I was fortunate enough to gain a place as a chorister in a parish church at the age of eight, and received five years of the most wonderful musical training. In fact, there was a series of very specific tests which we were expected to work through, and success was rewarded with a coloured drawing pin on a chart. Wow! (Actually, I was hooked from day one!)
More specifically, there were 7 blue, 15 red, 5 green and 5 purple tests. The blue ones were along the lines of ‘read a hymn’ (Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes!), sing a scale G to G etc – all things which a seven/eight year old needed to get to grips with if he was going to progress to becoming a ‘full chorister.’ It was a very simple system, but the tests became increasingly demanding – I can’t remember what any of the purple ones were, but they were probably along the lines of ‘process down the nave of the church with a candle in one hand, whilst sight-reading the alto line of Stanford in G with the music upside down!’
However, I do remember several red ones, including ‘sight-read no jumps’. Our assistant choirmaster, Mr Baker, would draw a stave, a treble clef, and a major scale from middle C to top G, on the back of a scrap of paper. All that was required was to be able to sing up and down the scale, by step, as he pointed to each note, but changing direction occasionally. The aural equivalent of going up or down a ladder, one rung at a time. Looking back, we must have learned
- the ‘sound world’ of the major scale
- where the tones and semitones were
- that next door notes move either from line to space, or from space to line
Not too tricky once you got the hang of it, but nevertheless something which needed practise and familiarity. Sight-read jumps, on the other hand, was fiendish, and the test board, all neatly organised in rows and columns, had a notably empty column under this heading – the few boys with a red drawing pin at this point were held in great esteem, and quite rightly! In short, if you can do this, you can do anything, and I do mean that quite sincerely.
Sight read no jumps is not difficult, but I believe that it is necessary for all musicians to practise it and master it. I regularly encounter young musicians (and also older ones) who quite simply can’t sing from one note to the next. I find it difficult to allow them to justify why not – scales are the alphabet which we work with, and we must have a basic working knowledge of the scale. They might not like it, but when I ask my piano pupils to sing a musical line in lessons, they know that I’m serious and they just get on with it. After all, the ears need just as much training as the fingers.