Improving musical literacy

Our Chapel Choir is un-auditioned. My approach for a long time has been that anyone can come along, and it doesn’t matter whether they read music or not. My objective has always been for them to engage with singing, and that hopefully they’ll pick up a bit about reading music as they go along.

Who have I been kidding? Let’s take a very straightforward and regular rehearsal instruction: “We’re going from the beginning of the second system on page 4.” Whilst some will work it out, there are others who have long since made up their minds that this music-reading business is not their thing, that they just don’t get it; not unlike Charlotte Gill I suspect. They’ll drift along, happy to follow the crowd, but left to their own devices they are never going to become fluent sight-readers. On the contrary, they’ll learn to be expert followers of others, and that is all.

We had an excellent training day at the beginning of the academic year, with formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam. I came away with the realisation that I had almost no evidence whatsoever that our choristers are learning anything about reading music in our choir rehearsals!

Time to put that right.

When I was a chorister we had a training scheme, a series of progressive tests, each of which resulted in getting a coloured drawing pin by our name on the test board. Until now I had thought this was probably too specialised for our Chapel Choir, but with a little reworking I have come up with a set of fourteen ‘dot tests’ which I introduced to the choir a fortnight ago. The response has been extraordinary!

  • Note names
    Name notes on the stave (treble clef for Soprano, Alto and Tenor, bass clef for Bass).
  • Follow the score
    Be able to follow a vocal score with your finger, including identifying the part which you sing and tracking it when it changes lines or goes over the page.
  • Solfa names up
    Be able to recite solfa note names up the scale at a steady tempo, no hesitations.
  • Sight read no jumps
    Starting at C, to be able to sing next door notes up or down as directed, with fluency.
  • Sing octave scale
    To sing a major scale with accurate tuning
  • Solfa signs
    To know the solfa signs for doh, re, mi, fah, soh, lah, ti, doh
  • Intervals (on stave)
    To recognise intervals (3rd, 5th etc) written on the stave
  • Sing arpeggio
    To sing a major arpeggio with accurate tuning
  • Intervals above
    To sing the following intervals above a given note: minor 2nd (semitone), major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, minor 7th
  • Recognise major/minor
    To recognise triads as major or minor
  • Solfa names down
    Be able to recite solfa note names down the scale at a steady tempo, no hesitations.
  • Sight read rhythm 1
    To clap a short rhythm from notation. Simple note values: crotchets, quavers, minims, dotted minims.
  • Sight read jumps
    Starting at C, to be able to sing notes up or down as directed, including leaps of up to a fifth, with fluency.
  • Sight read rhythm 2
    To clap a short rhythm from notation. Complex note values: dotted crotchets, rests and ties.
  • Intervals below
    To sing the following intervals below a given note: semitone, major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, minor 7th.
  • Sight read hymn tune
    To sight read a simple hymn tune from notation.

IMG-5341Some of the more simple tests take literally 30 seconds to do – naming notes, or identifying major or minor triads. If they’re not quite up to scratch, they get maybe a minute of my time to point them in the right direction, and they can come back again once they think they’ve mastered it. This offers the potential for quality teaching time – albeit brief – for every member of the choir on a regular basis.

All of the tests focus on making connections between the notes on the stave, familiar aural ‘sound bites’ (major scales and arpeggios), a tiny dose of theory and some tonic solfa. One of the problems with persuading reluctant readers to take on notation is that they can’t see the practical benefits of it, so it is absolutely imperative that we join it all up for them. Each of these tests is a bitesize part of the bigger picture, and once they have just a few of them mastered they quickly begin to see how it all fits together.

With 45 members of choir, and 14 tests, that’s 630 tests to be getting on with! We got through more than 80 in week one, and everywhere I go I am now being plagued by pupils who want to learn a little bit more about reading music. Some will need chasing down, whilst others are already testing each other with the do mi so game. And as the dots spread, I can see exactly who knows what. As an ongoing initiative I am hopeful that this will transform the literacy of our Chapel Choir. Watch this space!

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