Leah Rasmussen and professor Jill Wilson are researching sight-singing capabilities of middle and high school students. Their goal is to discover the sight-singing level of students in the Midwest, whether instrumental experience influences sight-singing ability, and the perceived amount of rehearsal time spent on music reading skills.
“During the summer Dorian music camps here at Luther, we asked students complete a survey about how they’ve learned to read music in their music education,” Rasmussen says. “They stated their grade, the location of their school, and their experience as a sight-singer and as an instrumentalist. Then, we took students aside and had them sight-sing two exercises from materials created by the Florida Vocal Association and we assessed them.”
Wilson recommended the use of the materials from the Florida Vocal Association because the organization is well known for its stringent sight-singing requirements at state-sanctioned contests. “And, in addition to surveying and assessing the students, we plan to survey the teachers of these students to compare perceptions.”
Data collection and assessment have been the most laborious aspects of the research. “Obtaining Human Subjects Review Board permission to use minors as subjects is a bit more strenuous than we initially thought,” Wilson says. “We were required to have parents and students sign consent and assent forms, respectively, before participating. Being part of the registration process at the Dorian Music Camp was helpful with this process.”
Rasmussen agrees they encountered some challenges. “I felt it was most difficult to assess as many students as possible and, at the same time, maintain accuracy. Some days we assessed more than 100 students.”
Rasmussen finds it fascinating that the research shows significant correlation between instrumental experience and sight-singing ability. “We’ve found that as years of instrumental study increased (i.e., in band, orchestra, and piano), the average score of each exercise was higher,” she says. “In other words, the students with more instrumental experience tend to have a better sight-singing ability.”
Wilson notes they were sometimes disheartened by the scores on the singing assessment. “Each example was eight measures long and we gave one point for each correct measure. Middle school students averaged 4.5 out of 8 on the first example (which was stepwise with simple rhythms and in the Key of C) and 4.0 on the more difficult excerpt,” she says. “High school students scored an average of 6.6 out of 8 on their first example and 4.5 on the second. Although we’re still waiting on score reports from Florida, it seems choral music educators have some work to do.“
Wilson says they hope the data they collected will help them make a case for secondary teachers to spend more rehearsal time on ear training and music reading skills. “Empowering students to become independent musicians who don’t need a teacher to make music should be one of the main goals of large ensemble music education,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s a common challenge to keep preparation for performances from becoming the main focus. We believe that requiring the assessment of music reading proficiency will encourage teachers to focus on this skill.”
Rasmussen will present her findings at the upcoming Student Research Symposium and at a Future Music Educators Association (FMEA) meeting. In addition, she has been accepted to make a joint presentation with Wilson at the Iowa Music Educators Association (IMEA) Fall Conference. They also hope to share their findings through an article in the Iowa Choral Directors Association publication The Sounding Board.