Monday, November 12, 2018

How to work with a mixed group of music readers and non-readers

I always teach songs by ear. As a member of the Natural Voice Network, our ethos is to make singing accessible to as many people as possible. This means we never assume any prior musical experience or knowledge.

Handel and Haydn society 1893

But, sometimes there are music-readers in my singing groups who ask for the sheet music. How can you accommodate these demands whilst keeping the work accessible to everyone?


I don’t have a simple answer!

I ran an experienced singers weekend recently. It was a self-selected group of 16 singers who wanted to tackle some more complex material with one voice to a part.

The majority of the group didn’t read music, and I taught all the songs by ear (although I did have sheet music myself as an aide memoir as I have over 700 songs in my head!).

There were some singers though who struggled from time to time and asked for the sheet music. I resisted. But part of me was thinking: am I being patronising? wouldn’t it be much quicker for them to learn the song? why don’t I just give out the music to everyone?

I realised that I hadn’t been clear when advertising the weekend that there wouldn’t be sheet music. The term ‘experienced singers’ led some people to think that we would (of course) be using music. Also, I wasn’t clear enough about the kind of repertoire we would be singing. Both things I can rectify in future.

But, I don’t have a simple answer about what to do in future when it’s an advanced group like that. In an open-access group (i.e. no entry requirements) it’s possibly much easier (see below).

If anybody has any ideas I’d love to hear them!

my approach and the Natural Voice Network

Things have changed a lot over recent years. 20 years ago pretty much the only way of being in a choir is if you could read music. Most choirs were very formal with auditions and a need to sight-read. This meant that thousands of people who would love to sing felt excluded and made to feel not good enough.

The Natural Voice Network was set up to accommodate these people.People who wanted to sing but didn’t have any experience or training. Our main principles are:
  • everyone can sing (hence no auditions to join a NVN choir or workshop); and
  • singing should be accessible to all (hence no need to read music and we don’t use unnecessary musical jargon).
There has been a huge upsurge in choirs in recent years, many of which don’t audition or use sheet music. It might be hard to remember the bad old days. Unfortunately, there are still potential singers put off joining a group because they think they aren’t qualified.

I aim to make all my singing sessions welcoming and open to everyone – no matter what their background.

potential downsides of open-access groups

An open-access group is one which welcomes anyone regardless of musical experience or background. That means that you will always be working with singers of mixed-ability.

Most of the time this is not a problem. It’s only when one or two singers are at the extremes. For example, very experienced experience at all. Or being able to pick tunes up fast vs. those who find it hard to pitch. Then things can become tricky.

Songs are usually taught by ear In an open-access group. There will probably be a few individuals who can read sheet music. Sometimes they will ask if they can have the music as it makes it much easier for them.

why would someone ask for the sheet music?

Most of the time, people who ask for sheet music in a learn-by-ear group are out of their comfort zone. They have become so used to seeing the dots that they find it hard to pick up their part by listening alone.

This can happen even if a song is relatively simple. Their habit has become so strong that they feel uncomfortable without a sheet of music in their hand.

In these cases, I believe that it’s simply a matter of sticking with it. It may be unfamiliar to learn a song by ear, but with a little practice, it becomes much easier. It also improves listening skills. Even if those singers usually belong to a sight-reading choir, they will find their new skills useful when they go back.

Another reason someone might ask for sheet music is if the song is a tricky one. For example, unfamiliar time signature, strange harmonies, difficult rhythms. In this case, it may still be helpful to persist in learning by ear. Dancing the song can help with time signatures and difficult rhythms. Listening more closely or dividing the group into smaller groups can help with strange harmonies.

If a song is very complex, sheet music can help singers with the structure. But, if a song is that complicated, it’s unlikely to be taught in an open-access group.

trying to keep a level playing field

If some singers have the sheet music and others are learning by ear, there can be several problems.

The learning-by-ear singers may well have had bad experiences in the past. Their lack of music training may have left them feeling inadequate. Having a load of singers with sheet music can remind them of those feelings.

Singers who have the sheet music might be able to pick their part up much faster than the non-readers. Then there is scope for getting bored whilst the others catch up, or – even worse – feeling superior.

In an open-access group, my tendency is to keep a level playing field. I will teach everything by ear and not give sheet music out.

In the past, with my community choirs, I have given out sheet music to those who ask. But only when we’ve learnt a song as a group by ear. It’s something they can file away which can help remind them of their part when we revisit a song.

context is all

There is a big difference between an open-access singing group and a more formal choir.

Many formal choirs use sheet music, but don’t expect all their singers to be able to sight read. There will be a certain amount of learning by ear involved whilst looking at the sheet music.

If a workshop or choir is for all-comers and if all songs are taught by ear, then you shouldn’t expect to have sheet music.

It is important to make it very clear to potential singers what kind of choir or workshop they will be attending.

some songs are learnt better by ear

Having sheet music in your hand will not help you learn all songs – whether you’re a sight-reader or not.

I spent a week on a fantastic singing course in Scotland some years ago. Every morning we worked on an amazing gospel song by Ysaye Barnwell. We were all given the sheet music which looked very complex as there were lots of tricky rhythms. By the end of the week, we’d finally nailed it. It took a long time!

When the song was up and running, we realised it would have been much easier to have learnt it by ear. We could have got the syncopated rhythms into our bodies. Once our eyes were off the page, the song was much easier to sing.

Another time I was with Village Harmony in Macedonia. We were learning lots of local songs and sheet music was handed out for each one. One song was melody only – no harmonies at all. It was a simple tune and we picked it up easily, but still had to look at the sheet music for the lyrics.

The dots ended up being a real distraction. In that case, it would have been much easier to learn the song by ear with the lyrics written up on a large sheet.

Many of the songs I teach are from traditions around the world where music notation is not used. The danger of notating songs like that is that the nuances and vivacity of the songs can be lost. People with music theory can be mystified by the way some of the songs work. They can end up ironing out the interesting bits.

I remember once teaching a Georgian song when someone piped up at the back “Shouldn’t that be a Bb?”. I pointed out that the Georgians had been singing it that way for a thousand years. We should probably do it their way!

And in Macedonia, I remember an endless argument about dotted semi-quavers. It became very academic as if the song was the sheet music. Then people realised that the sheet music was probably inaccurate. In any case it was an approximate transcription of the original song.

So some songs are best learnt by listening rather than looking.

Of course, composed songs in the Western Classical tradition are all about sheet music. But that’s not what I tend to teach.

different learning styles – do they exist?

There used to be this idea that there were different learning styles. Some people learn better by reading something. Others learn better by hearing or touching something.

The idea is that we all learn in different ways and we each have a preferred way of learning. If you are a visual learner you will respond better by seeing what you’re learning. i.e. written lyrics and sheet music. If you’re an aural learner you will find it much easier to learn by ear.

The idea of ‘learning styles’ is very seductive. It makes intuitive sense. However, there is no evidence to back the idea of learning styles.

The way we learn best is not rigid. We are all able to learn in a variety of ways. The danger is that once we get the idea that we are a ‘visual learner’ or an ‘aural learner’, it becomes a hard habit to break. If you think you can only learn a song by reading the sheet music, that may be a habit that you’ve got into.

You can read more here about the myth of learning styles.

how to cope with music readers and non-readers in the same group

Is there a way of using sheet music in a learn-by-ear group without alienating one of the two groups? Here are two ideas.
  1. A group may be interested to learn how to read music. One way is to give sheet music out to everyone for the simple songs. Sight-readers will be in their comfort zone. Non-readers can see the lyrics and begin to understand how the dots go up and down.
  2. You might teach something tricky and some music readers struggle. Continue to teach by ear, but give sheet music to those who want it to study outside the session.


Here are a few things to take away from this post:
  • Always be very clear whether your session is being taught by ear or not
  • Even if you read music, some songs are better learnt by ear
  • Encourage music readers out of their comfort zone to really listen
  • People who can’t read music might want to learn
  • It’s hard to keep a level playing field without upsetting some people
  • An individual’s learning style is not fixed

further reading

You might also find these posts useful:

How to cope with learning by ear if you usually read music notation

How to cope with sheet music if you don’t read and usually learn songs by ear

Singers who learn by ear vs. those who use sheet music – what happens when they swap?

Asking for sheet music in a ‘learn by ear’ choir

Using sheet music to teach and learn song: pros and cons

Why some singers find it hard to learn by ear (and what you can do to make it easier)

Learning songs by ear

How to teach (and learn) a song by ear

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Chris Rowbury



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