Sight reading is not as common of a skill as it used to be. While classical and theater singers still rely heavily on sheet music, commercial vocalists often learn songs by example and imitation. Jazz, pop and R&B instrumentalists work with chord and number charts far more frequently these days, whereas their classical counterparts almost exclusively use scores.

I’ve recently been working with a blues singer who also happens to be a terrific sight reader. Kelly has always learned her songs visually, which she now does online as well thanks to Music Notes and other websites that scroll through and highlight the vocal lines as the tracks are being played.

While preparing for her upcoming show together, I noticed that Kelly had a good amount of tension that seemed less related to her songs and more to how she learned and referenced them… a suspicion that was confirmed when we played with call and response exercises, only to have the tension fall away.

While I’m able to read music, and have no issues doing so when playing the piano, I try to avoid visual notation as a singer. Particularly when I’m learning a song. Seeing the notes moving up and down often causes me to energetically and physically do the same. To say nothing of how my brain gets going when I see certain notes approaching that my intellect has deemed scary or challenging.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many singers have a similar, and often unconscious relationship to visual learning. Along with similar results: tension, over-thinking, and frustration.

If this is– or may be– true for you, consider setting the sheet music aside and learning with your ears, rather than your eyes. Listening to recordings of tension-free singers, or even instrumental versions of songs we want to learn, allows us to hear, process and fully embody those songs… before we open our mouths. Leaving us free to engage powerfully and correctly when we do.

What’s more, by setting aside the sheet music, the notions of notes aren’t contained by and confined to tiny dots on a page that we need to narrow in on and ‘hit’. The music– large, round and alive– enters our sensory system holistically, and emerges through our voices equally resonant and free.

Just as I believe that language is best used as a reflection of, rather than an initiator of healthy singing, I find that for many people, sheet music is best used as a reference only after our voices and we have learned the material. Once we’ve memorized and mastered a song, sheet music– like language– can then be used as a reminder that helps, rather than hinders our physical engagement.

Is this true for everyone? Is sight reading bad, or something that we as vocalists should avoid learning how to do? No, of course not. Reading music is a skill that can help you musically and professionally, not to mention, increasing your confidence as you navigate the profession.

Rather– as in all things musical, learning and beyond– look objectively at what enables your best growth, development, and experience and follow where it leads. Including the timing of when to use the skills you’ve acquired.

Good luck and happy learning!


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