Written by Robert C. Rawlins
Republished in 2010 with permission from Conn-Selmer Keynotes Magazine

Young instrumentalists should learn to sing so they can learn to hear

“You mean I have to sing?” I hear this question time after time when administering placement examinations to freshman music majors. Like most college music programs, ours bases acceptance primarily on the ability to perform on one’s instrument. Focused on this objective, many music majors enter their programs with little or no experience in sight-singing or ear training.

What does singing have to do with playing an instrument? As any trained musician will tell you, it has everything to do with it. Singing is closely linked to hearing, and hearing is the essential skill of musical performance. Instrumentalists learn to sing not to perform vocally, but to learn how to hear without the aid of their instruments.

When taking the first steps toward mastering a musical instrument, a student learns to associate specific notes with specific fingerings. I refer to this as the “typing” stage, since it reminds me of the way we type at a word processor. We see the letter A, we push the key for A, and that’s what appears on the screen. Similarly, the beginning instrumentalist sees a note of the staff, presses the appropriate keys, blows through the instrument, and the note is produced. But it must be understood that nothing except notes can ever be produced by this method. No matter how proficient one becomes at pressing the correct keys in response to notes seen on the page, no music will ever result. Music is not a clerical skill, but rather the process of producing sounds in response to what has been heard with the inner ear.

Musicians understand the tremendous importance of being able to hear music independently of any physical sound. The entire creative process in music relies upon this. A performer conceives of a musical passage, complete with dynamics, articulation, pitch, tone and all relevant musical parameters, and then endeavors to recreate this aural image with the aid of an instrument. Notes on the page merely serve as a rough guide to the general characteristics of the actual music.

So where does singing fit into this process? Singing requires an instrumentalist to relinquish the direct association between note and fingering. It forces the student to hear the pitch of the upcoming note without the help of an instrument. Make no mistake; it is entirely possible to play most band instruments reasonably in tune relying solely on the correct fingerings and a well-formed embouchure. Quality musical instruments are manufactured to such exacting standards nowadays that respectable tone and pitch will result even when the notes produced come as a “surprise” to the performer. But this is not a desirable substitute for true learning. When a clarinetist must slur from a D below the staff to the B a major sixth higher, how do we know if the student is really hearing the note or just guessing?

Simple. We ask the student to sing the notes.

It may be hard to believe today, but there was a time when music students were required to learn to read music and sing at sight before they were allowed to study a musical instrument. Most musicians who received their training prior to around 1940 were required to go through this process. A friend of mine recalls asking his parents if he could play the flute and subsequently being sent to an Italian music professor for a year of lessons in solfeggio. That will test your commitment!

This approach seems almost ludicrous to us today. What were they thinking? For one thing, there was the popular but erroneous belief that a musical ear was something you had to be born with. Parents didn’t want to invest money in an instrument if their child was “tone deaf” and thus never able to perform music. We now know that this is untrue; anyone can learn to distinguish pitches and participate in music in some fashion. Also, quite frankly, most musical instruments were not very good years ago. I have a couple of prize saxophones from the 1920s in my collection; these were among the best instruments of the time, but are still grossly out of tune by today’s standards. What must the average band instrument have been like back then? Surely, many students were forced to learn on instruments of poor quality with intonation problems. If you couldn’t hear the correct intonation and place the note where it belonged, the instrument was certainly not going to do it for you.

Fortunately, the situation has changed today. Moderately priced instruments of very high quality are readily available. There is no need for students to receive musical training prior to their first lessons on an instrument. To the contrary, a quality instrument may help them learn to hear the relationships between notes and develop a sense of pitch. Does this mean that singing should no longer be part of an instrumentalist’s early training? No it does not; singing is as important as ever.

The rapid progress made by instrumentalists during their first semesters in a college music program must be attributed in part to the development of sight-singing and ear-training skills. For some students, the technical aspect of playing their instruments has gotten ahead of their ability to hear. When their aural skills begin to catch up, overall performing ability soars.

But what is the link between singing and aural skills? Isn’t it possible to hear music internally without singing? Of course it is, and many musicians with well-trained ears rarely need to sing passages to know how they are supposed to sound. In the early stages of aural development, however, singing is such a valuable tool in developing the ear that it would be foolish to ignore it.

I recall a professor explaining to me years ago why he preferred essay questions on his exams. “If you can’t explain a concept in your own words,” he insisted, “then you don’t really understand the concept. You may believe that you do, but you don’t know for sure until you attempt to explain it to someone else.” This is a perfect corollary to the study of music. Students may believe they hear how an upcoming phrase will sound, but they won’t know for sure until they attempt to sing the passage. How should an instrumentalist begin the study of sight-singing?

Although the ultimate goal may be aural understanding of the music for one’s instrument, that isn’t the place to start. Instrumental music presents difficulties in range, complexity and length that make it unsuitable for beginning sight-singing practice. A more methodical approach is necessary.

Here are some suggestions to get started:

Purchase a sight-singing book. Every musician should own at least one book specifically devoted to the subject of sight-singing. Typically these books contain hundreds of short melodies written or collected with the intent of improving singing ability. There are many to choose from, and a modest investment will provide a wealth of practice material.

Learn solfège. There really isn’t much to learn. The word solfège is simply the French term for what most people know as “do re mi.” The most common system in the United States uses “movable do,” which means that “do” is the first note in whatever key you happen to be in.

So, for example, a G scale would be sung “do re mi fa so la ti do” from G to G.The solfège system also includes a way to sing accidentals that do not belong to the key signature. The ascending chromatic scale becomes “do di re ri mi fa fi sol si la li ti do”; the descending form is “do ti te la le sol se fa mi me re fa do.”

Sing often. Never miss a chance to sing when you’re alone. (For that matter, sing for your friends if you’re so inspired.) I take advantage of spare minutes in the car to practice short vocal exercises. Sing scales, arpeggios, scales in thirds, random intervals or anything that challenges you. When major and minor keys become too easy, try singing diminished seventh chords or whole tone scales.

Aurally identify things that you hear. It is said that Thomas Jefferson could walk through a garden and identify virtually every flower, plant and tree by its scientific name. Some might think this takes the charm out of the experience; others feel just the opposite.

Similarly, musicians are in the habit of aurally identifying what they hear. Musical giants such as Leonard Bernstein or Igor Stravinsky could comprehend and retain large portions of extended works after a single hearing. Students in the early stages of training can at least have a general idea of the melody and basic harmonies. Most trained musicians have developed abilities that lie somewhere in between. The best way to develop these skills is simply to exercise them. We hear music every day. Students should get into the habit of attempting to identify every musical phrase they hear.

I recall an incident when I was first developing these skills. While listening to a song on the radio, it dawned on me that the final harmony had a sixth and a ninth in it. How did I figure it out? I sang up the scale until I found all the notes. We can all sing, and we can all count. Therefore, with practice, we can learn to identify virtually anything we hear.

Know your voice. The first question I ask freshman music majors in sight-singing class is, “What’s your vocal range?” Amazingly, nine out of ten students don’t know. I find this amazing because a student simply has to sit at a keyboard for 15 seconds to find out. I first have students find their lowest note. This is a relatively fixed point for the untrained voice. From there, most students can easily sing to the octave above and, with a little coaxing, can arrive at a working range of nearly two octaves.

But expanding the range or developing the voice is not the point of sight-singing. I allow students to jump octaves when necessary, rather than have them strain their voices. After all, no singer could possibly sing instrumental parts without adjusting octaves. Students might as well get in the habit of doing this early on.
As far as tone is concerned, the only thing I ask for is a relaxed sound. Singing should not hurt.

Like many endeavors, becoming a fine instrumentalist requires a broad range of skills. Accurate hearing is among the most important. Unfortunately, many young instrumentalists feel self-conscious about singing and thus neglect a crucial aspect of their training. A few minutes a day spent on basic sight-singing exercises will do much to improve a student’s aural abilities, resulting in greatly improved instrumental skills.


Written By Editor

A contributing editor at TBP.