09 June 2013

Surgery for Sight Singers

Deep down in the hidden recesses of a music examiner’s soul lies a dark secret; one so closely guarded that few ever divulge it, even to each other.  But we all know it’s there and have experienced the awful, creeping dread that envelops us whenever it is unleashed.  Much as we deny it, we all have a deep, horrible loathing of one particular instrument. 

Examiners scan their schedules anxiously to see if their dreaded instrument is on their day’s list, breathe a sigh of relief when it’s not and experience a fleeting moment of sheer panic when it is.  For some it’s the Electronic Keyboard, for others the Drum Kit.  It might be the early grade Double Bass or the Grade 5 Tuba (treble or bass clef. C, Bflat or Eflat?).  Many have an unspoken dread of a Snare Drum grade 3 or a Guitar grade 7.  But we all have one, whether we admit to it or not, and a disproportionate number of us dread, more than anything else, the appearance on a day’s schedule of a high grade singer.
Not that we actively dislike that strange, almost intimate sense of examining a person rather than an instrument, or that we dread writing a comment perceived to be a personal remark rather than a purely subjective musical observation.  Most of us even accept with astonishing equanimity that for singers the performance of something by Andrew Lloyd Webber is seen as a necessity rather than an option, and I know colleagues who positively relish the prospect of hearing, yet again, a Song From A Show complete with actions and props.  No, our dread of singing exams – especially high grade ones – is the inevitable, unavoidable Sight Singing which hangs, like a ghastly stench, over the exam room.  How we all hate putting on that optimistic voice as we say, “And now for some Sight Singing”.

Examiners for Trinity have it particularly bad, for they have to present their candidates with an incomprehensible sequence of dots randomly placed around a musical stave and leave them to it; at least other boards allow the examiner to blot out the awful sounds of singers attempting to read with hefty piano chords.  In over a decade of examining for Trinity I have yet to come across a high grade singer who realises that all that is wanted here is that they take the note offered to them by the piano and run with it, roughly following the ups and downs of its contours and possibly taking some notice of the comparative note values in the thing, until they end up, roughly, where they started.
The usual practice, however, is for the note given by the examiner never even to be picked up by the singer in the first place.  Most seem to prefer to scoop up a pitch out of thin air and then spend the next few minutes seeing how many micro-tones they can find within its near environment.  Rare indeed is the singer who actually finds a pitch in relatively close proximity to that being hammered out with increasing ferocity by the examiner on the piano.  Once a pitch has been decided on (at considerable length), there then follows an agonising series of odd squeaks and groans, frequently interrupted by coughs, false phlegmatic expulsions and vocalised expressions of dismay, bearing not a scintilla of relationship with the key, pulse or basic contours of the printed line.  It takes superhuman effort on behalf of any examiner to see this through to the bitter end and most decide, in the interests of both sanity and a pressing timetable, to end the agony prematurely.

That singers cannot read music at sight is an undeniable truth.  Why they cannot and, indeed, whether they should ever be expected to, is a matter of heated debate.  So let’s weigh in.

Even before I worked as a music examiner I knew of this congenital defect in those who choose to sing for a living.  I worked for a very short time as a repététeur with a professional opera company.  Singers – some of considerable fame - would spend an hour with me as I drummed out each individual note in their part and, with agonising slowness, they would gradually be able to string first two, then three and, if they were very clever, four notes together within the hour.  It amazed me how they ever managed to master one operatic role, let alone the dozens expected of professional opera singers.  It struck me then that, were they able to read music, they would surely master their roles so much more quickly, thereby affording them the luxury of devoting time to the interpretation of their roles.  But clearly I am not a singer, and what seems logical to a mere musician, is a ridiculous concept for a singer.

Having been brought up as a chorister and sung with choirs whose repertory involved completely new programmes on an almost daily basis, I have developed an easy facility for singing at sight.  But it seems most solo singers feel such skills irrelevant. Indeed, not long after I had started examining for the ABRSM, I had a day of singers all of whom fell down badly in their final results because of their miserable attempts at sight singing.  When I raised this, in the most oblique terms, with a singing teacher, she was appalled at my ignorance and huffed haughtily; “Singers don’t have to sight read.  It’s ridiculous of the Board to force them to do this in the exam.  Pianists and violinists may have to do it, but singers don’t”. 
Wondering whether I had lived under a misapprehension I took this up with my old friend Ian Dollins who, throughout our university days, seemed set on a glittering career as a bass singer.  When I told him of this encounter he proclaimed with an almost operatic imperiousness; “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  Of course singers have to sight sing!”  (Perhaps Ian’s great facility at sight reading is what prevented him from taking up the career his gloriously resonant bass voice so clearly deserved on the operatic stage.  He’s now, I believe, leading a quiet and respectable life as organist of Monmouth Parish Church.)

I have to confess that I cannot come up with a single reason why sight-singing is not something which singers do, nor can I see any reason why they should feel it’s an irrelevant skill.  But then I read these words uttered by a fellow repététeur; “Singers too often develop the notion that their natural talent is everything, and so they neglect their musical education.  Compare this with the great singers of the past.  Farinelli, the great castrato, for example, had a profound understanding of harmony, counterpoint, melody and sight-reading, and he used all of them to perfect his interpretations.  It’s almost inconceivable today that a singer would have that deep an orientation to his music, whereas a serious instrumentalist is expected to be a master of all those disciplines”.

So there you have it.  If you want to sight-sing, you should be castrated.  (I’m not sure how this would work with female singers who are, in my experience, by far and away the worst sight-singers of them all!)

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