Veteran music educator Denise Eaton shares a plethora of tips on how to teach sight singing in choral rehearsals, gleaned from her nearly thirty years of leading high school choirs. She's written down this approach in her SMART, STEPS, and InSIGHT sight singing books, which she created to help high school choral conductors like herself overcome the challenges of building independent musicians.
00:20 Introductions: For nearly thirty years, Denise Eaton taught high school choirs, including building one of the top choral programs in the country at Spring High School, north of Houston, Texas. Her approach to teaching complete musicians is remarkable, and it’s one she’s shared with the world in her SMART, InSIGHT and STEPS series of sight singing books. She’s also taught choral methods on the faculty of Sam Houston State University, served as president of the Texas Music Educators Association, and is choral editor for Carl Fischer Music.
02:00 How do you build an ensemble of singers who read well? It takes an intentional, systematic approach. It can't be done at the last minute. The beginning of learning skills is glacially slow, and it takes time.
03:00 What does that look like in rehearsal? Clear objectives for the rehearsal, and a precise lesson plan. An "Order of Events" on the board helps students to buy into just how much we have to accomplish.
04:00 A rehearsal should be a crescendo, not a checklist. I avoid the term warmup, and prefer to say vocal technique. From vocal technique training, to sight singing or singing the repertoire, everything is reinforcing what happened during the vocal technique time.
05:30 Moving from solfege to the page, from sound to sight. The importance of building in visual orientation to singing in different keys.
07:50 The SMART and STEPS books are broken up into chapters by key, and arranged by difficulty within each chapter. What's the philosophy behind that? A lot of people feel compelled to start at the beginning of a book and go in order. But, what if you don't need to sight sing in F-sharp major? The idea is to see a scale and a tonic triad in the key, and to sing through some fundamental exercises to get visually acclimated to what you'll see in the music, and then to sight sing. The fundamental skills are singing steps and thirds, and singing intervals from the tonic triad, and that's what you get in the SMART books and STEPS books. If students can do that they can do anything. Every key is a new language for young singers, it just looks different.
12:50 This approach was purely practical. If I'm going to teach a piece in A-flat, then three weeks before we start that piece we're going to start sight singing fundamental drills in that key, we're going to sight sing in that key so that students can be successful when they eventually get to the piece we're singing. InSIGHT Singing has fundamental drills around I, IV and V chords, they can see how those chords look.
15:30 If I'm working on a piece with a choir, and I want to help prepare students in advance by pulling out basics. What else, besides key, should I look at as I study the score, and how do I turn those into basic practice? This is what score study is about: identifying melodic patterns, harmonic patterns, and rhythmic patterns in addition to form. My sight reading will be the melodic contour of the patterns throughout the piece.
With some of these sub-non varsity treble pieces, there are only really three melodic patterns in it. Instead of looking at the music right away with students, write these out in whole notes and practice the pitch content first, after they've seen a scale and a tonic triad. And write out the most common rhythm patterns on the other side of the page.
17:35 Can you talk about the philosophy behind each of the books? The SMART books started off as a tool that I needed for my teaching. Each melody is written in both treble and bass clef. It was written for key orientation, so that teachers could give students material to sight sing in the keys of the music they're singing. SMART minor was self-serving, because when you go to contest with your varsity groups in Texas, the form will be Major-minor-Major, so this will help prepare. Minor's challenging because you have the altered notes to deal with. You have to teach it from a diatonic standpoint, I'll have them sing "Mi-Fi-Si-La is the Sol-La-Ti-Do of the minor key."
22:45 What are the fundamental exercises? A scale based on the range of melodies in that level, a tonic triad, and written out patterns (like Do-Re-Mi-Do) that move through the scale. The tonic triad should reflect the range of the melodies, if you don't have a low Sol you don't need to sing that. But you might need to sing a high Do. The books have each key in two chapters, a level 1 and level 2 chapter. The fundamental drills get harder, as do the melodies.
27:00 Should students write their solfege in music? Not in their sight singing work, because then it's not sight singing, it's letter reading. It depends on the level of your students. Maybe from time to time in repertoire, especially at pivot points of key changes. It depends on the level of the group, with a varsity group, for instance, I might say, "Ok, it's the third time through, if you're still making the same mistakes mark your solfege." Or, with a more beginner group, when I'm working with another section I might say, "Ok, write in your solfege, use your SMART book p. __ for the scale if you have questions on what a note is." It all depends on their skill level, your skill level as a teacher, where they are in the learning process, how much time you have, and how fast they learn.
29:00 How do get from a rehearsal plan that's about checking off the boxes--warmup, check! sight singing, check! etc...--to something more organic? We have to reinforce good singing--including vowel shape, posture, tone, breath--through the warmup into the sight singing. We have to let creating a beautiful sound be a unifying thread throughout the rehearsal. Not all warmups have to be at the beginning of class. And sight singing can be closer to the repertoire it's preparing students for in the rehearsal process, not necessarily at the start of rehearsal. And build the warmup patterns around the musical challenges they'll see in the rehearsal. Integrate one idea in the vocal technique that comes from something you're singing in repertoire. I like to keep exercises for at least a few days, not just once in a rehearsal. And I ask them, "Do you know why we're doing this warmup?"
34:05 How do you make sight-singing fun? It's a mindset. They love to be successful, and whenever they go to contest, festival or all-state auditions, there's always a sight-reading element, and they love working towards a competition. Turn patterns into a game: sing a fundamental drill, but audiate the note on the third beat instead of singing it. Or I'll sing measure 1, and you sing measure 2. It teaches audiation, but also rhythmic breathing. I like to play "ping-pong" with them, back and forth. Your only limit is your own creativity. Sing backwards! For middle school (and some non-varsity high school) choir directors, the hardest thing is to actually get them to just look at their music instead of looking at the director and memorizing by rote.
And there are books out there too, like Making Sight Reading Fun! or SOS Sight Reading by Mary Jane Phillips or the Snap Cards by Theresa Pritchard. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, go steel ideas from other people!
39:15 Tell us about the STEPS book. In the STEPS book the focus is intervals from the tonic triad, Do-Mi-Sol. Everything is tonic based, and there are flash cards that all begin on a note of the triad, you can make games out of the flash card by rearranging them. These are unison because this elevates the skills of the weakest singer. And in the STEPS book the two 4/4 melodies on each page can be combined to be sung at the same time in parts. Plus there are "Read Ahead Funs," two measure patterns written at various places on the page. You can call them a number to jump quickly to go between them. Let someone else be a caller, etc...
45:00 Read the preface to any sight reading book you buy. They'll tell you how to use the book, why the book is arranged the way it is.
46:00 What about rhythm? They need to isolate pitch and rhythm. I start with any sight reading melody by having them chant the rhythm. Then I have them sing the rhythm on counts. Students are less precise rhythmically when singing, so, they need that step to bridge the gap to singing the notes in time. Make it a game: count-sing an eight-measure melody, every time you cross a bar-line, go up a scale degree. Or sing it on a pattern of thirds. If it's easy, up the ante. Then finally let's sing it.
49:50 Why prioritize the teaching of reading in music education? My dog can speak for her treat. But do I want a choir like that? Did they learn twelve songs this year and get a I at contest? Maybe, but I want them to have a thought, an understanding, to see how it all ties in at the end when they look back on their musical career. Maybe high school will be the pinnacle of that, or maybe they'll go on to sing in church, community, or barbershop choirs. I want them to look back and know they learned something about music in this music education class, not just how to sit and bark.
52:13 What else should we talk about? If you're a teacher that's struggling with sight singing, find a process, find a mentor who does it well, find out what they do and how they do it. Have a plan, there's no winging it. Have 17 ways to skin that cat, depending on the level of the ensemble in front of you. Have a barometer, and know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. It's choir, not cancer. It should be fun, joyful, and we can laugh and have fun when we sight read. Get help if you need it, find a mentor.
Theme Song: These are the notes from the staff where we talk about our point of view, and we share the things we're going to do, and we hope you're learning something too, cause the path to matering theory begins with you.
Leah Sheldon: Welcome to Notes From the Staff, a podcast from the creators of uTheory, where we dive into conversations about music theory, ear training, and music technology with members of the uTheory staff and thought leaders from the world of music education.
Greg Ristow: Hi, I'm Greg Ristow, founder of uTheory and Associate Professor of Conducting at the Oberlin Conservatory.
Leah Sheldon: And I'm Leah Sheldon, Head of Teacher Engagement for uTheory.
Greg Ristow: With us today to talk about coral sight singing is music educator, extraordinaire, Denise Eaton. For nearly 30 years, Denise taught high school choirs, including building one of the top choral programs in the country at Spring High School, north of Houston, Texas. I learned of Denise when I started teaching at Lone Star College–Montgomery, a nearby community college where I got to work with many of her former students, all of whom were solfege masters. Her approach to teaching complete musicians is remarkable. And it's one she's shared with the world in her SMART InSight and STEPS series of sight-singing books. She's also taught choral methods on the faculty of Sam Houston State University, served as president of the Texas Music Educators Association and is choral editor for Carl Fischer Music. Denise, thanks so much for joining us today.
Denise Eaton: Well, thank you. I'm honored to be with you all. That's a very, very nice introduction. I think we could sum it up in just a few words. I just simply love the act of teaching. I love the grind of teaching, which is something I think a lot of people don't, but part of that is successful sight reading can really build strong musicians. So I'm very passionate about that, but thank you for having me today.
Greg Ristow: So I think what we all really want to know is can you teach us how to build an ensemble of singers who read well?
Denise Eaton: I think it's possible. But sight singing and reading and rhythm readiness are all skills and skills are only developed if they are practiced daily and with intentional systematic approach to them. I think people that wait till the last minute have choirs that site read like they've waited to the last minute. I think the beginning of learning is incredibly, it is glacially slow. And the same as with skills. Pianists did not just start off playing scales in time, and sight singing is a skill. So yes, it can be done, but it must be really well thought out. I don't think there's one book. I don't think there's one method. I think it's knowing what works with your students.
Leah Sheldon: So what does that look like in a rehearsal for you? Let's say I'm a singer. I walk into the rehearsal and then what happens?
Denise Eaton: Well in my rehearsals, gosh, and I was thinking about it. It's been 11 years since I was the head choir director, but I certainly am in rehearsals all the time. In fact, I just left a rehearsal this morning. I always had objectives on the board. I'm a big lesson planner. I used to not be, but from frustration and winging it, it led to very precise lesson plans. And I learned that when I was not the only person in the room that knew what was expected of them, rehearsals were much more productive. So objectives are on the board and I used to call them the order of events, not just objectives. This is what we're doing today. I think there's something psychological about seeing number one through 17 on the board, like, oh my gosh, we've got a lot to get done.
Denise Eaton: Each activity is not something that you want to just check off the list. We warmed up, check. We did fundamentals, check. The whole idea to me is that a rehearsal, and I hate the word organic, maybe it's not organic. Everything is crescendoing throughout the rehearsal. Everything from the beginning of the rehearsal has a function as it takes you towards your repertoire. I don't call warmup, warmup. I call it vocal technique. I think that's one of the most important parts of the rehearsal, even if it's not very long, but to get kids engaged with their mind, their body, their vocal mechanism. And that, then, as you go on to, say, sight reading or singing the repertoire, you're still reinforcing what you did during the vocal technique.
Denise Eaton: I think warm up is an overused term. It is used in academics, usually for the teacher to check role. In math, there's a warmup activity and it's just something to keep the kids from talking. Or, and I think that too many teachers teach, treat warmup like it's that. Same with sight reading. They go through drills, perhaps they're teaching a third drill and the kids sound fabulous on it and they can do it ascending, descending, in thirds, whatever, but the problem is if you give them that same drill written out in a key, they can't sing it. So I agree with sound before sight. I agree with rhythm sound before sight. I agree with teaching everything sound before sight, but sight is the next level of proficiency.
Greg Ristow: Could you give us an example of, maybe, take the classic Do Mi Re Fa Mi Sol that people just rattle off?
Denise Eaton: That's it. That's the one.
Greg Ristow: How would you go from that to the page?
Denise Eaton: I would write it out in whatever key that they were going. Let's say it's my treble choir and we're singing in the key of E. E is not a common key to them. F, G and C are the most common to, I'm thinking of middle school trebles, F, G, and C. They see that the most. Middle school boys, oh gosh, that's just, you know what that is. But high school, they get to high school and they feel good about F, G and C and then you give them something like E or B♭. You write that out in the key of E and they're befuddled. So I like to do things like Do Mi line line, Re Fa space space Mi Sol line line Fa La space space, for the key of E because it's a visual orientation into what that key looks like, and they haven't seen that before.
Denise Eaton: They've seen G on the line, but it's on the second line. I think they need to see it. And I'll write out solfege letters on the board to introduce, like a warmup. I would always teach it on solfege before I'd go to the vowel sequence. But then a lot of times I would write those patterns out just on a sheet of paper, it'd be warmups, but they would have to sight read the patterns first. Anything to integrate it into what we were going to do. So sound before sight, but then sight. And then the sight has to be talked about. They have to make the visual connection that Do Mi and Sol live here, so high Do and low Sol live here. And it has to always be driven home.
Greg Ristow: One of the things that I've noticed about your books that I think is really wonderful and interesting. If you take this SMART Series, each chapter is in its own key. And then within each chapter, things progress from easier to more difficult. And you've kind of already been talking a little about the philosophy behind this, but it's very different from, for instance, a lot of the sight singing texts that I've taught with at the college level are arranged from beginning to end, easiest to hardest. And the keys are put in, I don't want to say willy-nilly, but it almost seems like the goal is to have lots of keys throughout the book. Can you talk maybe a bit more about the philosophy of the sight element of separating keys like that?
Denise Eaton: Well, for one thing, I think that, because, like the books you're referring to, a lot of people feel compelled to start with the book and go in order. Well, what if you don't need to sight read in the key of F# major? Of course, that can also work for F major. I used to always say, "Cover up the key signature. What key could it be in?" You can certainly make your sight-reading materials non-disposable. You can be very creative with them, but the keys that are in the SMART book and the Steps book and Insight Singing are the keys that you can most likely integrate using your repertoire.
Denise Eaton: But the idea behind them is to see a scale, an atonic triad in the key, and to sing through some fundamentals, fundamental exercises. Again, it's a visualization, in order to acclimate what you're going to see in the music. I learned from a masterful teacher, Norris Blevins. I was his assistant for 12 years. He was a guru of sight reading and he used to say, "If they can identify steps and thirds, know what to call them and know what they sound like, they can sing any interval." Because what's a fourth? It's a third and a step. What's a fifth? It's two thirds.
Denise Eaton: So the fundamental drills all came about, and I'm not kidding you, when I first went to Spring High School... Well, actually it was before then. I'm going to back up. I was teaching non-varsity treble, mainly freshmen. I threw at them a Nacht Lied. It's Beethoven. I know it's in B♭. I think it's acapella. Very sight singable, SSA.
Denise Eaton: They were really struggling. And again, these were mainly freshmen. So I stopped and said, "Can you tell me why you're struggling?" And of course, an alto, it's always an alto, isn't it? I'm an alto, raised her hand and said, "Every time I get to Sol, which is F in the key of B♭, I want to call it Do." I said, "You know what? Put that up."
Denise Eaton: So I went home and I wrote out intervals from the tonic triad in B♭, and that's the fundamental in the Steps book, is intervals from the notes of the tonic triad. Well, the fundamentals from the SMART book are steps and thirds with varying degrees of rhythm difficulty between level one and level two. Because it's another visual, for lack of a better term, drill and kill for what you're going to see, but the more you're aware of every time I come to this, this is Do, this is Mi, this is Sol, you don't have any Slas. I used to have Slas all the time. That was a cross between Sol and La. What do you call that? Sla.
Denise Eaton: I used to say, "Are we going to have barbecue?" It was a joke, but everyone knew what I was talking about. I'm like, "How can you call that Sla, because we've just been singing all these lines?" So it takes time. Every key is a new language for young singers. And, by young, that's their senior in high school. And some college, I'll just be real honest with you. It just looks different. The intervals don't change, but where they live do.
Greg Ristow: I have an interest in historical solfege pedagogy and when I first saw your SMART Series, which I think were the first of your books that came out, I remember thinking back to the old French solfege des solfege system that was used at the Paris Conservatory for many years, which, like many sight singing books from the late 1800s, early 1900s, works key by key. So you start with just C major and then you get F major and then you get some D minor, right? It just gradually brings them in. I think it was really insightful of you to bring back that kind of structure, which I haven't seen much elsewhere.
Denise Eaton: Well, I really did it from a practical standpoint. Like, I'm going to teach a piece in the key of A♭, well, we're going to start looking at that scale. We're going to look at those fundamental drills, some of the fundamental drill. I can play all kinds of games with those fundamental drills. I can teach audiation through the fundamental drills. We can play ping pong. We can do all kinds of things and have fun while we're learning and visualizing.
Denise Eaton: So I kind of did it self-servingly, because, like I say, when I went to Spring, I was teaching the Palestrina: Alma Redemptoris Mater. It was in E♭. I had very weak young SATB choir. So I would hear every morning the band kids outside of my room, practicing off their... They would have to do their marching stuff and play their little scale patterns. And they go [sings classic brass warmup pattern: 1231 2342 3453 1231 2342 7127 1321 2432 1]
Denise Eaton: And I went, "That steps and thirds." So I was starting to write out fundamental exercises in E♭ that we could sing in class before we looked at the Palestrina. And then my friend Sally Schott said, "We've got to make this a book." And then it was born. So I have sheets and sheets of all this kind of stuff that I would use for teaching before I would introduce a piece. So they're successful, then. We want our students to be successful. And if we're going to sing something an E♭, well, three weeks before we start introducing it, we start sight reading in E♭.
Denise Eaton: And they start getting the feel of what that looks like. The InSight singing has one, four and five chords. They can see why the key is the key, how the one, four and five chords look for the more advanced singers. You can do all kinds of things that way. See, I'm more pedagogical about sight reading, I think, as I'm talking, aren't I?
Greg Ristow: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Which is great. How many of us really learned, were ever taught the whys and hows of teaching sight singing? Very few.
Denise Eaton: Well, you know, you really can't. You have to be in the classroom and go, "Okay, they don't know anything. Where do I start?" Sometimes you use the music for sight reading. It just all depends on where they are. First you teach them by rote, a lot of times, and then get them to start reading. But they have to make the connection from pitch to pitch in the interval. And that's what sight reading is.
Leah Sheldon: So you just talked about key as an example. Let's say I'm working on a piece with a choir and I want to help prepare the students, like you mentioned, in advance by pulling out some of the basics. What else should I look at as I study the score so that I can use those in advance and how do I turn those into more focused practice?
Denise Eaton: Well, you're really talking about score study, which is sometimes a very dirty word for people because they always say, "I don't have enough time." And I always say, "How can you not make the time? Because, with score study, you are going to find all of your melodic patterns. You're going to find your harmonic patterns. You're going to find your rhythmic patterns. And that's, of course, after you determine your form."
Denise Eaton: Many times my sight reading is the melodic contour of the different patterns throughout the song. I mean, you teach some of these sub non-varsity treble pieces, it's three melodic patterns, is all it is. So instead of looking at the music and looking at all those rhythms, I write them out in what I call place markers, whole notes. And I control the rate of speed. So we'll say two snaps per pitch. And just sing from note to note, after they've seen a scale and a tonic triad, and use that for sight reading before we ever look at the music.
Denise Eaton: And perhaps on the other side of that sheet, I would have some of the rhythm patterns or breakdowns to get them ready for the rhythm patterns. So score study to me is everything. And that's why I would use three and four sight-reading books when I was teaching. It would just depend on the song and the needs of the class, so I have class sets of everything.
Greg Ristow: That's great. And we've started getting into a bit, sort of the philosophy behind pedagogical approach to sight singing. In particular, you mentioned, if they can sing steps and thirds, and if they can find all the notes of the tonic triad, then they can basically do everything. Certainly, I see that in your SMART books, and you started talking about your InSight books, as well, working largely from tonic triad. Maybe, do you want to just talk a little bit about the philosophy behind each of your books?
Denise Eaton: Well, yes, I'm very happy to. The SMART books started off, like I say, as a tool, I think, more than anything, for teachers that they could integrate it in their teaching and build fundamental skills. It's written in octaves.
Greg Ristow: And just to clarify for our listeners, when you say it's written in octaves, actually every melody in there is written in treble clef and bass clef, so that... Yeah.
Denise Eaton: And bass clef, exactly, so that a mixed choir can use it. A tenor bass choir can use it or a treble choir can use it. I know that the ranges don't work well. They don't work well for middle school boys, but again, that's kind of its own animal. That's a whole nother inservice, as far as that goes. But the SMART book was there for the key orientation. And a lot of teachers use it where they go through each key, all of C major level one, all of C major level two. And they go through each key like that and they don't tie it into their music. And to me, they're really missing a bonus round for their music. And someone said, "Well, the minor book's too hard and you don't have anything in F minor."
Denise Eaton: I say, read the F major melodies in F minor. The only thing you don't have is altered notes. Do still lives on the same place, you know? That's how those came about. So the fundamentals are really good exercises that they can get better and better at, at identifying. Then, out of that, came SMART Minor, and I'll tell you, it was self-serving for my colleagues in the State of Texas, because in Texas, when you go to a festival or contest or assessment, whatever it's called out there, the sight reading process for the varsity groups is major, minor, major. So you're going to sight read in minor, and a lot of repertoire is in minor.
Denise Eaton: So how do you get to minor? The Minor book is hard. The visualization is hard because students, I mean, it's great for them to learn the scales and then they can put the altered notes into context. But I think, to teach kids altered notes, you've got to teach them from a diatonic standpoint so that they already have in their ear something they can relate to.
Denise Eaton: My first day of my varsity mixed choir, these are kids that sang Whitaker and Palestrina. We would sing Mi Fi Si La is the Sol La Ti Do of the minor key, first day of class. I would make up these stupid La Si La is the Do Ti Do of the minor key. Why? Because, otherwise, they would see something go Mi Fi. They would just go into orbit. Do Ti. So we'd sing, like, Sol Fa Sol sounds like Do Te Do.
Denise Eaton: Something diatonic that they know they can sing Sol Do Sol in their sleep. They can wake up and sing it. But they can't necessarily sing Do Do Te because they're not pianists. They don't see that interval. They don't see a C to a B♭ relationship as a whole step, but they know what Sol Da Fa sounds like. So again, this is kind of a sound before sight thing. And if you do that, then the SMART Minor might be a little easier for you, but I'm telling you, the visualization after singing three minor scales feels like you've run a marathon.
Denise Eaton: I remember one night with a varsity tenor bass choir, we sang all the scales and the visual orientation. And I felt like I had been sucker punched. I was exhausted, getting them through that. And I was like, "We don't need to read any melody. We need to do this again later and then we'll go onto the melodies." Because everyone, their brains were just churning because of that. So the SMART Minor, and something I used to do is we'd have our SMART book and our SMART Minor out, and we'd read two melodies in the major and then one melody in the relative minor, and then go back to two melodies in the major, just to see how they were making that association.
Greg Ristow: That's great. You've been talking about the fundamental exercises that are in these books. Can you maybe just, for people who haven't seen the books, like when I open a chapter, what are the first things I see in that chapter?
Denise Eaton: Well, for each key center, you're going to see a scale based on the range of the melodies in that level. So let's say the key of F, you're going to see your scale because level one F goes from Do up to La and Do down to Fa. So the melodies in level one of the key of F major have a range of a sixth up or a fifth down, maybe not all of them go up to high La and down to Fa, but that's what you're going to see in level one.
Greg Ristow: We didn't talk about that earlier when we were talking about key, but that's such a huge thing, right?
Denise Eaton: It is.
Greg Ristow: That the different keys sort of have a different natural solfege range, that F major tends to live between that low Sol and the high Sol. Whereas, A♭ major is going to tend to live between a low Mi and a high Mi.
Denise Eaton: Oh yeah, exactly. And that was something I was talking about to a colleague of mine that wrote the sight reading for the Allstate Choir audition in the key of D. And I said, "Well, they're used to hearing Do Mi Sol Mi Do Sol Do, and their starting pitch." Well, they didn't get to hear, Do Do Do Do Do Do Do [1 3 5 8 5 3 1]. They didn't need a low Sol, they needed a high Do. So the range of the melodies, I always think, needs to be reflected in the scale and the tonic triad. Of course, I could always tell if my kids were looking at the scale, as well, because someone wouldn't go up high enough or someone wouldn't go up low enough. And I'd go, "Let's do it again and let's look at our music."
Greg Ristow: Because most of the scales in the chapters go up to a high Re or down to a low Ti, for instance.
Denise Eaton: It just depends. Yes. So what the scales are based on is the range of all the melodies in that. So the key of F, level one, if you look at all the melodies, you're going to find at least one that goes up to La and at least one that goes down to Fa. That's why the scale is written that way. It's the same with the InSight Singing book, as well. And the tonic triad should reflect the range of the melodies. If you don't have a low Sol, there's no reason to sing low Sol. If you have a high Do, though, you need to sing high Do.
Denise Eaton: So, yes, every key is that way. That's how it's set up. And then the fundamental drills of level one for each key center are easier rhythmically than level two. Level one, a lot of them are just stepwise motion. Level one might have a third, but it'd be a quarter note third. Level two, it might have Do Re Mi Do Mi Re Mi Fa Re Fa, a fast third, which is hard to sing and tune. A third's hard to sing and tune anyway.
Denise Eaton: So that's kind of the premise behind just the SMART Major book. The SMART Minor introduces, it's got, I think, five or six keys, but it introduces the natural harmonic and melodic minor for every key that it has. So they're starting to see those accidentals and then of course it outlines the tonic triad, but what's hard is the visual orientation. The visual orientation, you're going to see everything, every sharp or natural, and the naturals mess up kids, too. They don't know what to do with them sometimes.
Denise Eaton: So everything that you're going to see in those melodies, in that key center section, level one or level two, that's what you're going to see in the visual orientation of that. That's why I think the visual orientation is so hard, because it's crammed with all the hard stuff, all the visual things you're going to see. So that was the premise behind that.
Greg Ristow: So, along those lines, a quick question aside, how do you feel about students writing their solfege into their music?
Denise Eaton: Well, I don't like it in their sight-reading books ever, because then it's not sight reading. Then it's letter reading. They're seeing the Sol. They see the S so they sing a Sol. I think, in classes, it depends on the level of the degree of music and it depends on the students that are in front of you. With a varsity group, a lot of times I would have them third pass through. If you're still making the same mistakes, mark it.
Denise Eaton: I might mark a few places. Like if I'm going to pivot to a new key, I might put Do equals Ti and then write in a few solfege syllables. Or sometimes, just for ease of learning, I would say, "If I'm not working with your section today, right in your solfege, use SMART book, page, blah, blah, blah, for your scale. So if you have any question, you can write it in." It just depends on how much time you have for each given piece and where they are in the learning process.
Denise Eaton: Gosh, we all just want these clear-cut answers and there really isn't one, because it depends on their skill level, your skill level as a teacher, the materials you have at hand and how fast they learn. Some kids can just sight read through everything and they only have to make a couple of reminders to themselves. Some kids can't do that at all. They can't do anything unless they've written it in. But you have to start somewhere and I'm not saying there's a right or wrong to anything. It's what's right for your kids to learn and be successful. But never in books would I allow them to write in anything.
Leah Sheldon: Our conversation just a bit ago brought back some memories for me. Although I'm a band director, in my first few years of teaching, I directed an elementary children's choir and I felt very limited by their range and the keys that I had to choose from because they were young learners. It definitely turned into, like we talked about, a situation where we have a warmup and then, okay, that's done. We check that box. Now we're going to go to the real music. And, thinking about this now, we've also talked about score study and pulling from skills right from the music to use instead. So how do we get from that idea of, I have a warmup, I check the box, how do we move beyond that? Or do we need to?
Denise Eaton: Well, I think it depends on the level of the singer, like for an elementary group you're teaching them to stand still. You're teaching them to stand with good posture and, I don't care, if you're still doing high school, you're still doing those reminders, but talking about where the breath comes from, where it should be centered. You're doing a lot of other things in the vocal technique/warm up portion. You're working on vowel shapes. To me, everything comes from the vowel shapes.
Denise Eaton: Sadly, there's not an ooh vowel in sight reading in the Do Re Mi system. There's not an ooh vowel. And I wish there was because my vocal tone has two strands and they both begin with ooh, but ooh to oh is my big one. We can reinforce good vowels through the sight reading. So sometimes, I mean, I've watched choirs warm up and I thought it was the biggest waste of time because no one was engaged until the teacher got to the sight reading. And then all of a sudden they were going, "I need your best oh. Do." I'm going, "Well, why weren't you asking for that during the technique part of the warmup?"
Denise Eaton: So, back to your original question, what do you do? I like to take something from the warmup, and now I'm going to be a rebel here. Not all warmups are at the beginning of class. You might just do something to get the voice going and then just go straight into sight reading, because then you have a fabulous exercise you want to use that they can visually see. Say it's a song that's laden with fourths. So you sing exercises, you write them on the board, you write them out so they can see them on the staff, or they see what a fourth looks like.
Denise Eaton: Like the Koepke, "I will praise the name of God with a song," is a fourth-fest. "I will praise the name of God with a song." It starts off with all these fourths. So what does a fourth look like? Well, it's a space to a space with a space to align with a space in between, or aligned to a space with a line in between. They need to see what that looks like, as opposed to a fifth, which is two spaces or two lines. You can always integrate one idea in the vocal technique that's going to apply to something you're going to sing. Always. It could be a pattern. It could be a vowel glide.
Denise Eaton: You have a lot of E vowels in something and you're trying to avoid this bright spread eee. Well, you sing something that goes ooh to eee to ooh to eee to ooh to eee, and then, all of a sudden, hopefully they're not going to go ooh-eee [with an overly bright eee[ and Do Re Mi [sung with the same bright eee]. They're not going to do that, hopefully. Hopefully. And of course nothing happens overnight. It's a day-to-day thing. And I like to keep things for at least a couple days, if not the whole week, for young singers. Say you're doing this concept from song, you don't just do it one time because, as we know, in a large group of young learners, the first time you say something, if 30% of them got it, it's time to celebrate.
Denise Eaton: Hopefully, by the end of the week, everybody's hooked into the concept of what we're doing. And to tell them or ask them, "Do you know why we're doing this?" Because I think, as educators, it's real easy, like I said earlier, to be the only person in the room that knows the game plan and the why, but they're the singers. So I think them knowing... You say, "Does anyone know why we're doing this warmup?" "Yeah. Because there's that section of that song that has all those thirds and da, da, da." Good. Good. So now let's get out that song and let's see how we can apply that.
Greg Ristow: You talked earlier, you said, "I have tons of games for teaching these things." How do you make all this fun? So often I think, okay, let's do our sight reading, and I fear the choir going, "Oh, do we have to do that?" How do we make it fun?
Denise Eaton: Well, when they say that, I go, "Let's try that again. [Very cheerfully:] Let's do our sight reading," and they go, "Yay." Because that is a mindset because they do understand. Here's the thing, they love to be successful. And when they go to festivals or assessment or contest, whatever it's called in whatever state you live in, there's always some component of reading. And a lot of all state auditions consist of reading. So it's part of the game, I like to call it, but it's also part of your mind going.
Denise Eaton: I like to play things like, we'll audiate. I like to audiate, of course, but you have to teach them how to audiate. So if I go back to, let's go to an easy, fundamental drill in the SMART book. The very first level one C major is Do Re Mi Do Re Mi Fa Re Mi Fa Sol Mi. So it's mi step step step third step step step third. Okay. Well maybe we just sing beats one, two and three and I'll sing beat four. So they'll go Do Re Mi Do Re Mi Fa Re Mi Fa.
Denise Eaton: They're leaving out something so they have to start using their inner ear to hear where it is, to go to the next note. Or I'll sing measure one and they sing measure two. What is that teaching? Well, it's teaching audiation, but it's also teaching rhythmic breathing, because they have to breathe on beat four. If I sing Do Re Mi Do, they have to breathe when I sing Do. And that's a whole nother inservice, rhythmic breathing, onset of sound. These things that they just kind of go "Bah," just open their mouth and sing, but they have to learn they have to breathe in time, as well.
Denise Eaton: And I like to play ping pong with them. And you can do it between sections depending on how you can split. You can count off one two, one two. You can count a me versus you. Sopranos versus altos. Bass tenors versus soprano altos. You're limited to your own creativity as to what you can do, but I like to go backwards. I love to go backwards. It teaches them to think and look ahead in a different way. The STEPS book that I hope to talk about has a reading ahead fun exercises.
Denise Eaton: First of all, if you talk to any middle school choir director and probably a high school, non-varsity choir director, the bane of their existence is getting kids to look at their music. They look at the teacher and the teacher's talking about the music and they are not looking at the music. And I used to say, "I know I look really good today and I'm having a great makeup day, but would you look at your music please?"
Denise Eaton: It was ridiculous. And I know it's gotten worse over the years because I'm in classrooms all the time. And I can do that now as a joke, because the kids think I'm funny and cute because they don't see me every day, but I'll go, "I mean, I know I look good today, but can you look at your music since we're talking about it?" "Oh my gosh." And I am not above having students track. "Put your finger on measure one and I want you to track. And when I stop, tell me which measure and which beat I'm on." See if they're even following along. Because when you take a sixth grader, you're probably using an Elmo or an overhead for them to look at the music before they get to music.
Denise Eaton: So a lot of middle school teachers are the best at that. I never taught middle school and there's a reason why. But they are the best at getting them from making that transition from the overhead and just all by rote to actually reading. But I'm not against it with high schoolers at all. But fun, I mean, there's some great books out there. Mary Jane Phillips has written some on sight-reading fun games. The SOS Sight-Reading book, the snap cards. They have the flashcards. There's all kinds of games that are listed. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Go find out what other people have done and steal it, baby. That's the art of good teaching is being a good thief.
Greg Ristow: That's great. I love those Read Ahead exercises in the STEPS book where basically it's you have these little couple of measure or even one measure cells, a bunch of them, spread out across the page. And, related to that, the STEPS books also have cards that you can get. Can you tell us about those?
Denise Eaton: Yeah. So the STEP book is kind of like the SMART book, except... Of course, I was teaching when I wrote the STEPS book and then I went to work for Carl Fisher and I said, "How can..." I couldn't promote the SMART book anywhere I went with Carl Fisher because we didn't publish it. So they said, "Well, write one." And I went, "Okay," but I wanted it to be different and I wanted it to offer something different than the SMART book for people that were ready for maybe an additional book.
Denise Eaton: And the fundamentals in the STEPS book are intervals from the notes of the tonic triad from Do, Mi and Sol. So everything is tonic based, so the STEP Further flashcards all begin on a note of the tonic triad, but of course nothing's written out. So you could literally have five kids standing there with two cards and get them in order or put them on the board on a sleeve or however you visually do that, depending on the sizes of your room, or an Elmo, however you do it. You can make games out of the flashcards and they're sight reading, but they're just saying all those intervals from Mi. So maybe you pull all the cards that start on a Mi and you do something, and so you make it a sight-reading exercise.
Denise Eaton: The STEPS book, I was constantly asked, with the SMART melodies, "Why don't you write parts?" Well, I'm going to go back to what I said at the beginning. I don't believe in sight reading in parts until the second semester. Because, if you're elevating the skills of your weakest singer, and that's what unison singing does, it elevates the weakest singers to get better because they're hearing just that one part. It also helps teachers here. Young teachers sometimes can't tell if things are out of tune or what's wrong. I couldn't hear the tenor part for five years in an SATB choir as a young teacher. I was like, I can hear the alto because I am one. But the tenor part eluded me.
Denise Eaton: So, if you're singing in unison, you can hear everything. You can work on vowel unification and you can elevate weaker singers to get better. That was the premise behind that. So the STEPS book has two four-four melodies on every page, and one three-four melody on every page. The SMART book has no melodies in three- four. There are a ton of songs out there in three-four. And, if I'm teaching to my curriculum, my song, it would be nice to have something in three-four to sight read with so I could teach them to sing strong, weak, weak, strong.
Denise Eaton: Because a lot of times in three-four young kids have a very, very, very hard time learning three-four, to sing musically three-four. Because they end up always kicking beat three. So there was that. There was three-four melodies. But each of the four-four melodies on each page can be combined, they're duets. If they're ready for it. If they can't read both melodies really well, you don't want to put them together, but if they can, you could.
Denise Eaton: And one of them is a little bit more rhythmically active than the other. So there's a little bit of a challenge, more challenge in one of the two four-fours. So that was the idea behind that. And then the Read Ahead Funs so that you could play some games with them, because it is fun. My kids used to love to do Read Ahead Funs.
Greg Ristow: What are some of the ways that you use those Read Ahead Funs?
Denise Eaton: Well, you can go column, down each column, which would be one, three, five, seven, nine, odds, evens. You could go in numerical order. But the favorite game we used to play is when they get to measure two, so it's just two-measure patterns, and all of them end in either a whole note or a half note. So when they would get to measure two, whatever the long note is, and I loved it when it's a half note, because then I would call out the next number and then they'd have to hold the first pitch of the next one. So if they're on one and I said 12, they would have to find 12 first and then they're identifying what is it? What is it? What is it? Hold it. And then they would sing. Then I'd say, "Ready, set, go," and they'd sing 12 and they'd get to the second measure and I'd go, "Five," and then they'd hold that one.
Denise Eaton: And then when they really got good, I'd say, "Five," they would sing all of five and we'd play games. Stand up, sit down when you make a mistake. And then I'd let someone else be the caller and it would be fun. They would just love it. And if they weren't very challenging, then I would photocopy it and add in some altered notes and pass it out and we'd do some altered notes in there. What the Fa. What the Fi. That kind of stuff.
Denise Eaton: And the book has challenge Read Ahead Funs. You can download the common keys of F, G and C, and we put D and B♭ in there, the challenge exercise. There's also some other teaching materials in there, as well. So it's a good resource. It has a lot to offer. But, along those lines, I'm going to just encourage any teacher out there that is listening, and thank you for listening, to make sure that you read the preface to any textbook, sight-reading book that you buy. I can't tell you how many classrooms I've been in, they're using my materials and they're not using them properly.
Denise Eaton: It says, "The effective guide for the use of this book," and it tells you what to do. That means there was an intention behind it, if you're working with beginning singers, to increase their skills, make sure you know the intention behind it. I think that's very important. I know this is shocking, but teachers don't always read or follow directions, but we do expect our students to.
Greg Ristow: We can all get so busy, right? It's sometimes like-
Denise Eaton: I know. Faculty meetings, whatever. We're as guilty as they are.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. We've talked a ton about sight-reading pitch. I wonder, rhythm. Where do we even begin to help students learn rhythm?
Denise Eaton: Well, I think that they need to isolate pitch and rhythm. The very first thing I do with any sight-reading melody is chant the rhythm. And then I changed a lot, years before I retired. We would sing the rhythm because I found that students are very percussive when they're chanting. They'll go, "One and a two and Ti and four." And then you say, "Now sing that," and they go, "One and a two and Ti and four." They're not rhythmic. So I like to chant and I like to sing the rhythm. "One and two, Ti, four."
Denise Eaton: And I like to play games with that. That's kind of boring. So you've got an eight-measure melody. Every time you cross a bar line, you go up a scale degree. One and two Ti four, one, two and Ti four." Or you do thirds, "Do do do do do do do." I mean, I used to play all kinds of games like that. And so for those smart kids that go, "I can do this," you're like, "Okay, well try this then. I'll up the ante." Make it challenging yet functional for them so they don't feel like it's so baby, but it's amazing how just singing numbers, and you have to teach them how to sing one, which is through an ooh, ooh ahh. One. One. One and two and Ti and four." With the tall vowels that you want, and then to be precise.
Denise Eaton: So I like to chant the rhythm first and then, my kids, we audiate it. I said, "You get to cheat." Hum Do. Think your starting pitch. Here we go. And I just snap the quarter note or, if it's a dotted quarter note, three-eight snaps, and I'm just keeping the beat and they're hand signing and lip syncing. To me, audiation must be hand signing and lip syncing because it's like they're singing and any time they could just break forth into song. So I like to do that. We've already covered the rhythm, we've audiated the solfege, and then let's sing it. So very systematic in that regard.
Greg Ristow: I love how you just-
Denise Eaton: So a system, yeah.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. One of the things that you said is how these ways that it sounds like you're constantly listening to your ensemble and saying, "This is too easy for them. This is too hard." And it's not that you're changing what you're working on, but you're immediately changing the way you're working on it to match their level.
Denise Eaton: Exactly. So you have to know your target audience. I did a session years ago and that title has stuck with me, Through The Lens of the Learner. Who are you teaching? And to always have a barometer in your class. You're watching that sophomore tenor that has a great throat, that's in the varsity choir, but he labeled the piccolo syllables of a piece. That's how much he knows about where his part is. I mean, "Are you tracking with me on that? Great throat." And that's all I can say.
Denise Eaton: So I'm watching him to see if he is negotiating it, having success. If he's not, I've got to bump it back a little bit, but I've got to also challenge the other kids that maybe are better. And that is the beauty and the challenge of being a good teacher, all those learning styles and all those abilities and try to hit the mark with everybody at least once or twice a week.
Greg Ristow: Music is so all encompassing, recognizing that we couldn't possibly learn, let alone teach, everything that we want to, why do you personally feel it's important to prioritize teaching reading?
Denise Eaton: Well, I think about my dog, Pebbles. She's adorable and she sits and she can speak for her treat. Do I want a choir of people that sit and speak for their treat? Did they learn 12 songs this year? Did they get a one at contest? Yeah, I want to get a one at contest, but I don't want them just to sit and bark. I want them to have a thought. I want them to have an understanding. I want them to see how it all ties in, in the end, when they look back on their musical career. And it might just be the pinnacle might be high school. But let's say they go on and they're singing in church choirs, community choirs, ensembles, barbershop quartets, whatever, I want them to understand that they learned something in this choir class that was music education, not just how to sit and bark.
Denise Eaton: And so that's a philosophical thing for me. I want them to have an understanding of how 16th notes work. I want them to tie in math to music, because you can and they can, and they can get better. Some of the weakest math students can be some of your best rhythm readers, but maybe no one ever explained it to them in a way that made sense. I don't know.
Denise Eaton: But they can be successful and they can be a part of something that is so much bigger than themselves. And the only way they can really do that is to learn along the way. And I want to learn. I learn every time I do anything. So that's my philosophical thing. That's how I feel. I want them to walk away, having an understanding of what they did for four years in that high school choir program. And reading's part of that, for me.
Greg Ristow: So let's see. Yeah, it's beautifully said. Anything else you want to talk about? We have just a couple of minutes left. I feel like we've covered a lot of ground.
Denise Eaton: Well, we have. I just think if you are a teacher that is struggling with teaching sight reading, that you find a process, find a mentor, find someone that does it well, find out what they do, how they do it, have a plan. There is no winging it. That never works well for anybody. That's what I used to do. And then I changed, and I really started doing more score study and that led to even better teaching of sight reading because I was seeing how it could all tie in together. But have a plan, have 17 ways to skin that cat, depending on the level of the choir, that ensemble in front of you. Have a barometer and know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Some things won't work one day and they'll work another day.
Denise Eaton: I used to say, "Clearly, I'm not getting through to you today or you're not trying hard. I don't know which one it is, but we're going to come back to this tomorrow and I'm going to think about it, and maybe you think about it." It's choir, it's not cancer. It's fun. It should be engaging. It should be joyful. And we can laugh and have fun when we sight read. We can. Especially when we know it's going to be tying into the song we're going to do. It's like, "Woo-hoo, we're going to knock this song out of the park and be successful."
Denise Eaton: But get help. Help is the best prayer I know. And don't be an island. And if you want to email me, email me. My website will be in the notes and there's a way to contact me. I'm a mentor to many and I just don't think we need to ever feel like we're alone in this profession. There's too many fabulous people out there that can help. And they might just say that one thing that triggers you to make a little bit of a change and that one change could make a change with your students' learning. So that's about it. I'm very honored to have been here with you today and I appreciate you including me.
Greg Ristow: What a treat. Yeah. Really, it's been a delight. As we wrap up, you mentioned your website. What's your website? Where can people learn more about you?
Denise Eaton: It's www.deniseeaton.com.
Greg Ristow: Great.
Denise Eaton: The publications are there and there's also a way to contact me, so feel free to. I'd love to hear from you if you have questions or if I can help in any anyway.
Greg Ristow: Excellent. Well, thank you so much.
Denise Eaton: And if you're a Fixed Do person, two of the books that we mentioned today are for Fixed Do.
Greg Ristow: Yeah, that's great.
Denise Eaton: Because a lot of colleges do Fixed Do, so that's helpful, as well.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. I'm a Fixed Do plus scale degrees person, myself. That's what I think and hear in.
Denise Eaton: Well, I think when our ears are more refined, we can move on in those areas. But I think, for the non-varsity tenor bass choir, I can't even imagine them saying, "We're in the key of Fa." I just can't even go down that path. Or Me. "Okay, we're in the key of Me," and you sound Me. So anyway, I don't know.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. I will say, Denise, that I use your SMART books with my students at Oberlin in our one-on-one sight-singing work because they're so good for... When you're working in Fixed Do, you have to learn your tonic triad and all the keys, and it has different words in every key and those SMART books are so good because they give the students a chance to get used to what that tonic triad feels like in all the different keys.
Denise Eaton: You should see the STEPS book in Fixed Do. It's all the fundamentals from the tonic... So you're in the key of Te and you see Te Do Te Te Re Te Te Me Te. Oh my gosh. I did that because my friends that teach in Hurst-Euless-Bedford in Texas, it's in the Fort Worth Dallas area. I was doing a workshop for them and I said something and they said, "Well, we don't have to worry about that because we're Fixed Do." And I went, "What sight-reading materials do you use?" And they said, "Well, it's hard to find them." So we made that happen for them.
Greg Ristow: That's great. That's really great.
Denise Eaton: But colleges use them, too, so that's good.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. Well, thanks so much. For our listeners, join us next time when Dr. Elizabeth West Marvin from the Eastman School of Music joins us to demystify perfect pitch. Until then, we'd love to hear from you. Send us your questions, comments or show ideas at email@example.com.
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