What Do We Want Children To Be Able To Do In Order To Sing Well?

Version 2Good teaching is largely about stating clear objectives, and then instructing students in how to achieve those objectives. When it comes to singing, often times music educators frame the task in terms of singing on pitch, using a head voice, and maintaining a steady beat. Clearly these items are important to good singing, but as objectives, they do not get at the heart of the matter, which is what do singers do to stay on pitch, stay on beat, and maintain a head voice? If we attempt to get at pitch by matching pitches to a reference source such as a piano or our own voices, we are not teaching accurate singing, we are teaching pitch matching, which requires a reference tone and avoids producing accurate pitches independently. Likewise, if we attempt to get at steady beat by following a conductor, drum, or other reference, we are again teaching beat matching , which requires a reference beat, and avoiding teaching accurate singing. To truly teach students to sing accurately, we must develop what Kodaly specialists call “inner hearing” and what Gordon called “audiation.” Both concepts, though not identical, include hearing aspects of music in the imagination that cannot physically be heard.

The process of developing audiation/inner hearing (which from here on I will simply refer to as audiation) begins with rote learning, progresses through verbally associating tones and rhythms to verbal labels, and associating the connected tones or rhythms with notation. This means that steady beat can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students, and patterns of tones can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students. When students are echoing in groups, they must reproduce what you have performed without using you as a reference, but they still use each other as a reference. Because of this, it is important for students to also echo you individually once they have learned patterns from rote.

If we take a closer look at this learning process, we must examine how students will know if they have echoed the teacher’s models accurately. This comes down to the abilities to make tonal sense of what has just been heard, and to make same/different discriminations. In the first instance, the child must be able to perceive harmonic functions of tones, especially tonic and dominant, must be able to cognitively organize groups of tones into familiar patterns such as chords, familiar motifs or phrases, and so forth, and must be able to make same/different discriminations between what the child has heard the teacher do, and what the child has done in an attempt to echo. The child must ask him or herself, “is what I just did the same as what the teacher did or was it different? If it was different, how and where was it different? What was my error? How can I make it the same next time?” When I am teaching phrases or patterns to the group at the rote learning stage, I will repeat the phrase or pattern several times if noticeable inaccuracies occur. The student know that I have determined that their echo is different from my source and so they listen critically and try to correct their error. Even in a group, they are usually able to detect the difference and improve their accuracy without my telling them what the error was. This ability to self-correct is evidence that learning is taking place. If I were to tell them every error and “fix” them by rote repetition, that depth of learning would not occur.

The same is true of steady beat. “Was the tempo the same throughout, or did you get faster or slower?” Changing tempo can often be corrected simply by having the students tap the pulse on their knees as they sing. It must be said that simply having students tap a steady beat in the absence of music from which the beat can be extrapolated is of extremely limited value. Rhythm is a complex concept. It is a blending of tempo, duration, and meter. Steady beat is extremely difficult to maintain when meter is not


The metrical hierarchy demonstrated

being considered. Patterns of durations, which is what comprises rhythms, are only made meaningful when they are grouped into patterns of strong and weak beats from which we perceive meter. Meter gives us frames of reference that make apparent levels of rhythmic structure and clarify what the beat unit of each level is. Music progresses along beats that can be measures or single note durations. Without these sign posts resulting from the combination of levels, a listener or performer can become lost in an ongoing sequence of indistinguishable beats. It’s as if every person we met had an identical appearance, like twins. We would quickly loose the ability to tell one person from another. So it is with beats. One beat is set apart from others by where it falls within the metrical pattern.

What, then are the implications for teaching singing? Pitch matching must be replaced by pitch echoing within a tonal context, and playing with a provided beat must be replaced by playing with one’s own audiated beat and that beat within a metrical structure. For pitches, it is helpful to establish a tonality before asking the student to sing. This can involve singing or playing for the student a I-V-I progression, either sung in arpeggiated form, or played as chords on a keyboard. After the tonality is established in this way, the student will have a tonal context in which to place the tones he or she sings. For example, if the child is to sing the folksong “Rocky Mountain,” then he or she will begin knowing that the first note is the tonic note, and that the first phrase is entirely comprised of the tonic triad. This fits easily into the I-V-I preparation, and facilitates singing all of the tones in tune, avoiding matching pitches with an external reference, and making it unnecessary to attempt to sing intervallic ally from one tone to the next. Being able to keep the tonality firmly in mind while singing guides the singer in staying on pitch, and also makes more apparent deviations, because they are not gradual distortions of intervals, but dissonances to the tonal environment active in the singer’s mind. Strategies such as interrupting singing to have the student jump to the tonic note, or to identify occurrences of the tonic note while singing help.

For steady beat, the procedure is much the same. First, establish a meter by chanting a rhythm pattern that includes ictus value notes, and next-level beat divisions; that is, that contains, for example, quarter notes and pairs of eighth notes. This rhythm would establish the meter as duple, because the ictus is divided into two sounds. After establishing this, the student will then continue to divide each beat into two parts. Maintaining that meter will facilitate maintaining the steady beat. So when it comes down to it, teaching students to sing accurately is more a matter of teaching inner hearing/audiation, than it is about teaching imitation or matching. It is about building musicianship to the point where the student organizes musical sounds into patterns and structures that demand and facilitate accurate performance to maintain.


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