Why I Wrote Singing The Dots

This week we’re in Las Vegas. Emlyn has a conference on AWS, along with 50 000 programmer types. So I’ve come along to experience the razzle dazzle that is Vegas. But after a day on “the strip” I’ve scurried back to the relative peace of our hotel. Today, I was reading through the Singing The Dots workbook, because I’m preparing a catalogue of the songs as individual pdfs for choirs who just want to sing them as songs. And it got me reflecting on why I wrote the book. I got my ranting mcrant pants on and wrote about some of my experiences with sightsinging education for adults. It's a bit first draft at this stage.

During my time teaching community choirs and adult beginner singing students, I was driven batty with frustration by the amount of time non music reading choirs who work from sheet music need to devote to teaching EVERY SINGLE NOTE by ear. I loved working with adults. They are respectful and self disciplining, on the whole kind to themselves as learners, and able to put choir and most things, really, in perspective. I think my frustration is at the way many choirs approach note learning via rote, and avoid teaching sightsinging.

This means for most rehearsals, choristers who have given up Wednesday nights at home to come out to sing, actually spend three quarters of the time sitting in a dulled stupor, while the other parts of the choir learn their notes. How can this be a joyous experience? How can this be better than staying home, with a nice glass of wine and the latest episode of the British Baking Show?

Music directors have to fight the stupor - with careful rehearsal planning, razzle-dazzle showpersonship, and judicious repertoire selection - songs need to be simple enough that choristers can learn each part very quickly so songs can ‘come together’ before everyone is so bored they want to stab themselves in the eye. I have no complaints with repertoire this simple - a choral piece where every line is catchy and simple is a treasure indeed. But, if that’s all a choir does, week after week, year after year, the singers will remain at the level of this simple repertoire, excluded from singing choral work with any musical sophistication.

But I think much, much more importantly, ongoing illiteracy stunts choristers from growing and developing in musical ability and skills. Choristers stay at the same level of musical development, despite pursuing their musical endeavour for years. Surely we all want to grow, to improve, to develop, at our endeavours? Surely?

Language illiteracy is a failure of society, it dooms people to a poorer, more vulnerable life with reduced access to nearly every aspect of their community. We all know this as a basic truth.

Imagine if for some reason, children weren’t educated in literacy at school and arrived at adulthood unable to read. Would book clubs exist, where instead of teaching adults how to read, illiterate adults were instead forced to learn books by excruciating rote? The idea is ludicrous. But that’s how adult community choirs run. Who in their right mind thinks this is OK?

I want to say right here that I love a good jam as much as anyone. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent in various states of insobriety, roaring out improvised harmonies to beloved folk songs with good friends. I love this experience. And I know that the musicians who work only by ear can of course be spectacular musicians. Absolutely. But do you know, learning to read music doesn’t exclude singers from doing this! On the other hand, there is SO MUCH MAGNIFICENT CHORAL music that requires literacy to sing, which illiterate choristers are doomed never to have access to. I also know I’m white, and I’m talking about the traditions of white choral music, and that there are other choral traditions that don’t use sheet music, and get along just fine. Of course. And yet, this doesn’t change that Wednesday night at the local sheet music based choir is three quarters stupor time.

I do also need to acknowledge my own position - I believe that music making is essential to being fully human. I believe over the last hundred years we have largely replaced active music making with more passive music listening. Go read John Philip Sousa if you want the perspective of someone who saw this change coming in 1906. When you first read John’s raging against technological change you have to giggle but then he asks WHAT OF THE NATIONAL THROAT? Ie what will happen to our music making, when recorded music becomes ubiquitous. Well we can answer John now! The idea of a national throat has evaporated for a start! A person’s entire musical expression can be reduced to a connoisseurial curatorship of their collection of other people’s music making. When I was a child this meant having a record collection. These days it’s a less concrete, online collection of music. Everyone can have music in their lives, without needing to actively make any music. I don’t think this is as good for us. Just as watching people talk on TV isn’t the same as conversing. It isn’t as good for us. To be clear I’m not saying that listening to music is terrible. I’m not advocating that you burn your beloved record collection. I am saying replacing all active music making with listening is a bum deal. My Aunty Ann, in her 70s told me a few years ago about the formative day in her childhood when the piano was sold to buy a grammaphone. She didn’t think it was a good day. She said the family used to sing together around the piano.

In this environment of passive music engagement, why would anyone value universal music literacy education? For children. For adults? To be musical we need paying jobs so we can buy records, or blueray speakers.

In Australia where I taught, plenty of people arrive at adulthood with somewhere between 13 and 20 years of formal education, functionally literate, numerate, with an employment ready threshold for institutional boredom, a lovely collection of recorded music, limited experience at making music and no ability to read music. In South Australia where I lived, there is a mass choral performance for year 6 and 7s from all over the state each year. It’s a wonderful performance experience. And creates treasured memories for everyone involved. All of the parts are taught through rehearsal tracks. It’s a great experience, but it’s not about literacy education. Kids don’t walk out of it with more developed musical skills.

However, adding to the complexity of Wednesday night, an absence of music education isn’t universal amongst choristers. Some choristers have had a musical education through their schooling or private lessons, so choirs often end up with a range of music reading abilities, which can make life more challenging for music directors.

It is wonderful, WONDERFUL, that adults decide to join choirs and become music makers. But here’s an interesting thing - choristers themselves are often invested in not learning sightsinging. A dear colleague told me he was a replacement music director for a choir, after the previous director had been fired by the choir for doing sightreading training every week!

I’ve been working in this field for decades, I’ve heard a lot of reasons.

A big reason is that the music literacy needs for singers are special. Normal “how to read music” education doesn’t help singers very much. To play most instruments, a musician reads a note on the music and pushes the corresponding button or level or covers the right hole. Singers however have to see a written note, and then imagine the sound of it, before they can sing it. This requires specific education to develop the ability to imagine or “inner hear” the sound of a written note. Simply knowing that every good boy deserves fruit doesn’t help singers with this!The term “sightsinging” is used to differentiate from a more general skill of being able to read music. Choristers who have had some exposure to normal music theory can rightly feel that they already know music, and that it doesn’t help them sightsing. In fact, in my experience, musically educated folks who can’t sightsing, are the most resistant to learning sightsinging specific tools, even when it’s painfully evident to me, that they would benefit immensely from it!

Music directors might not be trained in how to teach sightsinging. Even if they are, training and materials available for sightsinging tend to focus on how to teach children. The techniques I was taught work beautifully for children, but I have learnt that they need to be adapted to work for adults. Community choirs tend to be filled with middle aged and older adults, and as we age, our working memory changes. I believe sightsinging relies strongly on working memory - whilst singing a current note, choristers need to read ahead to the next note, imagine its sound and then be ready to sing it, at the right time. This involves a part of the brain that works better for young people than old people. This is not fair, adults don’t deserve to have their working memory reduce. But it doesn’t mean community choirs can’t develop their sightreading. I’ve seen it. It does mean sightsinging needs to be taught with sensitivity and awareness for older brains.

Given this, another issue is that literacy training takes time, and develops slowly. It may take years of learning before sightsinging skills can be applied to the choir’s sung repertoire. This means, rightly, sightsinging training will feel completely irrelevant to the music at hand. Choristers can justifiably feel - what is the point? And feel that the sightsinging material is babyish and insulting.

Some choristers have a general sense that they don’t want to spend choir time learning. I suspect they are concerned it will turn choir time (fun if porous) into something more like school, which many adults are thrilled to have left behind forever! Particularly if they are concerned it will be taught in a chalk n talk kind of way, and take valuable time away from singing. We are about fun, not education. We work all day and just want to come to here to sing. (Even if it’s 25% of the time?)

Sometimes choristers are invested in keeping musical activities in choir simple and accessible to ensure the choir feels it is an open and welcoming entity in the community. If the choir skills up, this will challenge the choir’s self perception.

On self perception, adults who haven’t learnt how to sightsing can have a very strong identity as non readers. Changing this can be quite confronting and hard to deal with. To make this more challenging, choristers might also find it hard to articulate - I don’t want to learn to sightsing because that’s not how I think of myself.

There are good ways to address all of these issues. But I think a lot of the reasons really boil down to the great truth - people don’t like to change.

Reading back through these reasons I have encountered I have to reflect on whether my work in adult music literacy was misguided. If choristers are happy, in fact prefer to stay illiterate and learn simple songs by rote, why should I interfere? Who am I to say that reading music is better than not reading music for these people? I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about this over my working life. My briefer, contrasting experiences of teaching children has felt like knife through butter compared to working with community adults. And I’ve often wondered if I was on the right track. Obdurance isn’t necessarily right.

But I have to believe the arguments folks like Richard Gill and Zoltan Kodaly have for why music education matters for children applies equally to adults. I can’t see a reason why this isn’t so. James Cuskelly is one of my favourite people on the planet to talk with about these issues. Working on Singing The Dots, we really had to reflect on these issues. He believes in the ability of adults to learn, and music directors to teach, and that literacy is the way to full musical citizenship. I think so too.