ABRSM Exams – Supporting Tests: Sight-Reading

NB: While reading this series, it can be helpful to keep a copy of the ABRSM Singing syllabus to hand. The syllabus can be downloaded here

Sight Singing. Two words that strike fear into the hearts of music students everywhere! I used to be really scared of this part of the exam, but I realised later that this was largely because I didn’t get the level of study and preparation that I should have done until my very last, Grade 8, exam. I even failed my Grade 5 sight-reading…

One of the biggest holes in singing teaching resources is a really good series of materials targeted at the ABRSM graded sight-singing requirements. For most of the other popular instruments there’s a great series of 8 books which help students work through the transition between each grade. Not so for singing.

There are, however, still plenty of good books around. I make use of “Improve Your Sight-Singing” by Paul Harris regularly, as it does have a good progression through from simple tunes to harder ones. I have also got hold of a few sets of tests including some I’ve found online and a big book I first discovered in the university library. Arming yourself with loads and loads of material to sight-sing is the first part of the battle.

Before tackling even Grade 1 sight-singing, singers do need to be able to read music. Some singing students come to me as “second study” singers having previously learned to play an instrument. These singers can already read music, but need to learn to read it in a new way to be confident at sight-singing. Other singers come to singing as their first ever music lessons, and they are often either non-readers, or only know a very little.

For those who can read music, the best option I have found is to switch between using a sight-singing book like Improve Your Sight-Singing and simply presenting the student with real music. Make sure that you know what kind of level you’re expecting your students to be able to read at – for Grade 1, the range is small, and the steps are all tones or semitones within the major scale. (The syllabus has all the information you need). Don’t be afraid to give students more challenging music occasionally, but keep it largely close to the exam requirements.

For non-readers, sight-reading is much easier to teach as it can be built into a musicianship scheme like Go for Bronze or Jolly Music. Both of these schemes use Kodaly principles to introduce written music in the context of “sound before sight” – students sing a song, and then see the notation. By the end of the two levels of Go for Bronze, students should be more than ready to tackle sight-reading at Grade 1.

For all students, when facing the actual exam itself, it’s good to go over a process that students can engage in during the 30 seconds of looking time. I teach students to work through the following questions while using the example tests from the ABRSM book:

  • What is the tonality? Is it major or minor? (For singers, the specific key is not as important as it is for instrumentalists)
  • Are there accidentals? Where are they?
  • Are there any arpeggio/scale patterns I recognise?
  • Are there any large intervals?
  • How does it end? (If there’s time, hum through the first two and last two bars)

Singers, while required to perform with an accompaniment, no longer have an introduction, allowing students to set their own speed. I encourage students to start as slowly as they dare. Students can sing to “ah”, or to sol-fa names. From Grade 6, there are words, but they’re not mandatory. Make sure your student knows what they are going to do on the day.

It’s also worth reminding nervous candidates that they can choose to do their sight-reading first if they want to. The exam order is chosen by the candidate not the examiner.

There are no easy solutions or shortcuts to good sight-reading. The only certainty is that if you neglect it, it only becomes more difficult to catch up. This is probably the one area I would want to be sure a student was ready to pass before submitting them for an exam.

Useful Resources:

Next, we’ll look at the aural tests, which are (thankfully) much easier to prepare for and pass with flying colours.

–> Next: “Supporting Tests: Aural Tests

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