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Learning Tracks: Too Much of a Good Thing?

There can be too much of a good thing, and learning tracks are one of those things.

Look, we sell learning tracks here at the Society, and some awesome musicians among us are creating masterpieces. They can be really helpful for learning.

But has the pendulum swung too far?

I’ve seen chapters scrap songs that were perfect for them, and only because there wasn’t a learning track available! I fear that one of a musician's most important skills sets -- the ability to read music -- could atrophy among barbershoppers if we aren't careful.

Quite often, when new music is handed out I’ll hear, “I can’t sight read.”  [Insert sigh.]  Many shrug and accept this as an unalterable fact, as if they'd stated “I’m left-handed," “I’m allergic to peanuts,” or “I’m a Sagittarius.” While barbershop has strong aural traditions (consider woodshedding and the way most of us learn tags), completely ignoring sight singing skills is like going through school and never taking a math class; sure you can still function, but not without a handicap.

I can tell which barbershoppers play instruments because they generally have better sight singing chops, they learn faster, and are better with rhythm songs. All of us could use some of that. Wouldn't it be great if you could literally learn a piece of music in one night?

Infusing sight singing into your chorus/quartet rehearsal

How do we start?  Just dive in.  Even if your chorus uses little to no sight singing in the rehearsal, begin small.  Use the Barberpole Cat book and sing a song you’ve never tried before.  Pass out a song from the Free and Easy website; they’re short and usually a good place to start for novices.  Try handing out a weekly tag on a small slip of paper.  It is possible to learn a song in one rehearsal.  Remember we have HEP schools and HU courses to teach you sight singing, but if it’s reinforced by your chorus members, your chapter’s musicality grows. With that growth comes a more prepared chorus members that produce better shows that excite and promote chapter membership that … you get the point.

It’s really all about the music in the end, anyway, isn’t it?  If there’s a way to do it better shouldn’t we be open to it?  Sight singing can and should be part of what we teach our members each week, promoting better musicianship, but perhaps most important getting us off the music and into the spotlight. I'm not suggesting that we scrap learning tracks, but let it supplement our music, not drive the car.

Your turn

Do you agree that sight-singing is a dying art among barbershoppers? Do  you have any success stories (or maybe stories of warning) you would like to share with others?

How can chapters do a better song of teaching sight-singing to their members? How can District and Society leaders better encourage sight singing?

Your inputs and insights are welcome!

Adam Scott

Society Music Education/Publishing