'What - am I supposed to listen as well as play?' RSS

Teaching / 04/10/2016
'What - am I supposed to listen as well as play?'

Hearing but not listening ... listening but not hearing

 I once taught a very promising student who was preparing a programme of Ginestera for an Advanced Level piano recital. At one point during a lesson, I suggested to him that he might listen more carefully to the sound he was producing. He replied in astonishment, 'What? Am I supposed to listen as well as play?' This was when I fully realised that even advanced music students may not necessarily be listening to their playing. 

Listening is not, of course, the same as hearing - hearing can be passive but listening is the conscious process of staying focused on and getting meaning from what we hear.  It's also common for students to listen without hearing all the elements that may be identified in music and one of the teacher's responsibilities is to guide the pupil towards discerning aural perception.

It is possible, with personal determination and with the help of a knowledgeable teacher, for profoundly deaf individuals such as Evelyn Glennie to develop acute aural skills and become successful musicians. In fact, Glennie documents in her Hearing Essay that she does listen and does hear music via her refined ability to detect vibrations throughout her whole body.

Ten good reasons for improving aural skills

Aural awareness is essential to learning in music education because it informs all aspects of musicianship, helping to develop musical perception, memory, understanding and discrimination as well as facilitating reading and memorising music and promoting more stylish, convincing performances. 

David Werfelmann of the University of Southern California came up with ten compelling reasons for improving aural skills that focus on the wider benefits of developing listening abilities:

  1.  To understand how music works

  2.  To be able to critically listen to music

  3.  To write and perform music accurately

  4.  To be able to detect errors

  5.  To be able to sight read well

  6.  To understand the styles and genres of Western music

  7.  To be exposed to unfamiliar music

  8.  To be familiar with the masterworks of Western music

  9.  To improve critical reasoning skills (in a sense wider than music alone)

  10.  To develop excellent scholarship.

Why do we need to teach aural skills?

A widely held theory of learning is that the development of understanding results from becoming able to internalise and use language in relation to a concept. Using language to focus on a concept, to describe or discuss it, promotes deeper comprehension of that concept.

As an example, a beginner music student will almost certainly start by playing the whole of a piece at the same dynamic level. Once the teacher draws the pupil's attention to variations between loud and quiet via practical experimentation, listening and discussion, the student begins to notice dynamics in music she listens to and, with guidance, starts to use dynamic contrasts in the music she plays. Further down the line, she will become able explain her own choice of dynamic detail in more advanced pieces.

Being able to hold in aural memory how a piece or song begins and then exploring what the composer did next with the musical ideas and harmonies gives a sense of phrase and structure which, in turn, produces musical 'signposts' that help with learning and memorisation. Understanding the elements that define musical style and character helps enormously with interpretation and expressiveness. Relating aural perception to the theory of music within the practical context of pieces being learned is a great way to make sure lessons are holistic and meaningful.

Why is aural tested in music exams?

Aural perception and musical understanding are so important that they are tested as a part of most practical music exams. To gain the best possible grade in a music exam, a candidate needs to do well in each part of it, including the aural tests. Aural skills are examined to promote musical understanding and perception, so the really important part of the aural test element is the teaching and learning that went before the exam. That prior preparation will have helped to further the student's all-round musical development, producing even better results when performing.

How can students do better at aural in music exams?

Doing better at aural tests is a matter of being taught how to listen, understanding what elements to pay attention to and then, crucially, to have the chance to practise. The problem for many students has been that music lessons are often just too short for teachers to cover fully this important aspect of learning and, until recent years, it was not normally possible to practise aural at home. We noticed that, when candidates were tested in exams, their aural ability was often less highly developed than their playing. Because we are teachers, we understood the problem - and we came up with the solution!

E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training

E-Music Maestro Aural Test Training is an online, interactive music resource that enables the student to learn and practise at home or at school. When using Aural Test Training, students not only have the chance to test their musical perception but also to hear explanations as to why a particular answer is the right one. They listen to lots of examples, very similar to the tests given in examinations, and find out correct descriptions of what is happening in the music. 

E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training is suitable for both Trinity and ABRSM exam preparation - it's perfect for teenagers who are self-conscious about singing and would rather practise those ABRSM tests in private! Aural Test Training is recommended to teachers by Trinity College London, as an extension of their own materials for exam preparation. It is now used by thousands of music students in over a hundred different countries worldwide.

Sandy Holland

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