Thursday, October 10, 2013

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

One of the most important skills that music students should develop is the ability to listen. Music is an aural art, so listening skills are necessary to appreciate it as well as perform it. Yet all to often aural skills are neglected in favor of note-reading or instrumental technique. While those things are important, aural skills give students the ability to hear and correct their own mistakes as well as play songs they love by ear. There are lots of fun ways to incorporate ear training into music lessons. Here's a list of my favorite methods.

1. Sing the Notes!

This is a great way for students to learn the notes to their pieces and develop their ears! I often have my violin students sing their music before they play it on their instruments, using the note names (solfege can work as well). It has dramatically helped many of them learn their notes faster and more thoroughly, and it can help them identify mistakes they're making in rhythm or pitch. As students sing the notes, they also begin to associate the music they see on the page with the pitches they hear and sing, forging an important mental connection. Many students also enjoy it very much! I sing with them at first to keep them from getting too embarrassed from singing alone, and I encourage them to singing the notes (along with their CD, if possible) as a part of their practice time at home. I had several students who made incredible progress once they included singing as part of their regular practice. 

2. Listen to the Music

In Suzuki Method, we encourage students to listen to their reference recordings every day. This helps them learn good tone and hear the music in their heads before they play. Regular listening practice can also help students learn to play by ear. I have met other teachers who assign students to do listening research by looking up famous performances or pieces on youtube. The more students listen to great music, the better understanding they have of the depth and beauty of musical repertoire.

3. Imitation--I play, then you play

This is a good way to encourage students to play by ear. I start off with only a few notes spaced at intervals of at least one third (for example, A-C#-E). Then I play one or two notes, and have the students try to play them back to me. As the game gets more advanced, I might add more notes and closer intervals. If you have a group of students, you can also pick one student to be the "leader" who gets to play the notes while the other students imitate. Eventually, you can have students learn to play an entire piece by ear. This is also a fun way to encourage students to improvise, since the "leader" can freely make up music so long as they stay within the range of notes the teacher choses. 

4. Match the Pitch

Sometimes a student is playing the "right" note, but the pitch is slightly wrong. It's too flat or sharp, or doesn't harmonize well with the surrounding notes. I then teach students to adjust their intonation to match pitch with an outside source--either a piano, a tuner, or the teacher playing with them. This involves listening very closely, and making tiny adjustments until everything lines up perfectly. Once students can match pitch, they can also learn how to tune their own violins (or other instruments). I'm a big fan of teaching students to tune their instruments as quickly as possible--it makes it much more pleasant for them to practice at home, and frees up lesson time. It also allows students to feel more in control of their instruments and have real ownership over them. 

5. Beautiful Intervals and Chords

I love having my students play duets or other small ensembles together or with me, their teacher! Chamber music is an ideal setting to learn to play beautiful chords and intervals and adjust your intonation to a group. I might play chords on the piano (or double stops on the violin or viola) so that students can hear how their notes interact with other pitches in a chord or interval. It can also help to have students sing their different parts together, or sing each note in a chord. When I first start having students play together, I often have students build a chord from the bottom up. The person with the lowest note of the chord holds their note like a fermata, and each subsequant person enters and holds their note. The students listen and adjust until the chord sounds resonant and beautiful. This makes ensembles sound wonderful and teaches students how to listen for chords or intervals.

6. Find the Mistake

Sometimes music students seem heedless of the fact that they are playing wrong notes, or out of tune. Instead of pointing out their mistake directly, I'll tell them to listen to me play their piece, to see if they can here anything wrong. Then I'll deliberately make a mistake (usually one that they've been making that they don't seem aware of). Often, students can identify the mistake I've made, so I encourage them to listen to their own performance as carefully and critically as they listened to mine. Most of them immediately correct their mistake! If a student Can't hear a deliberate mistake in the music, then they don't know it well enough by ear, and they should listen to the piece again and again until they can recognize its pitches better.

7. Ear Training Apps

There are lots of apps and websites to help students develop aural skills! My favorite, Karajan, has recently changed its name to Better Ears, but it still has lots of helpful training. Students can choose to work on identifying intervals, pitches, chords, or chord progressions, and many other settings. These apps can be a fun way to practice ear training at home.