Publication reviews

Novello Guide to Sightreading

Key information

  • Title: The Novello Guide to Sight-Singing
  • What it is: Sight-singing guide and online resource
  • Authors: Ralph Allwood & Timothy Teague
  • Publisher: Novello & Co
  • Price information: £18.99-£19.99
  • Available from: Amazon.co.uk / Musicroom.com / Scorestore.co.uk (with a 5% discount)

Choral director, Brian Cotterill, reviews Novello’s new sight-singing guide

Ella Fitzgerald once said that ‘the only better thing than singing is more singing’. A major problem for so many potential singers though has always been how to sight-read. Sight-singing is different from sight-reading on other instruments because it involves pitching notes oneself, rather than ‘simply’ playing the correct note.

As a choral director, I have often found that the most useful singers in a choir are not necessarily those with the best voices but those who can sight-sing accurately.

This work – and it’s much more than just a book – is a fantastic publication. It can be used by students, teachers and choir directors alike. There is so much in it that it is, dare I say it, the ultimate resource.

Sight-reading has always been the scourge of music exam candidates. The Novello Guide to Sight-Singing should be in everyone’s music case. The authors have used their huge experience to produce the first truly interactive resource to teach the art of sight-singing.

The book

As a text book, this will be of immense use to singing teachers in lessons with their students but can also be used by students on their own, outside lessons. Although necessarily extremely detailed, the book guides the student through the theory and skills required to sight-sing effectively, notably rhythm, intervals, melodic shape etc. I particularly like the way the authors advise students how to pitch intervals – a common difficulty among singers.

The exercises are cleverly chosen from ‘real’ pieces of music and each one focusses on a particular aspect of sight-singing. The annotated musical examples in the book, while initially appearing quite daunting and reminiscent of university students’ analysis assignments, on closer inspection give a vast array of tips and techniques to improve one’s skills.

Screenshot 1

Additional Case Studies, Example 1

The book provides explanations, exercises and tips and tricks covering:

  • basic music theory
  • scales and stepwise motion
  • larger intervals and awkward leaps
  • fast and effective reading of choral scores
  • examples from popular choral repertoire
  • general good practice for choral singing

I don’t know of another book which brings such a thorough approach to the art of sight-singing. Singers are taught to notice things in a score as they sight-sing (arpeggios, scale passages, repeating patterns etc), aspects of sight-singing which are crucial.

Additional Case Studies, Example 2

Additional Case Studies, Example 2

The book is extremely thorough; indeed, perhaps a little too thorough for use by a student on his or her own. Nevertheless, for use with a teacher or by a choral director, it is a box of delights.

The online Soundcheck resource

The unique aspect of The Novello Guide to Sight-Singing is its online Soundcheck resource. By logging into SoundWise, not only is the whole book available as an E-book on screen but also all the exercises are available for practice, each pitched for both high and low voice.

Once the chosen Soundcheck exercise is on screen, the student can try to sing it (through the microphone of his or her computer) and the performance is then ‘marked’. The student can try each exercise as many times as he or she likes, hopefully improving his accuracy. ‘Stars’ are awarded to celebrate achievement.

Following a successful ‘performance’, the student is encouraged to do a ‘lap of honour’ by singing the exercise again. This helps confirm the skills used (and also checks that the previous performance wasn’t a fluke!).

SoundWise's Soundcheck resource

SoundWise’s Soundcheck resource

This online resource is of huge value and is the main thing which, for me, puts The Novello Guide to Sight-Singing in a different league from the old and crusty sight-singing books I have on my music shelves. Here, for the first time, the student can practise the art of sight-singing on his or her own with an online ‘teacher’ who marks every exercise instantly and will do so 24 hours a day – fantastic!

The SoundWise online aspect of The Novello Guide to Sight-Singing can be accessed on all media devices, including phone, tablet and personal computer, so is available for use anywhere – in a lesson, at home, in school etc – I even tried it in the bath!

In conclusion, I highly recommend The Novello Guide to Sight-Singing. It will no doubt establish itself as an extremely useful resource in the choral world. If I have one reservation, it would be that the book can appear too detailed for the student working alone, especially if he or she is young, but for use by adults, teachers and choral directors, it will doubtless prove invaluable. Ella Fitzgerald would have approved.


About the reviewer

Organist, pianist, choral director, composer and teacher, Brian Cotterill spent over seven years as Director of Music at Lanesborough School (the choir school of Guildford Cathedral) before becoming Director of Music at St Edmund’s School in Hindhead, Surrey, where he oversaw the running of seven choirs every week.

He has undertaken choir tours to Salzburg, Rome, Venice and Tuscany, which have included performances for Pope Benedict XVI. Brian is the official accompanist of Song Circle, a chamber choir formed from members of the BBC Symphony Chorus.

Web: http://briancotterill.webs.com
Email: brian.c@talktalk.net

Posted In  Publication reviews


Key information


Primary Music Specialist, Finn Ros, tries out a new book and CD introducing young children to improvisation

In the Gap! is a brand new, beautifully illustrated book and CD, aimed at introducing young children to improvisation within their individual and class music lessons. Written by musician and teacher, Hannah Brady, it lays out each lesson clearly with original catchy songs and ideas.

The seven songs cover a range of topics including healthy eating, Spain, traffic/vehicles, weather etc. The activities are suitable for learning purely as a means for encouraging improvisation and building confidence in the classroom or, alternatively, these songs could be built up to be performed as concert pieces. The pieces are suitable for a variety of instruments and both concert and Bb transcriptions are included.

I used the upbeat song, Vamanos Amigos, in my Year 5 ukulele Wider Opportunities lesson and, I have to admit, I was pretty nervous about the idea of getting 30 lively 9-10-year-olds to improvise but they absolutely loved it! I found the planning clear and helpful. I personally adapted it to work with my class but I believe that it would be just as successful delivered exactly as prescribed in the suggestions. The song was immediately popular and the performance track got them dancing; always a good sign… We were able to have an in-depth conversation about improvising and I found that even those who were not keen on it in the first week were enthusiastically joining in by Lesson 2, trying out new techniques and commenting on and complementing each other’s efforts.

The song can easily be adapted to instrumentalists of varying levels, from the very beginner to small ensembles, with different parts to play. Planning, as mentioned, was very straightforward as each song comes with such a comprehensive set of notes including information on and suggestions for:

  • Style and background of song
  • Things to listen out for
  • Rhythm work
  • Melodic work
  • Improvisation

In the Gap! suggests that it is suitable for use with Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) straight through to Key Stage 2 (KS2). I believe that the Early Years would enjoy listening to and perhaps singing some of the songs but I think that the activities are far more suited to KS2 as the EYFS are naturally inclined to improvise anyway so it might provide too much structure, therefore limiting their creativity. Having said that, I can see some of the simpler songs working with, for example, a Key Stage 1 (KS1) recorder ensemble.

In the Gap! provides opportunities for experienced and less-confident music teachers alike to plan and deliver engaging lessons, with opportunities for the children to improvise creatively alongside learning fun new songs, for performance opportunities or purely for the experience. Piano parts for the songs are available to purchase separately on the website for £3.99.

All in all, my students and I enjoyed the experience of using In the Gap! and it has given me the confidence to experiment with improvisation more in my planning. I would recommend it to KS1 and KS2 peripatetic and Wider Opportunities teachers alike.


About the writer

Hannah Brady is a musician with considerable teaching experience across different settings – from Whole Class delivery at KS2 to workshop leader for Sheffield Jazz.

Her recent projects include partnerships with Jazz North and Sheffield Music Hub.

Web: https://improvinthegap.com
Twitter: @HannahIntheGap


About the reviewer

Finn Ros is a trained Primary school teacher, specialising in Early Years and Music Education.

In 2011, she founded Crescendo, which provides quality music sessions for Early Years children across London.

Web: www.crescendolondon.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/crescendomusicclasses
Twitter: @crescendouk


In the Gap! on Soundcloud

Posted In  Publication reviews


Key information


Music education lecturer, Jonathan Savage, reviews the latest critique of the Venezuelan project

Geoffrey Baker’s new book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, is a stinging critique of the Venezuelan instrumental and social music education programme. Baker’s research is far-reaching, drawing on observations of the programme throughout Venezuela and interviews with key participants in the programme and students themselves. As a piece of qualitative and ethnographic research, it is beautifully constructed. Throughout his book, Baker is at pains to justify his assertions about the programme and, when necessary, points to the limitations of his research and the conclusions therein.

Following a general introduction, the book is divided into four main parts. Part One introduces the institutions of El Sistema and the various people involved, notably ‘el maestro’, José Antonio Abreu, the conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Part Two addresses the issue of music education and pedagogy within the programme before Part Three considers the issues of whether or not the programme has made a positive social impact. Finally, Part Four considers the wider impact of El Sistema, including the political, economic and cultural impacts both claimed by proponents of the programme and evidenced through Baker’s research. The book closes with a fascinating set of alternative proposals for music education in the twenty-first century that might, Baker suggests, provide a broader, more inclusive and pedagogically rich experience for children than those found in El Sistema.

As someone with a broad interest in music education and an active researcher, but nothing more than a general knowledge about El Sistema drawn from listening to fellow educators and researchers talking about the movement within education conferences, reading publicity about the programme and commenting on evaluations of ‘spin-off’ programmes here within the United Kingdom, I was thoroughly engaged with Baker’s critique of El Sistema throughout all four parts. Baker’s carefully worded and eloquent prose is evidence indeed that all that glitters is not gold (and the elite Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra can certainly glitter!).

I note in other reviews of Baker’s book that his critics have argued against his research methodology and methods. I have no complaints on this front. Baker adopts a qualitative, ethnographic approach throughout and is entirely aware of the limitations of such a methodology. His methods too – formal and informal interviews, observations of the day-to-day business of El Sistema (including rehearsals, lessons and administrative activities in different regional centres, the study of documents and written evidence) – have their limitations but, again, Baker is completely candid about this. Throughout the book, you will find statements like this:

The scope of my research is limited. … This book is not a comprehensive or conclusive narrative but rather a critical, informed analysis of some of El Sistema’s key actors and core claims. … I can only open a window onto these complex realities; there is much more to explore, many other research methods to be applied, and a vast number of stories still to be told (p20).

Whilst this opens up Baker’s approach to criticism, I take this as a major strength of the book, its author and its critique of El Sistema. Baker has very challenging things to say about the El Sistema model. For him, and many other cultural observers, El Sistema is a testimony to Abreu’s mastery of the dark arts of politics and economics, driven by his autocratic management style, his intolerance of competing visions and a relentless pursuit of power (p47). Its benefits for participants are musically, socially and culturally compromised by this.

For example, as a social development programme, Baker argues, El Sistema is conceived as a cultural and educational continuation of mid-twentieth century modernist theory. It’s large, centralised and top-down development structures are characterised as paternalistic, authoritarian and exclusive. In all aspects, Baker argues, it swims against the tide of progressive thinking in arts education (p107).

In terms of music education, too, Baker is highly critical of the model adopted by El Sistema. He questions the legitimacy of the orchestra as a positive social, educational or professional environment for the development of young people’s musical skills. His research reveals that large numbers of classical ensembles are permeated by social dysfunction, questionable ideologies and pedagogical flaws (p132). All of these and many more are evidenced through El Sistema and reach their pinnacle in the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which, he claims, exploits children mercilessly in pursuit of ‘excellence’ in its grand-scale, staged, performances across the world.

Despite the significant and worrying nature of these assertions, for a music educator such as myself, Chapter 6 and its focus on learning and teaching in El Sistema is perhaps the most troublesome. Here, Baker exposes numerous aspects of El Sistema’s pedagogical approach and critiques them rigorously. Amongst other things, he explores:

  • The intense and exploitative work schedules of the young musicians that have resulted in a ‘work-centred’ rather than a ‘child-centred’ approach to learning (p134 & p139)
  • The sequential and repetitious nature of the lessons and rehearsals (p135)
  • Hierarchical and teacher-centred pedagogical approaches that underpin an old-fashioned view of teaching as ‘transmission’ and fundamentally undermines children’s own sense of musical creativity (p136)
  • The limited musical repertoire and the consequent effects this has on children’s ability to play more fluently across musical styles or engage with their own folk musics (p140)
  • Limitations in pedagogical approaches adopted by established teachers and through peer teaching, with an emphasis on ‘teach as you were taught’ rather than an openness to more contemporary approaches to teaching and teacher education (p142)
  • The lack of critical thinking, or any divergent thinking really, in El Sistema, which fails to give children the opportunity to stop and think for themselves and certainly does not allow for any dissent from students or teachers about the pedagogical approach that is inherent within the programme (p144)
  • The mono-dimensional nature of music education within El Sistema, which prioritises musical performance to the exclusion of everything else and leads to students having major gaps in their musical knowledge when they move onto other musical studies (p147)
  • The devaluing of Venezuelan traditional and folk music as legitimate alternatives for music education

To sum up this important chapter, Baker states clearly, and I would agree with him on this, that El Sistema’s ideology and practices ‘lie far from much recent research on music education, equity, and social justice’ (p150). Furthermore:

El Sistema argues that learning to play orchestral music will make you a better person; critical educational theory suggests that focussing on orchestral music may curtail genuine education and lead to social oppression rather than justice. (ibid)

One of the most worrisome sections of Baker’s book comes in Chapter 10, Realities, Dreams and Revolutions. Here, Baker discusses issues relating to allegations of sexual abuse within El Sistema. Baker describes the ‘relative normality of sexual relationships between teachers and pupils’ (p227), reporting one ex-Sistema musician as describing the programme as ‘like a chain of secrets and favours – like a secret society’ (p228). Baker has found no concrete evidence that these allegations or suspicions are true. Here, particularly, he is open and transparent about the limitations of his study as a foreign ethnographer and musicologist. However, the regularity with which allegations surfaced across the data he collected through interviews, conversations and via document analysis of internet forums was striking. Following on from numerous criminal prosecutions for sexual abuse of young children, from institutions such as Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, and with further criminal prosecutions to follow within courtrooms across the United Kingdom, it seems that the issues associated with sex and music education are, sadly, only just beginning to be uncovered both here and abroad.

Given the scale of the ‘success’ of El Sistema, it is not surprising that there have been copycat models developed throughout the world. By late 2012, Baker cites models in around fifty countries on six continents (with over 70 projects inspired by El Sistema in North America alone). Whilst many of these projects are built upon El Sistema’s illusions as much as its realities, Baker is careful not to tar all these projects with the same brush. Rather, he claims that many have improved on the traditional El Sistema model in many ways, notably through a more rigorous and productive use of educational evaluation and public transparency. However, the traces of El Sistema are only too evident in movements such as Sistema Scotland which, he argues, is still in ‘thrall to the orchestra and classical music, and shows a dismissive attitude toward popular and traditional music’ (p306).

Baker’s book closes with examples of how El Sistema has been genuinely superseded by other, more productive in his opinion, models of music education across the globe. Citing examples such as Sheila Nelson’s string project in Tower Hamlets, Peter Cope’s Scottish fiddle project and the Musical Futures initiative, he argues that more progressive models of music education such as these have significantly more value that the state-sponsored, modernistic, bureaucratic and tyrannical model found in El Sistema. Whilst El Sistema has undoubtedly opened up ‘extraordinary space for music education’ (p322), it is suited to a bygone age, the nineteenth rather than the twenty-first century. Whilst its ‘elite’ performers stun audiences around the world:

‘… problems lie just beneath the surface; skeletons are rattling in the closet; experts cannot continue forever to confuse propaganda and fact, or to ignore the gulf between progressive theory and conservative practices.’ (ibid)


About the author

Geoffrey Baker is a Reader in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.

His books include Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco (2008), which won the American Musicological Society’s Robert Stevenson Award, and Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana (2011). He has also created a series of ethnographic films about childhood music learning in Cuba and Venezuela.


About the reviewer

Jonathan Savage is a Reader in Education at the Faculty of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University.

He is Managing Director of UCan Play, a not-for-profit company that runs consultancy, research and training as well as providing a point of sale for musical instruments, audio and video technologies.

He is a widely published author, having published over 14 books for Routledge, the Open University Press and SAGE as well as numerous academic papers.

Posted In  Publication reviews