School Vocal Music Association (MSVMA) having served as a State Solo & Ensemble supervisor, hosting choral festivals and 6-7-8-9 Honors Choir rehearsals; he is currently an active adjudicator and serves as the state technology coordinator.
Adam actively supports the collaboration between public education and professional artists, having introduced performers, authors, composers, and master teachers into the classroom setting. He has presented at the MSVMA Summer Workshop, the Midwestern Music Conference, and the Michigan Music Conference with topics relating to recruitment, working with boy’s changing voices, and improving communication and organization through technology.