Coming up in the very near future I have two aural training online webinar courses, each 5 weeks long, open to all (for all instruments, singers, ages and nationalities) but hosted by the Royal College of Organists (RCO). The first is aimed at Grades 1-6 and starts on Thursday 30th September at 6:00 pm BST and runs for five weeks. The second is aimed at Grades 7-8 and diplomas starting Thursday 4th November at 6:00 pm GMT, also running for five weeks. These sessions are applicable for all exam boards and will allow you to start your journey of further developing your skills strategically with specific exercises in mind.
What is good Aural Training or Aural Teaching?
Good aural training or aural teaching absolutely does NOT involve practice papers. Those allow you to benchmark where you are at so are what we might term “summative assessment”, although, if you run through a paper and find specific problems this could be a more “formative” assessment as it could inform future study, aural learning and aural training. Simply running through successive practice papers does not improve your ability. It is interesting that I was once interviewed for a job in which I was asked what I would do if a student didn’t perform very well in a music exam paper and I answered in detail regarding targetting the student weakness. In my interview feedback I was informed that the ‘correct’ answer was to consider more practice papers. To this day, I do not agree with that answer as it is not pedagogically perceptive.
Aural Training, Re-Awakening Your Ears
Even for many quite advanced musicians, aural training can be difficult. There are plenty of excellent players or singers who find the concept of aural tests difficult. However, if they perform and sing a wrong note, or play a wrong chord, or hear someone else perform out of tune, they identify that something isn’t quite right. In other words, their aural ability and their ears are absolutely fine. The challenge, is pinpointing the detail and using the correct terms.
The same is true of people who say that they are “tone deaf” and then they watch TV programmes such as X-Factor and point out that someone is not singing in tune. These people are not tone-deaf, rather they have less experience altering their larynx to produce a range of pitches when they sing and thus they find it hard to sing in tune. This can be worked on and can be resolved over time with good teaching.
Sight-Reading and Sight-Singing versus Aural Training
In terms of sight-reading or sight-singing, understanding of notation is also required. This might be perceived as a different skill, but sight-reading or sight-singing and aural training are two sides of the same coin. In aural lessons, you convert what you hear into notation. In sight-reading or sight-singing, you convert what you see (notation) into sound.
With this in mind, aural training is NOT FOR EXAMS. Aural lessons and good aural training are for further developing the musician so that they perform better and develop in a holistic way. An exam assesses where you are at, but investing in aural training is also investing in your own development as a musician and is therefore FAR MORE IMPORTANT than any certificate. Aural training also makes you a better musician no matter what your instrument or voice and therefore you can apply your skills to any/all instrument, voice, conducting or directing in the future.
I am a firm believer that aural training should not be a separate add-on from your practice on your voice or instrument, but embedded in your daily practice. You can create aural exercises out of your repertoire, therefore understanding your pieces better, often integrating theory (yes, also learning theory through your pieces) and then performing with greater understanding. Theory, aural, practice and performance integrated are all part of holistic learning.
Aural Training and Rhythm
Skills at Grades 1-6 include identifying time signatures or metre, deducing how many beats there are in a bar or measure. There are also phrases that need memorising and singing or playing back. The higher the level, the longer these phrases are and the more complex the rhythms can be. Furthermore, in Grade 6 ABRSM upwards, the student is recalling and reproducing a melody that’s either an upper or lower part (the examiner playing two parts simultaneously). Whilst these tasks involve singing back, contrasting rhythm in an alternative part can confuse your response.
Strategic exercises in these courses will work on perceiving rhythms in groups of notes. Simply hearing a single note and identifying it as a crotchet (quarter note) or quaver (eighth note) is not helpful. This is the equivalent of a young child sounding out each letter phonetically where as people more experienced with reading see entire words and short phrases in one go. The latter is our aim.
The aim is to perceive rhythms as we hear them as listeners. When you sway to a piece of music, tap your foot, clap along or ‘feel’ it, we are taking these sensations and converting them into a more aural academic setting (see, you already know exactly what rhythm is!).
Furthermore, to enhance our rhythmic training, we will utilise coordination exercises that help those who play piano, organ or keyboard, but for those who sing or play a different instrument, will further embed the patterns. These sessions will start with rhythmic syllables, but then progress far beyond them as they are simply ‘initial tools’.
Kodály, Curwen, Glover and Aural Teaching
It is important to realise that relative solfège (where “Do” is always the main pitch of the key being used, NOT where “Do” is always C (that is called “fixed solfège” and is still used widely in countries such as France) is not the only tool used in aural training and that Kodály is not the originator of it. Often people term this “the Kodály technique” or “Kodály method” because solfège was an important part of Kodály’s teaching (he was a famous Hungarian composer and music pedagogist). Actually, it was an important technique before Kodály’s time, particularly developed (and very systematically, alongside alternative rhythmic notation) by a British lady called Sarah Glover in the nineteenth century. Sarah Glover’s name should undoubtedly be more widely known as she, in my opinion, is responsible for what has now become a global use of solfège and made a significant impact via her deep understanding and exploration into aural training pedagogy. She is possibly the first aural training teacher, so passionate in her mission, to develop such systematic aural training methods. She had a vision that singing would be a “branch of national education” and that singing in churches, such as psalms would improve substantially for the entire population.
A priest called John Curwen read Sarah Glover’s published method, loved it, wrote to her to tell her how great it was, adapted and refined it and certainly continued the vision that Sarah had of enhancing singing within the country for all men, women, young and old. John was extremely important in the ‘spreading’ of this method because of how much his views of education were in alignment with Sarah’s, the adaptations he made and aided by his position within society. Kodály’s use of solfège was one very important aspect of his teaching, but so were many other techniques, including the aural training of the ‘inner ear’. The training of the mind to hear not just a pitch, but different things at the same time is crucial to good aural training. This includes chords, harmonies, cadences and counterpoint.
Aural Training and Pitch without Notation
Sarah realised that the advantage of solfège was multi-faceted. Solfège without notation allows:
(a) each note to be heard in context of a key. All notes have a relationship to each other and this relationship is not just understood but ‘felt’ in relation to the tonic, “Do” and each other. Again, just as for rhythm, we are not isolating one pitch, but hearing groups and relationships. An analogy would be with learning another language and having a dictation exercise. For me to hear something in French and try to listen to each individual letter and write it down would be largely ineffective, but hearing words and phrases and then writing them down would allow me much greater fluency.
(b) hearing and understanding modulations and changes of key.
(c) distinguishing between semitones and tones (notation confuses this – B to C in treble clef is from a line to a space, but so is G to A. B-C form a semitone and A-G form a tone so they are note same, yet the western system of notation makes them appear identical intervals due to the line-space relationship).
(d) transposition is easy and does not need the complexities of key signatures (but we will explore these, of course – see below).
(e) the solfège syllables, particularly vowels, were developed with intonation in mind. For instance, “Ti” feels bright because of the “ee” vowel and “Fa”, which is only a semitone above “Mi” falls due to the darker “ah” sound. #
(f) the use of solfège hand signs to represent pitches allows a physical kinaesthetic connection between pitch and sound (rhythm is much more readily connected physically, but pitch is somehow more abstract.
(g) the use of solfège hand signs allows a teacher, director or conductor to sign notes without singing them. This way the student is creating the pitch in their heads rather than copying a sound that someone else produces. They have to ‘inner hear’ aurally first rather than copy by rote.
(h) the use of hand signs also allows a teacher, director or conductor to have two different groups singing two different notes simultaneously.
(i) lower/upper parts – it can be confusing when two melodies are played simultaneously and you have to recall one of them. Sometimes your brain simply wants to mix them up. Solfège helps you keep these separate because you are ‘feeling’ the distance from the tonic (Do) and because you have developed the ‘inner ear’ for hearing multiple parts simultaneously.
(j) it helps you perceive the same note in different contexts. For instance, a “C” may be perceived completely differently as the top note of an F major chord to being the root of a C major chord or the seventh of a D7 and so on. Now take these chords and place them in different keys and the note C very much “feels different” which can confuse our aural perception.
Aural Training, Pitch and Notation
Solfège (the Do-Re-Mi system) is an extremely useful tool and a great stepping-stone towards aural examinations. Transferring from solfège to notation requires some careful teaching, but, for people who already understand notation, the fusion of the two methods is a revelation.
(a) in a simple “reading through contour” sense, which most professionals do (you cannot play an extremely fast piece in your head and name every dot with a letter of the alphabet in your mind as you play it). You start to see Do-Mi-So as notes all on lines or all on spaces for instance. The relationships between notes is “line to line” or “line to space” etc.
(b) key signatures and accidentals start to make more sense because you are more aware of what is a semitone and what is a tone than you previously were.
(c) You are also more aware of where the tonic is on the score – it’s at the front of your mind. You are aware of what the tonic sounds like and thus notation becomes a representation of sound and its relationship to that as the ‘prime pitch’ in a tonal piece.
(d) Reading in different clefs becomes easier because you are reading space-space, line-space, line-line etc and relating these to a position within the key. “Do” simple moves which line/space it appears on. This works for different keys and clefs.
Aural Training, Pitch, Harmony, Keys and Modulations
Inner hearing modulations, cadences, as well as singing different cadences, perceiving their relationships is crucial to developing aural skills that allow success in examinations, but also allows the understanding of music on a larger scale. Modulations and cadences allow the perception of music on a more ‘conductor’ level. The aural conception of a piece, as a performer, almost as if using a drone from above allows you to understand musical sentences, hierarchical cadences and section endings, how keys relate to placement within the whole piece, the return to a particular key or the movement far away from it. You have a conception of the piece, as Kevin Bowyer (international organist) described in one of my interviews as being a horse ride: “at any one point on the horse I know where I have come from, where I am now and where I am going” (paraphrased from Kevin).
Crucial, hearing modulations requires aural training utilising semitones and tones. It’s these subtle differences that allow the transition from one tonality to another and often we are only considering the change of one note by one semitone, a very small difference. The concept of modulating from tonic to dominant sounds like a big thing, but only one note has changed. The concept of modulating from tonic to relative minor can be barely notable on occasions. Supertonic minor is only a tone above tonic major and so on.
As for the difference between specific chords, such as French-Italian-German 6ths, well, they all have 3 notes the same. Spotting notes and subtle differences in a texture that is not homophonic can really be difficult to spot. A first inversion chord, Ib only has one note difference from iii and vi.
Aural Lessons Online
If you are interested – do subscribe to the RCO courses. If you are wanting one-to-one lessons, please do book online with me via www.the-maestro-online.com/book. The idea that some people ‘can’ and some ‘can’t’ is totally incorrect. Some people are just further along the learning journey.
Dr Robin Harrison PhD BMus(Hons)/GradRNCM FNCM ARCO LTCL DipLCM PGCE(QTS) MISM is an expert, holistic, aural, paperwork, theory, organ, piano, singing and vocal coach as well as choral conductor. More details can be found at www.the-maestro-online.com
He is published on aural training via a chapter for the Routledge book, “The Routledge Companion to Aural Training (Before, In, and Beyond Higher Education)”