NE RECENT THURSDAY AFTERNOON, I was teaching a music class to a group of very bright and motivated children. Having spent months training their ears, I’m now introducing them to sight-singing. I spent much of the one-hour lesson having them sing through a simple melody that I had made up on the spot and written on the chalkboard. First, we went over the tune’s rhythm, tapping quarter notes on our palms and chanting the rhythm on “BAH” until it was steady. Next, we focused on pitch. I had them solfege their way through the (entirely stepwise) melody out of tempo, one note at a time.
Finally, we combined the two elements of pitch and rhythm. The rhythm alone had been easy for them. The pitch alone had been easy for them. Combining the two proved challenging. In the end, they learned the hymn, but the task required intense concentration.
I glanced slowly from one face to the next, and said, “You’re doing it! You’re sight-singing! What do you think?”
They smiled politely but were quiet for several seconds. At last, wide-eyed “Kathleen” said, “That is way harder than I thought.”
Which Choir Would You Rather Have?
Kathleen is right. The typical person has no idea how challenging it is to sight-sing. They have a vague sense that when the notes on the page go up and down, their voice should follow. They know that the shape of the notes somehow affects their length. Beyond that, they’re lost.
It’s tremendously gratifying to teach young students who are enthusiastic about learning this stuff. They see the value of being able to sight-sing because they want to serve God in His holy liturgy. They’re willing to endure the struggles along the way. For children (and, of course, adults) like these, I have boundless energy.
Kathleen’s comment reminded me of a thought experiment I invented a while back. (I encountered many thought experiments in my pro-life apologetics training years ago and have enjoyed them ever since.) Here it is:
If you could choose between having:
- a choir in which every member could sight-sing flawlessly, or
- a choir in which every member could hear a recording once and instantly memorize his or her part,
which would you choose?
Those of us who take sight-singing seriously may jump on the first option without even listening to the second. What could be better than a choir full of fluent sight-singers? I must admit that instrumentalists like me who “convert” to singing struggle not to be prideful about our musicianship skills when we’re around native singers, who often lack good training in this department.
But if I stop and think about it, I have to admit I’d prefer the second choir. Music isn’t a series of marks on a page; those marks only represent music. Strictly speaking, music doesn’t exist until we make it, and then it will be gone in an instant. Those marks on the page will remind us of how that composer wanted the music to sound, but we’ll probably never get it exactly the way he imagined it—nor will we sing it exactly the same way twice. A choir that held music perfectly in its audiation, rather than studiously following a printed page, would have a much greater chance of rendering it artistically, without the encumbrance of trying to “get it right.” And with no music in hand, they would have to watch the conductor!
Back to the Real World
This thought experiment has the same tragic flaw as each of its siblings: it presents two choices that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in real life.
I’ve never heard of a choir in which every member can listen to an entire piece once (or even thrice) and sing it back perfectly. As for a choir of flawless sight-singers, it might be possible if every member had superior musical aptitude and worked relentlessly to hone their skills. It’s certainly more likely than the other choir, but it’s still a long shot.
Still, there’s a value in this exercise because it forces us to get off the fence and acknowledge what’s most important in learning music: learning music. In a sense, the approach doesn’t matter because it’s simply a means to an end.
In the typical church choir setting, we need a combination of sight and sound. Making no effort to teach music-reading and simply banging out everyone’s part on the piano is a tedious, short-sighted approach. Forcing everyone to do endless sight-singing drills and refusing to play recordings or demonstrate as a sort of “tough love” would be equally unwise.
Aristotle believed that virtue lies in the mean. I’m beginning to think musicianship is the same way. I’d rather have the second choir, but I’m working as if I want the first choir. In the end, though, I just want us to make music at the highest level possible.