Making Sight Singing Child’s Play, with Dale Duncan

How do you feel about sight-singing? To be handed a sheet of music and expected to sing it, perfectly, right off the bat?

Or, stepping back, how do you feel about singing in general? Maybe even singing a familiar song seems a bit intimidating to you.

Today on the show we’re joined by Dale Duncan, also known as “Mr. D” online, who is the creator of a popular method for teaching sight-singing, specifically to grade-school students – perhaps one of the most self-conscious groups of students you can imagine to try to get singing!

We were desperate to pick Dale’s brains on how exactly he approaches this and how he’s able to quickly get young people up to an impressive level of sight-singing that has them winning competitions and sight-singing material that the vast majority of experienced adult singers would struggle with.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • How he helps students who struggle to sing in tune and why he never requires members of his choir to sing solo.
  • One core technique he uses to teach sight-singing, and how it enables you to practice sight-singing independent of score notation.
  • And the clever way he helps students to integrate their pitch and rhythm skills when sight-singing.

Dale’s “S-Cubed” method for teaching sight-singing is specifically designed to help other music teachers and choir directors like himself, but as you’ll soon hear, Dale has a ton of insight that can be helpful to move anybody’s singing or sight-singing forwards. We hope you’ll enjoy this!

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Dale. Thank you for joining us today.

Dale: It’s awesome to be here. Thanks for having me.

Christopher: These days, you are a world-leading specialist in sight singing, particularly in the middle school environment, and I’d love to understand if this is something you were skillful in from the very beginning, or if not, what did your own musical journey look like? What were your early music education experiences?

Dale: I started playing piano when I was five, and I had a teacher that I did not like. I don’t think she was able to work with young children. I stayed for about a year and then I stopped until I was maybe 11, and then I took for a couple of more years, but I didn’t practice very much. I loved to sing more than I loved to play. When I decided to focus more on singing at around age 11, I became less interested in piano and just did more performing things with my singing.

I did an opera as a little boy, I sang in boys choir, and then when my voice changed, I did productions in junior high school and high school, and performance really was where my passion was. I think when I stopped taking piano, I kind of lost some of the abilities I might have obtained with sight singing. When I was in high school, I really didn’t know how to figure out the notes at all. I just kind of sang and listened and estimated, I didn’t know what I was doing.

Then when I went to college, I encountered the same situation. I went to music school at the University of North Carolina, and when I was there, we had to have sight singing in our freshmen year.

I decided to pass, I would record every example, and this was a long time ago, so I recorded it, I put it on a… What was it? A Walkman, and I would put it on my head and walk across campus and listen to the examples. We would have to sit down next to the teacher, and the teacher would have us sing the examples, and I would study the examples when I would be sitting, and listen to the examples when I would be walking, and then I would be able to identify what they were. I sat down next to him and each time I would get a great grade because I’d just listen, I wasn’t sight singing, though.

Then I started teaching, which was a nightmare. I had to impart this tool of sight singing on them and I had no idea what I was doing. I remember they would get the books out, they were trying their best for me, but when they would start to sing it, they’d get to measure two and then everyone would just drop out. Whenever I would ask them to take out the sight singing books, they would just moan. That was just not a good situation. That is sort of what led me to start working on how teach this subject better to a true beginner.

Christopher: That’s really interesting. From my own experience, I grew up doing a lot of singing and particularly in a choir context, and looking back, I was never really taught to sight sing. When I was doing oral skills prep for instrument exams, there would be these little bits where you have to sight sing two bars and I’d get a 15 minute teaching session where they tried to explain intervals to me and give me a reference song for the intervals, and they were just like, “And then sing the example,” I was like, “What? How does this all fit together?” That was how it was for me for about 10 years and some people in choir could figure it out, and then I just listened to what they did and replicated it.

Looking back, it’s bizarre that we were handed the sheet music in choir, expected to sight sing it, and then in reality, most people just kind of picked it up by ear. I’m sure some of our listeners are surprised to hear that someone like yourself who went to college for music, it sounds like you weren’t really taught step-by-step how to do sight singing.

Dale: No. When they would say go up a half step, really, literally until my junior year I was guessing. I had no idea what I was doing. I just didn’t have the skill sets. The skill sets required to be able to sight sing are just tremendous. I would love to see a study done of the brain, a scientist looking at the brain as it’s sight singing, as it’s trying to learn these skill sets because there are so many things involved, as I’m sure there are with instruments, but with an instrument, you’re touching something.

With a piano, you’re touching, and your body is doing something. With all the other instruments, which I’m not familiar with, I didn’t play any other thing, but I know there’s touching. With French horn, I think that’s such a hard instrument, but I don’t really even know how they get the pitch because I’ve never played one, but I know that every French horn player I know has such a great ear.
There are so many things involved that with singing, in singing classes throughout my life, we never did anything, we never used the Kodaly hand signs, nobody ever taught me the skill sets required. What I’ve tried to do over my career with my students is to break it down step-by-step and to give them the skill sets one step at a time and let them master is.

I’m former gymnast, so for me, I think about teaching sight singing the way we teach gymnastics, which you don’t progress from level one to level two until we’ve mastered the skills in level. When you go too fast, if you skip a step, you never, ever will be a very good gymnast, even if you topped out at level six, if you skip steps, you’re just not going to be that good. That kind of has influenced my approach of the step-by-step and being able to instil it successfully, and most importantly to be able to do it in a fun way that’s engaging because I teach 11 to 14 year olds, and if it’s miserable, if they’re moaning, when they pull out a book, which is just a miserable experience, even if they are successfully taught it, it’s not a great journey, and I want that for them.

Christopher: Well, I’m sure a lot of our listeners are feeling the way I would have if you had said to me at the age of 16, I can teach you sight singing step-by-step, which is super excited and curious to know how that can work, because to me, it was definitely a magical kind of skill.

Before we dig in to all that goodness, I want to just come back for a moment to something you talked about there, which was when you left college, and you’d had this experience of sight singing where you kind of used your ear to get through the requirements, but you didn’t really go through the process of learning sight singing. Then you were cast into the teaching environment, where suddenly you were in the teachers position. Take us back to that and maybe the first year of teaching. What was that like for you? Was it just the sight singing that was tricky? What was it like becoming a music teacher?

Dale: It was an absolute nightmare, I would say, for really three years. I had sung on a cruise ship between finishing my master’s in Hawaii, of all places, beautiful place, before I began teaching, but I knew I would teach. I questioned myself so many times, I’m like, that cruise ship in Hawaii, why am I not on that cruise ship? It was so bad. The classroom management piece was really hard, I looked about 12 years old and the students were 12, so, I mean, that was a really tricky thing. I tried to be mean instead of really just relating to the kids. I wasn’t being myself is the bottom line. Then with the sight singing, I wanted to make them literate, I wanted to take them to adjudication, the state of adjudication, because it helped me prepare them for something.

At each time I worked on it, it was just, I couldn’t figure out how to get them to be able to combine pitch and rhythm at the same time. The first time they would encounter a half note, they would not hold it long enough, and some child would move on to the next pitch before time, and then of course, this age group is not very confident usually. I never have taught a Mozart, so I don’t know where those come from. I’ve been waiting for 27 years, I have not had one yet. Every time my students would encounter that difficulty, they’re just embarrassed to be wrong. I was encountering that over, and over, and over again.

The first year I didn’t take them to adjudication because I couldn’t get them ready enough. The second year I took them to adjudication and they sang two songs for a rating of a superior, excellent, good, fair, blah blah blah, and then they went into the sight singing room and they did the same. Now, by the second year, in that state, they only had to do stepwise quarter notes, unison. It was very simple. They did get through that very well, which was awesome, and I was grateful. I was starting, even then, to figure out how to get some of this across, even though now my students can go three parts and do skips as wide as an octave, and chromatics and things that are crazy that never could have happened back then.

I was starting to figure it out, I just didn’t really realize that they got superior in sight singing, but when they were in there with the judges singing their songs, they had always gotten superiors before me, the teacher always supersede superiors. I was devastated. We got on the bus, and the students looked at me and they were trying to make me feel better, and they were like, “Mr. Duncan,” and they were trying to use some slang, they said, “We did good,” and then we all laughed. It was fun.

Then, after that, the state I was teaching, in North Carolina, they had a magazine for choral teachers, they had always published the superior ratings. That year, they accidentally published all of the ratings. All of my peers that I had gone to school with, everyone saw that my students had received threes. That was really humiliating, and I almost stopped teaching, I was really ready. At the end of that year said to myself, I either have to stop doing this, because I’m not good at it, or I’ve got to figure it out. Then in year four, I really made an aggressive attempt to get it all figured out. I had already been trying, but I was really on the brink of leaving.

Christopher: Wow. In a moment, I want to dive into that fourth year and how things started to come together for you. Before we go into the super interesting topic of sight singing, which I think, for a lot of people, seems like quite an advanced skill in the world of singing. Let’s just talk a minute about singing in general, because you were there casting with eleven 14-year-olds, and that’s an age where confidence is just starting to form and personal identity is coming into it soon. I know for a lot of our listeners here are adults, singing is intimidating, I imagine it’s 10 times so for the kid in the classroom who’s not sure they’re a good singer. How did you approach that? What were your experiences in those first few years of children just want wanting to sing, or feeling like they can’t sing, or indeed, not being able to sing in tune?

Dale: Singing is such a personal thing because it comes out of your body. I mean, I think I just said this to some of my students last week, it’s not the same as sitting at piano, or picking up an instrument, you can hide behind that a little bit. With singing, it’s so personal, it’s so intimate. I absolutely never make my students sing by themselves unless they want, and I make sure they know that from the beginning. They’re terrified of that.

A lot of teachers questions the fact that I don’t voice test. I never voice test. I did in the early years, and I regretted it because I’d watch their faces, they were just so scared. I didn’t want to put them through that unless they wanted to go through that. Right? Like if we’re auditioning for a solo and they’re trying to face that fear, or if they’re auditioning for a musical that we’re doing or something, that’s a whole different thing, that’s a whole different child. I want my room to be a place where those children can be, and also the children who really have no interest in singing alone because it is just scary. These students in my room know that I’m never going to make them do that, and if they want to do it they can.

In my home, I have a karaoke machine, and I love having karaoke machines. It’s just so much fun and I love it. I love hearing and coaxing people who are not really comfortable singing, to singing. Now, there may or not be some alcohol involved when that occurs, but we definitely get a little bit more comfortable. Then when they sing, it’s just so sweet to me. So often they think they can’t do that, and when they do, they’re so freed, it’s awesome. These are of course friends.

I understand that fear. The importance of singing for any instrumentalist, I think, is critical, but as it helps you learn to play, it helps learn to play in tune more, I think. I think if you can figure out what the part is on the paper before you’re trying to play it, I think that can only be a good thing. Now, I am not an instrumentalist outside the piano, and I’m not even that good at the piano, so I’m not the expert on that subject but I know how much it’s required in the brain to get people to even sing anything in tune or to sight sing, especially. To pick notes off the page and in that moment be able to sing it, so many things are happening.

I think adults are like little middle school kids. The ones who never sang are still afraid to sing. You think about your life, how many things happen in middle school that you think about still when you’re in your 20s, or 30s, or 40s, or 50s, that were an awful time for so many. I understand that fear just sits just like you’re in 6th grade, scared to sing.

Christopher: Absolutely. I love that you do not force the kids to come sing solo at the front of the room. It’s something that’s come up a few times in the show when talking about people thinking they can’t sing, because that is so often people’s first experience of learning whether or not they can sing at the front, teach players on the piano, if you hit it, great, you’re in choir, if you don’t, you can’t sing, and for the rest of your life you think you can’t sing. I wish more-

Dale: And then you don’t.

Christopher: Exactly. You don’t even try. I just wish more choir directors would make it clear to people considering joining that choir, that that is how they approach things, that they are not going to be put on the spot like that. Because I know so many instrument players who like the idea of going alone, even to their church choir, or even just the local community choir and giving it a go, but they won’t because they’re nervous that the first time they’ll be put in front of the piano, they won’t get the note right and it’ll be really embarrassing. That’s hard as an adult, it’s hard as a child.

Dale: I don’t want my students to have that imprint on them from me ever. I think my room should be a place where anybody who wants to sing can do it. I don’t screen my 6th and 7th graders ever, and in 8th grade, I can only have 84 students in a class, and so the way my schedule is set up, I do have to screen some of those … And I don’t ever audition them. I have a program called Music Prodigy that my students use and they can sing into it. I can listen to them sing and I can see the grade. There’s grade that comes up for them, it’s a sight singing program, and I use that as a part of the screening process and it takes some pressure off. If by the time they’re in 8th grade, they haven’t gotten certain skill sets, then I can … I make exceptions, even for that, for the students who just really want to sing desperately.

I try to find a space for them in that room because I … Not that I have nay judgment on people who do screen the kids if that’s the program they set up, but I think even in those programs, there should be places where students can sing who are not screened if they want to sing.

In my high school, it felt like we had this top choir, which I was lucky enough to be in, I think as a male, it’s little easier to get in that even if you can’t sight sing. Then we had the other choirs. It felt like they weren’t as good, they weren’t as valued, and for me, that was not how I wanted mine to be.

Christopher: Gotcha. One thing I love about you and the material you publish online, and your blog, and your videos is that you’re clearly someone who does have this very inclusive, encouraging, joyful spirit to your teaching, but you balance that with some very serious teaching. You are not just creating a fun music play environment, you are imparting real skills. So, I think I have to ask the follow up question of, if you’re not putting them on the spot and checking before they join the choir, that they can sing in tune. What do you do when you’re aspiring to take them to competition, and you can hear, as the choir director, that there are two or three in the room who are just not hitting the pitches? How do you handle that?

Dale: Well, first of all, I do a lot of listening every single day. My ear has become so good at spotting where the children are who are having the issues. I move around the room when I hear that happening, if I need to, because I have a very large classroom. Let’s say I have a child boy, this is typical in middle school, whose voice has changed very quickly, who is dropping the octave, he’s matching pitch, but it’s on the octave. That child, what I would do with him is at the end of class, I’d ask him without anyone hearing, or maybe just only the person next to him because I don’t want to put him on the spot, “Could you come see me during homeroom?” Or whenever I have time. I’d write him a pass, he’d come to me, I would find where his voice is living, and usually I use a minor third, sol-mi-sol, or whatever.

It’s usually way down deep where they are, so I go to where they are and I find it, and I help them feel what it’s like to match the pitch because it’s such a physical sensation when they do it, and then they hear it as well, instantly. Because if you let them not match pitch for a really long time, then physically, they become numb to it and it becomes really difficult to fix. I compare it to walking with a hunchback when you’re a young kid, and people say, straighten up, your body, your muscles go and they remember that position, and then it becomes very hard to correct, and then suddenly you turn 60 and you’ve got this happening or whatever.

I also compare it to the lines on our faces. If you’ve been frowning your entire life, you’re going to have the frown marks. If you’ve been smiling, you’re going to have the smile marks. These are the things, I think, the muscle memory, the physicality, and I try to get them to find it. I take them up by half steps until they stop feeling that they’re in tune and hearing, and I have them recognize it, and when they recognize it, then we’re on our way.

This is not a one time fix. I might have to have that child back several times. I teach them to listen in class, I use tons of each training things that are on my YouTube channel. I think it’s called Follow the Dot, or I think you may even know better than me. There are things that they have to do. I sing out of tune on purpose, I play a P on the piano, I sing a little sharp, and then I tell them I’m sharp, and then I ask them afterwards if they can hear when I’m out of tune, something that simple. Then, I’ll say, well, I went sharp again. I’ll start in tune and then I’ll go sharp, and I’m just training their ears slowly.

There’s nothing quick about learning to sing in tune. There’s nothing quick about learning to sight sing. For some kids, it’s easier than others. There are some students who have more natural ability in those areas than others, but I believe that every child can get there if we take the time with them. If our teaching techniques are strong in the classroom, we can keep the individual work to a minimum, it’d save us a lot of time. That’s what I’ve tried to do is become more efficient and more effective in identifying and addressing early.

Christopher: Fantastic. I think we’ll definitely put link in show notes to one of your videos that I enjoyed on this topic, which was where you had a bullseye diagram on the board and as you said, would play a note on the piano and then you would match pitch and then move gradually up or gradually down, and the students have to indicate when they’d heard that you’d gone off pitch, which I thought was really elegant as way to separate out that ear skill from the vocal control, you need to match pitch yourself-

Dale: The best thing is they laugh about it. Their faces get all twisted because I’m so out of tune and then I have fun with it and then they laugh, and I end up laughing, and then anyways. That’s the way it has to be. I love that. Sorry to interrupt. Go ahead.

Christopher: No, I was just going to ask if there are any other exercises or ideas you found useful if someone’s in the situation of trying to teach this to themselves, or trying to learn it in the privacy of their own home, are there any things like that they can do to help tune their ear and their voice in to matching pitch?

Dale: I would just again refer to those YouTube videos. I made several about singing in tune, and bullseye, and ear training, if they go to that YouTube channel and type in ear training. These are meant for middle school, but these people, anyone, any age can learn and listen and hear. I think when you start to hear what flat is through those videos, and then you record yourself, I think recording yourself is going to be really important to learning … Once your ear sharpens a little bit, you record yourself, you play it back, there’s so many easy ways to do that. Then you listen very carefully and non judgmentally, and you say, oh, okay, maybe I was out of tune there. If that’s all you can identify is that you were out of tune, then you’re still on your way. Right? You need to learn whether you’re flat or sharp and what your tendencies are. You will over time if you listen to yourself because you’ll have habits for you. Maybe your tendency is when you go into the higher range of your voice that you tend to go sharp, or whatever. You learn to identify those tendencies, and then you can slowly begin to address them more and more over time on your own with your own recordings.

Christopher: Fantastic. You referred earlier to the program, the app that you use with your students, Music Prodigy, and I believe that doesn’t just let you listen to their recordings, it also gives them feedback on their singing pitch, is that right?

Dale: [crosstalk 00:24:12]. Yeah. Oh, it’s so good. They sing first, and then as they’re singing they get a red dot if they’re wrong, a yellow if they’re close, and green if they’re right, and that includes pitch and rhythm. Of course, the exercises that I use with Music Prodigy are the ones I created to complement S-Cubed. They’re available for anyone who wants to do it. It would be a good ear training thing for people, it’s on the Music Prodigy website, but the examples are really, really simple in the beginning and then they get harder and harder as time goes.

In the start, they’re just singing quarter notes, and they’re basically seeing if they’re singing in tune. Then later on I incorporate the rhythm and other things, and skips and such as that so they can see if they can improve with time.

Christopher: Terrific. Well, I think it comes back to what you’re saying before about needing to make it step-by-step, and that’s certainly what we found at Musical U. A lot of the people coming to us wanting help with singing.

What they’ve experienced is that learning to sing is, here is the song, try and sing it, oh, you didn’t sing it right, nevermind. What we try and do is break it down for them into, let’s first make sure you can sing one note in tune, and then we can worry about singing another note after that and vocal control and tone, and then we can work our way to songs and repertoire. We’ve just found that’s really liberating for people because they’re still working towards the songs they want to sing confidently and accurately, but they don’t have to tackle that all at once and they can master the building blocks first.

Dale: Yes. It’s definitely the best way. You are less frustrated, you can enjoy the process more. You think about any song, any given song, and how many pitches there are and different rhythms, and how can you expect if you’re learning to be able to hit every single one of those pitches in tune right off in a live performance? How many live performers have we heard, who are famous, who sing terribly out of tune when they’re in a concert venue filled with millions of people, or thousands of people? It’s just, we are human, but we try to perfect slowly over time and get our brain to awaken to what we need to do to sing in tune, or to sight sing or whatever it is we’re trying to do.

Christopher: Yeah. I love that you mention that because I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming it’s kind of an on/off switch, either you can sing or you can’t. I was just thinking about this this week, I was singing a Beatles song to get my 7-month-old to sleep, and I was in a room where there was quite a lot of echo, and so it was really easy for me to hear my own singing. I was very aware that my pitching is not great these days. My voice is rusty, I will be a little sharp or a little flat, and I can hear that I can correct it. When I’m paying attention, I do fine, but it just brought home to me, this is not a one and done kind of thing. Your voice is such a biological instrument. You really do need to make sure your ears are staying turned on to get that vocal control right.

Dale: One of the things I say to the students often, especially early in the year, is to self assess and self correct as they’re singing. That is something that definitely clicks with even that age group, and maybe it will click with some of your listeners. Singing is something active. I say this to my students, I can see when you’re listening. I don’t know how, maybe it’s all these years of being in the classroom, and I can see children who are just singing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I want them to enjoy it, I want their faces to be alive, but you have to be able to do all of those things and it takes time to be able to do that.

In fact, my 6th graders, who are new to me, 11 and 12 year olds, in the first nine weeks, the first semester, really, I am teaching them how to learn to self assess and self correct instantly. When they do, I reward it and I say, I know that you’re doing that. It’s happening right now. Then they know that I’m noticing and not beating them down. I try to keep it as positive as I can, and that’s what we have to do with ourselves as individuals if we’re self teaching.

Christopher: Absolutely. Let’s talk about sight singing in particular then, so by that, we mean being presented with a piece of sheet music and then trying to produce it with your voice. You do this in the choir context and you alluded that to competitions. Can you talk a little bit about what sight singing is to you as a high school music teacher, singing teacher, and what those competitions look like? It’s something that I have to admit, I hadn’t really come across as somebody who grew up in the UK and wasn’t immersed in that world of competitive choirs. It’s really interesting.

Dale: Well, in the state of Georgia, where I live, when I moved here, I moved here from New Jersey, so North Carolina had unison requirement. Unison stepwise, that was it for this age group. New Jersey had no requirement. Georgia has three parts for 8th grade, three parts, skips as wide as an octave with dotted quarter 8th combinations, syncopations. Crazy stuff. I mean, I was so alarmed when I read what they required, and I thought it couldn’t possibly be true, that I called a colleague who’d been helping me, and this was 2002, and I was like, she said yes, that’s what it is, that’s what they have to do when you go. I want to go to these things because they are really helpful for me, I get feedback from the judges about the two songs they sing, and it helps me dot my I’s and cross my T’s as I’m teaching the sight singing. I want to make sure I get the skill sets in them so they can beat the page.

The first year I went to it, they sat down, and they did the very best that they could do, and it was not good. They failed. I mean, they got a three out of … One if best, five is worst. The kids were disappointed, I was disappointed, but fortunately, had this wonderful sight singing judge. She came out and she gave the kids and me some tips that were really helpful. I went home that summer and I just started thinking about those tips and how I could incorporate some of those things for the coming year. When people ask me about sight singing, that’s when I really started developing S-Cubed, that’s when it really got … I’m sure I started before that, but I started to really put the puzzle pieces together because I was determined to go and beat that page the next year with the kids.
For me to get to that outcome had way more positive impact than I ever could have anticipated. For my students, they have to sing acapella, they have five minutes to figure out what the example is. I can’t sing with them, I can’t help them, I can only give them doe, and maybe a scale, they can sing a scale and arpeggio, that’s all they can do, all I can do. I can guide them if they look at measure three or look at measure five. These students had to be able to beat that page.

The second year, I had gotten the skill sets in them enough that they were successful and it was a great feeling, but I watched so many teachers and their students walk out of the room completely demoralized that I was like, I’ve got to figure out ways to share it. Back then there was no YouTube, there was no Google, I didn’t have any idea how to share.

Around 2009, I was living in Switzerland for a year with gymnastics stuff and I was thinking about sight singing and how I could share it, so I started writing a book and I submitted it to music publishers. Nothing. Not interested, it’s boring. It really was. It didn’t translate this way. More years go by, and then in 2013, I found TeachersPayTeachers, which I was like, I didn’t know a thing about it, but I knew that I could offer it digitally, I could create PowerPoints, I could record myself singing, I could record the students learning, which there was nothing like that out there. I did it and it was terrible. My PowerPoints are still awful, but the YouTube links are all out there, most of them are public, your listeners can listen to them and see what they can learn that will help them. Mostly, I’m just really glad I’m helping teachers who need help with a subject matter, and I’m taking them step-by-step through the process. If they just follow it, and turn the page, or click the link, or whatever they have to the next thing, they can figure it out with their students, but it’s not a quick fix. There’s no such thing really.

Sorry, I wish I had better … It’s just how it is. It takes time to build these skills.

Christopher: We refer, sometimes, on the show to the advantages you have as an adult learner, and I think one of those is definitely a realistic sense of what’s possible. I know a lot of our listeners won’t be put off by the fact that this isn’t an overnight trick to sight singing, it is going to take practice.

On that front, I think what you just described is fascinating, and I think it’s super cool that those competitions exist and stretch middle school choirs in that way because that’s not something I’ve come across, and clearly it results in students who are equipped with an amazing level of sight singing that will serve them in all of their musical life. I mentioned there the practice and repetition that’s going to be involved to learn the skill over time.

When I was faced with sight singing, that was essentially all that was presented to me. Try it, try it again, oh, you got it wrong, try again. That’s incredibly frustrating. Clearly, you’ve developed a step-by-step process, and I wonder if we could just give our listeners a glimpse into what that might look like. What are the tools you’re drawing on or the ideas or the frameworks? Because you alluded to the simplicity of stepwise quarter note sight singing examples.

I know for 99% of musicians, that is impossible. Genuinely, literally 99% of good instrument players would not be able to accurately sing stepwise quarter notes, and by stepwise, we just mean it’s moving up and down the scale without any jumps. That’s no criticism of them as we’ve alluded to, this isn’t something that’s taught, but once you learn these skills, that does seem like a very simple example. So, can you just give a bit of a glimpse into what this process looks like and what it is that enables your middle schoolers to do this amazing sight singing?

Dale: At first, I think the important thing is the Kodaly hand signs. I play a game with the students where I introduce it. It’s fun for them. I teach them the importance of going up and down, I teach them the importance of the half steps and things like that over time, over the first couple of weeks. Within two or three weeks of doing this game called Forbidden Pattern, they’re then able to go … I point to an example on the page, very simple stepwise … Actually, before I do that, I have them do something called Follow the Hand. I will just use the hand signs, ill give them doe, and they follow the hand. They’re essentially already reading music, you can say, because they’re following my hand. The next step is I go to the board and I point to the example, and I tell them this is doe, and then I point to it and I ask them if it’s on the space or on the line.

There’s not only an ear training component, there’s a visual component. I mean, many people, I didn’t realize for many years that some students don’t understand the deep, the low, the treble clef below the staff that it’s a space note. I didn’t realize that. They thought it was the E or whatever. When I realized that, I knew then that I had to then give my students visual training and how to see what a ledger line is. What does it not look like when it’s below the ledger line?

I didn’t realize how much my students were tricked up by when a note is quarter note versus the half note because it’s white versus black. I mean, there’s so many things with the young beginner that I didn’t know. I was taking them through those steps. I train their ears, I train their eyes, and then we’re building the skill sets to rhythm, that would be the next step.

We’re just adding one layer at a time, but that’s how we get to … When they are doing rhythm, I have them pulse. That’s something I didn’t do for a long time. Pulsing, I tell them that by the time they get to the pulsing, it’s like they’re tapping their head and rubbing their bellies at the same time, and tap dancing. They’re doing so many things and they don’t realize it. For them, by the time we’ve built slowly to that point where they can actually maybe sing a unison, that’s probably takes eight weeks for them to sing unison with maybe half notes and whole notes. We do it 10 to 15 minutes a day, three to four times a week. It’s not like it takes that much time, but it’s really just being committed to that process one step at a time.

I say to them, I do a cartwheel or something in the room because I’m like, this is awesome that you are able to do this, and for them, they’re like, well, he’s excited, for them that might feel like not much, but they’re still appreciating that it is a big deal, but we don’t want it to feel like a big deal.

It’s like learning any language. If you go to France, and you don’t speak french, and you have a translator with you all of the time, you will never learn the language. If you don’t actually try to speak it and you’re listening, and you’re looking at the physical cues that people are doing, and all the things that are required when you’re learning a language, it’s not just oral, it’s not just visual, and it’s not just kinesthetic, it’s all of it. You have to leverage all learning styles and that’s what I’ve tried to do as I used my program with my students.

Christopher: Gotcha. Well, I want to pick up on that point about speaking a language in a moment, but first I think I need to hit pause because you mentioned a lot of good stuff there that to me and you is clear, but to our listener may be a bit less familiar. Specifically, Kodaly hand signs. It’s a bit tricky for us to convey on an audio podcast, but if you wouldn’t mind just explaining what is that? How does it work? And why is it helpful for sight singing?

Dale: Okay. That Kodaly hand signs were created by a Hungarian man, his last name is Kodaly, and it’s used in his system, which I’m not an expert on by any mean, I’ve taken level one many, many years ago, but it’s a good system for younger singers, really young, like ages five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11. Some teachers use it beyond, and they’re really good at it. My system is based on those hand signs on some level. You lift your hand up, you lower your hand, you show the skips with your hand. There are certain specific hand gestures for sol versus mi versus fa, that sort of thing. Those are the hand signs we play the game with, and the students are also uncomfortable with those in the beginning if they’ve never been exposed. I encourage them to use them even if they’re making mistakes. It’s really about the doing and not worrying about if you’re making the errors at this moment.

Christopher: Cool. So this is something where you have a particular hand sign for each note of the scale?

Dale: Right.

Christopher: And we’re talking about moveable do solfa, so it’s do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, whatever keys they’re in.

Dale: Right. I use moveable do, but in the beginning, I used a concept called varied but comfortable do, because I use C, C sharp, D, D sharp, and E around there because middle school students are afraid to sing high and they get paranoid, and that becomes the focus. If we go to the key of G and we ask them to sight sing, they’re scared. I figured in the beginning I would stick them around there without any regard for going from the key of C to the key of G to the key of F, which is what most sight singing methods do. For middle school, this age group, it just seemed to be an obstacle so I just removed the obstacle.

Now, over time, by about the 14th or 15th week, then they get into movable do and we stick to what’s really on the page because they’re able and they’re ready. We have to get out of that varied but comfortable do because they really do get stuck and they can’t sing in the correct keys if we don’t do that.

Christopher: Gotcha. I love that and it lets them get a real physical, visceral sense for those hand signs and pitches, and how they sound before you worry about connecting it with the nitty gritty of notation and the stuff. Right?

Dale: Oh, yeah. I actually, not until year three do I talk that much about theory. My students, my S-Cubed for three years, the first two years I repeat because I get a lot of new students, and then the final year we go into all kinds of things. They don’t leave me as theory experts, they leave me as competent … It’s like they could … Let’s go back to French. It’s like they can speak French completely fluently given anything they can do, just about anything. They have no idea what they’re doing, but they’re ready for the high school teacher to go into all of the things that I didn’t touch on because it really gets in the way on some level. It’s like we don’t expect a baby to come out and conjugate a sentence, they have to speak and they have to learn the cues. It’s just the same.

Christopher: Perfect. Well, I’ll make sure we have a link in the show notes to one of your videos where people can see this in action with some of your middle schoolers as a choir singing and hand signing their way through a sight singing example. The other specific thing that I wanted to pick up there was you mentioned pulsing, which I think is a really interesting idea that people may not be familiar with. Could you explain what that is and how it helps?

Dale: Well, when we get into keeping the steady beat, which is a skill in its own, it’s not an easy skill, and especially for these young kids. The students are taught by me to constantly, their hand goes forward with each beat. I’ll count them in, I’ll go one, one, two, ready, go, and then they’ll just pulse to that beat with a solfa signs, and they are lifting and lowering their hands at the same time, which is really, really hard to do. I go carefully and slowly, and I hold them through that process until they master that skill. They keep it in there for … It’s nothing within a month or so it’s like second nature.

Christopher: Very cool. Well, again, you can see this in action in the videos, but just to give you a sense, it’s like watching someone hammer with an imaginary hammer with a steady beat or a very restrained version of a Metallica crowd pumping their fists in the air as the song plays.

Dale: That’s the best way to put it.

Christopher: I just wanted to get a glimpse into this for the people listening because I think it conveys clearly how there are very practical tools that you’re using here in the S-Cubed method in your own teaching. This isn’t something where you study theory carefully and then you intellectually know how to do it, and it’s not something where you just need to be born with an instinct to do it, this is kinesthetic, visual, auditory, all combined together in a step-by-step fashion that helps you really internalize what the notes on the page should sound like.

You mentioned there, the analogy to language and how your students get very good at speaking the language, and one blog post I loved on your site was about what you call chaos and how it compares with the activity of audiation. We’ve talked on the show before about the advantages of audiation, imagining music in your head, and I was delighted to see how you used this idea of chaos in preparing for sight signing.

I wondered could you first just talk us through, you mentioned your students have five minutes before sight singing performance as it were, sight singing test. How do they use that five minutes, and how does that connect to this idea of chaos?

Dale: Well, chaos, any middle school teacher knows what that is already, but anyways… Chaos is a time when they get to personally practice. I teach chaos to them, this is how it goes, these are the rules, this is what you do. They sing out loud on their own, they have to block everyone out in the room, because it sounds like an orchestra tuning up. This, I found to be a useful technique because it gives them their own personal time, which everybody can work at their own level. I encourage them that if they only get through measure one, but they’re successful, that’s okay. If the other person next to them, who gets all the way through it five times during the minute of practice that I give them or whatever, that’s okay, too, and not even to worry about it.

I want them to work at their own pace, their own level. I found that it really helps the kids to improve over time in their space, in their time, in their way. Then, the entire group does better together as a result of that. Audiation is a great technique. I think some of the things I’ve written may lead people to think I would never audiate with my students, no. I actually do, but I think it is something that we need to do later. We do it after they’ve gotten all of their skill sets in. With my 8th graders, they’re really good at all the sight singing. That’s when I begin the audiation because they built all the skill sets. Those are ingrained, and they can listen, they can really hear.

I think I saw too many of my students, when I used to try audiation in the early days with great failure, they would just sit there like, what are we supposed to do? They were doing nothing because they didn’t know what to do, they had no idea because I teach true beginners. So they just sat there and there was nothing productive. Then when it was time to sing out loud, they were just so scared, and frustrated, and wrong, and this way they’re taught during chaos, during the times that we use it, they can hear their mistakes, they can self assess, they can self correct. I encourage that all the time, and I’ll talk to them as they’re doing chaos and I hear a mistake on fa. To help them learn what maybe they’re not doing right, I’m guiding them, but over time, I guide them less, and less, and less. It’s like I’m taking the training wheels off so they can do their own thing.

Chaos, I think, is really great or people to sing out loud in their environment before we begin the audiation process, which is also going to help them be just better musicians over time. In our country, there are some states in their adjudication process that I’ve described in Georgia, where students are not allowed to sing out loud. They have to audiate the entire time. That’s what I’ve written on my blogs, is in response to that. I think that’s really not a great situation for kids. I think it causes frustration for teachers. I think on some level it causes teachers to stop attending those events, which I think impacts the kids because they’re so frustrated, they don’t understand how to get the skill sets into the kids. That’s never a good thing. We want kids to sing.

Christopher: Yeah, I think it’s beautiful. I love the name. Was it you who gave it that name, or is this a general-

Dale: No, I did that.

Christopher: It’s fantastic.

Dale: I try to make each concept as memorable as I could in the process. I wasn’t always successful, but that one is something that even if you’re not using my program and you’re a choir teacher and you’re just looking for something to use in your class, you could learn, you could use it and enjoy whatever is on the YouTube channel and figure out how it can work for you.

Christopher: Yeah, well, it’s just so liberating and I think that’s so often what’s needed. I think partly why it brought me so much joy to see your videos demonstrating this was that I lead it to my own choir experience. When we were handed a fresh piece of sheet music, there would be 60 seconds where there’d be some kind of timid humming from some people, and other people would be muttering about intervals. I would literally just be stood there waiting until we sung it the first time, and then I’d be able to sing it.

I remember thinking, do you know what? If you just gave me five minutes alone in a room, I could probably figure out how this is meant to sound, but I’m not going to do that out loud in this silent room. I’m just-

Dale: I know, I know.

Christopher: Your idea of chaos and encouraging everyone to experiment out loud is the exact opposite of that and so empowering, I think.

Dale: Yeah. It’s so good for them, and it’s so good for them to learn to block out things and I make jokes about it. You know how you block out your mother when she says to clean your room, but she says you’re going to get an iPhone 10, you listen. Right? We can do the same thing. You can choose at this moment to block out. Right? We try to make it as fun, and funny, and silly so that the point is driven and they really do work to try to block it out and do their own thing. Then it just becomes part of what they do, and that’s another skill set that’s going to serve them, even if they don’t sing.

There’s got to be something about what they’re taught in those moments that serves them in some other way in their life. I’m sure of it because it takes so much brain power to do those things.

Christopher: Absolutely. I think we’ve given people a sense of the spirit of S-Cubed, and your teaching approach, as well as some of the specific tools and techniques you use, but I’d love if you could just talk a bit more about the S-Cubed program, what it is, how it works, who it’s for?

Dale: Okay. Well, honestly, when I built it, I built it for teachers in my state of Georgia to help them with their adjudication process. That’s what it was for originally. It’s available on TeachersPayTeachers, and so teachers around the world have found it over time, and they have found it really useful, which is awesome. It has far surpassed anything I ever, ever could have thought would happen. I’m sure it doesn’t work for everyone, I mean, everybody’s different, but the people who have used it, it seems … I’ve had band teachers who have been stuck in the choral classroom, who’ve decided that it works for them, high school teachers, which I built it for middle school who teach beginners, upper elementary teachers.

It’s just a step-by-step program where I hand hold … I want it to be like a personal trainer for the teachers. I wanted them to be able to get up that morning, an hour before they’re teaching kids, look at the lesson plan, study it really quick, look at the videos, fast forward what was boring, get the concept, and then go and do their thing, and use what works and throw out what doesn’t.

I wanted it to be fun. I want the process to be … It’s as much philosophy as it is a method, and the philosophy really is that this process needs to be one where we celebrate every single time that they accomplish something, we never ignore it because it’s hard what they’re doing. We enjoy interacting with the kids through the game, and then slowly, before you know it, they’re singing three parts, and can figure out chromatics, things that I really don’t think I could do even when I finish my master’s degree, some of the things.

Now, I understood the theory behind it, which was great for me, but in terms of actually being able to do it, that was a whole different situation for me and many of my peers in the same school. I went to a great school. I love my school. I got a great music education there, but I think the things that I kind of thought about were things that I saw happening in my room, I’m like, they don’t understand this. I, for me, it’s natural because I played piano. They don’t understand that this is a line note versus a space note. They don’t see it because it’s so small. Maybe I have to make it bigger for now so then they see it, and then I’ll gradually go smaller.

I mean, things that nobody else had addressed before for use in a classroom, practical use in a real classroom with real beginners. That’s what I wanted this to serve.

Christopher: Terrific. Well, people can find the S-Cubed program at inthemiddlewithmrd1, that’s the number one, and we’ll have a direct link to that in the show notes for this episode, and you’ll also find the links to Dale’s YouTube channel where all of the videos we’ve mentioned can be found, as well as his TeachersPayTeachers store if you’re interested in getting the full S-Cubed program, which you can get bit by bit, or as an entire end-to-end program.

It’s probably been clear from this conversation, but I am just a huge fan of the way you approach what you teach, the way you equip your students for sight singing, which is a skill that intimidates most musicians, including able singers. I think it’s wonderful that you’re doing this work to empower other teachers around the world to do the same thing with their students, and I just definitely applaud you for that.

Hopefully, it’s also come across that this is something that’s designed for teachers, but there is a ton of interesting stuff on Dale’s website In the Middle With Mr. D, particularly if you’re curious about these topics of singing in tune or learning to sight sing yourself. I would love for you to head over to his YouTube channel, watch some of these videos, and be inspired, because if he can get a room full of rowdy middle school students doing the kind of sight singing he does, then there is definitely hope for all of us adults who struggled with it in the past.

Big thank you, Dale. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you today and I hope you have every success in your continuing work in this area.

Dale: Thank you for this opportunity. It was great talking to you.

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The post Making Sight Singing Child’s Play, with Dale Duncan appeared first on Musical U.