Working Aurally With Key Signatures

2011 Symposium2

In my post, Do You Really Know What A Key Signature Is? I made the point that we must not overlook the importance of audiation and teaching keyalities and tonalities aurally before teaching written key signatures. I mentioned singing and playing scales and arpeggios by ear in different keyalities and tonalities. Today, I would like to hone in on how to develop advanced audiation skills in this area.

One approach is to present a student with a phrase, and have him or her play that phrase in many or all keyalities. For example, you might give your student the first four notes of the last movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, do, re, fa, mi, and have him or her first sing, and then play it in all keyalities. The student would play c, d, f, e, and then d, e, g, f-sharp, and then e, f-sharp, a, g-sharp, and so forth. For singing, I recommend using fixed do solfege. Only by using fixed do will the student truly audiate in different keyalities. With moveable do, each keyality is a repetition of another only at a different pitch. With fixed do, the student must consciously adjust notes a semi-tone with sharps or flats, and isn’t that the point of teaching key signatures? The student would eventually play this four-note motif with all key signatures. This approach is effective for teaching all keyalities, but only  includes one tonality; each time the student is playing in major.

It is also necessary for students to learn to sing, audiate, and play in all tonalities. To do this effectively, we would need material that includes more than four pitches. We could use “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” or what many of us know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Begin by having the student sing, again using fixed do solfege. Let us say we are using the song in C major. The student would sing do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol, fa, fa, mi, mi, re, re, do. That much is sufficient. Now have the student sing the same tune, but in dorian. This time, the student will sing do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol, fa, fa, b mi, b mi, re, re, do.  Next,C-Major-Scale  the student sings it in minor. do, do, sol, sol, b la, b la, sol, fa, fa, b mi, b mi, re, re, do. After that, the student sings in Lydian. do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol, # fa, # fa, mi, mi, re, re, do. Finally, the student sings in Phrygian. do, do, sol, sol, b la, b la, sol, fa, fa, b mi, b mi,   b re, b re, do. I like to have students sing in all the tonalities first, then go back, if he or she is an instrumentalist, and play them in all the tonalities. Having the student sing them all first focuses on the differences between the tonalities by keeping the performance method, singing, constant. Alternating singing with playing tends to obscure the changes being made from one tonality to the other.

Remember, all of this is being done by ear–there is no notation involved. At this stage we are training the ear, not the eyes. Because of this, it is also important that the student not only be performing in a variety of keyalities and tonalities, but also listening to songs in a variety of keyalities and tonalities. The teacher should perform songs in Dorian, minor, Lydian, and Phrygian often so that the students becomes accustomed to hearing and audiating those tonalities as a listener, so that when he or she sings or plays, the tonality is already familiar. Scarborough Fair, Eleanor Rigby, and Drunken Sailor are good examples of songs in Dorian. Music that uses the Phyrigian mode include Liszt ‘s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Music that employs the Lydian mode includes Chopin’s Mazurka No. 15. and the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor. Tunes that employ the mixolydian mode include The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’, the theme to the TV series of Star Trek and Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral. Not all melodies will include all of the notes needed to establish a tonality, so choose one that is well fitted for the mode you are teaching.

Dalcroze ScalesAnother excellent method of developing the ear is to have the student sing and then play intervals in all keys. Again, start with singing using fixed do solfege. For this example, I will arbitrarily start with diatonic fourths C major, but it doesn’t matter which key you start with. Do, fa, re, sol, mi, la, fa, ti, sol, do. Then go on to D major. I do not use the chromatic alterations to the syllables, but make the adjustment in pitch when I sing, so, for example fa is sung for both f and f-sharp. The student sings re, sol, mi, la, fa, ti, sol, do, la, re. Remember, fa and do are sharped notes now. Proceed to E major. Mi, la, fa, ti, sol, do, la, re, ti, mi, and fa, do, sol, and re are sharped. If you have been doing these intervals while reading, you have experienced what a mental exercise this is, forcing you to adjust to the changing key signatures. The connection to a musical instrument comes as the student is able to think the syllables and pitches while playing. To help this connection, it can be helpful for the teacher to sing the intervals with the solfege while the student plays, then gradually reduce the number of notes sung for the student until he or she is left entirely on his or her own.

The time taken for this kind of training is well worth it. Though it may seem like these kinds of activities will be too time consuming to accommodate instruction on repertoire in the same lesson, you will see relatively quickly that training a student in audiation enables him or her to learn everything much more quickly, because they are able to know with more precision what they are trying to sing or play, and are able to produce the right notes much more fluently. They become, as it were, fluent “speakers” of music.




Improvising With Tonal Patterns

2011Symposium_1_2Music is constructed with patterns of pitches and rhythms. As we have seen over the last two weeks, we begin to learn these patterns aurally from birth and even before. Aural learning continues into the school age years, and is necessary before music reading and writing can be taught effectively. Not only are the raw pitches and rhythms learned, but also the meters and tonalities resulting from those patterns. As  a person learns patterns, tonalities, and meters, he or she can begin using them in improvisation. Improvisation can only be done with patterns, meters and tonalities that have been learned.; we do not improvise from nothing, but from ideas that are essentially original orderings and variations on things we have already heard and are familiar with.

At its beginning stages, original musical thought may be slight alterations to a pattern the student has just heard. When I sing a pattern to a student, and ask that student to sing back to me something different from what I just sang, my youngest students sometimes have trouble thinking of something to sing. I then guide them with suggestions. I may point out that in what I just sang the pitches went down, so he or she could try singing something that goes up. Or I might suggest that the child sing what I did, but add or remove one or more notes. Another idea is to sing the rhythm of the child’s name. All of these strategies coax the child to begin generating musical ideas from musical thoughts. All of it is aurally based, without even a reference to notation.

When notation is brought in, it is only of patterns that the children have already learned aurally. Early on, I will write several tonal patterns on the board, sing one of them, have the class or an individual repeat the same pattern, and then tell me which pattern of those on the board we just sang. This strengthens the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Again, strategies may be needed to shore up this learning. For example, one of the patterns might be “do, mi.” After correctly singing and identifying that pattern, I might move on to “do, mi, so.” I have already made sure that only these two patterns begin with “do,mi,” so I can say to the unsure student, ” what are the first two pitches in the pattern I just sang?” I the sing “do, mi, so” again, and wait for the student’s answer. After finding them to be “do, mi” I then say, “pattern 1 was ‘do, mi,’ can you find another pattern that begins with the same pitches?” Using this question as a guide, the student can then find the pattern that is “do, mi, so.” All of this gives students practice in locating notes on the staff, and thinking in 101terms of patterns or combinations of pitches, instead of individual pitches.

After building proficiency at singing and reading patterns, students can move on to improvising with these same patterns. Students can repeat patterns, sequence several patterns, and alter one or more notes in a pattern to create improvised music. Until rhythm is added, there is no meter, but students are already hearing a tonality form the patterns they are improvising, because the patterns I have taught them for this activity are all in a single tonality. Do, mi can become do, mi, mi; so, fa, re can become so, fa, re, so; so, mi, do can become so, do, and so forth. I can use the same approach with rhythms, beginning with rhythm patterns aurally, then going into notation, and leading into improvisation. After using rhythm patterns in this way, I then reinsert pitches, and have students play with both tonal and rhythm patterns at the same time; that is, they can now change pitch, rhythm, or both as they improvise.

Although improvisation is not usually thought of as including notation, I find that including notation in these improvisation activities helps students strengthen their audiation and reading skills. By seeing what they are improvising off of in the small segments of tonal and rhythm patterns, they are connecting what they see to the changes they are making to it. It is also a kind of readiness exercise for improvising off of a lead sheet, where musicians have entire melodies notated. Learning to read in patterns first transfers to reading whole melodies, preparing students to see patterns in notated melodies, and isolate them as materials for fruitful improvisation. It also takes some of the mystery out of improvisation for inexperienced improvisers, because it feels less like they are making music out of thin air, and more of what it really is: making music out of patterns they already know.

Getting Directions

2011Symposium_1_2When I used to go on family vacations, my Dad always had a map handy. He had it all folded so that the portion of the map he needed was visible while the rest of the map was folded underneath. Then, he’s hold the map so that the direction he was driving was facing the front of the car. That way he could easily see which way to turn. It was his way of translating a two-dimensional map into actions taken in three dimensions. With pianos, we have a similar problem. Music that goes up goes to the right on the keyboard, and music that goes down goes to the left. With the left hand, finger numbers that go up play notes that go down, while in the right hand, finger numbers that go up play notes that go up. Some have suggested that creating computer software that rotates the keyboard ninety degrees so that notes that go up go up, not to the right, is the answer, but eventually every pianist has to play a real piano, and no one I know can play one from the side. I would like to propose a more practical approach; one that likens reading music to reading a number line. On a number line, numbers that go up go to the right, just like notes on a piano. And on a number line, numbers that go down go the left, again just like on a piano. If numbers are used for note names instead of letter names or solfege, then playing notes on a piano can be just like travelling up and down a number line. As the numbers get bigger or “go up,” the notes sound higher in pitch or go up, and as the numbers get smaller or “go down,” the notes sound lower in pitch or go down. The values of the pitch numbers can be associated with relative highness and lowness in pitch, and our keyboard/number line moves in the familiar left and right direction.

This also more accurately represents the science of what is really going on. As pitch gets “higher,” the frequency of the sound increases. For example, the frequencies of the eight pitches in a one-octave C major scale are C(^1)=261.63, D(^2)=293.66, E(^3)=329.63, F(^4)=349.23, G(^5)=392.00, A(^6)=440.00, B(^7)=493.88, C(^8)=523.25. When we say a pitch is going up, what is really being described is a pitch that has a higher frequency than the preceding pitch, and is representing by point on a number line to the right. When saying the music went up, we make an abstraction of what we hear going in an upwards direction in space, but this is not in fact what is physically occurring. This abstraction is represented in our standard musical notation by placing the note that went “up” higher on the page (or closer to the top of the page) than the preceding note.

Of course we don’t teach young children about frequencies, but we do teach them how to count, and a number line is a tool piano practicefor doing so that many of them are familiar with from their classrooms. Seeing the piano keyboard as a number line is an easy transfer for them. A number line can be made and set beyond the black keys leaning up against the back of the keyboard and referred to during practice and teaching sessions. The number line can be moved so that it aligned with any tonic, and is used as tonal syllables, with the tonic always aligned with “1.” When pitches are sung, the student still uses fixed do, but when they are played, he or she thinks of them as numbers on the number line. If the teacher prefers to retain letter names for notes, a “letter line” can be used instead, and the student can be taught to think of letters going up and down as number do. By establishing up and down as a function of numerical values attached to pitches, the left to right reading of a line of music can be disengaged from pitch direction, avoiding the contradiction of up/down versus left/right.

Pitfalls and Remedies to Teaching Instrumental Music

2011Symposium_1_2Learning to play a musical instrument is one of life’s joys and one that many children enjoy, and many adults wish they had taken advantage of when they had the chance in school. Beyond the enjoyment of playing music, learning an instrument is also an excellent way to learn most musical concepts. For example, students can learn most of what there is to learn about music from a well designed curriculum for a piano lab. Keyboards are a popular musical instrument with students, including children in the middle school years, when engaging and connecting with students in general music can be challenging. If you are like me, you do not have the budget to purchase a piano lab, but many of the benefits are still available by utilizing piano keyboard apps for mobile devices. While these apps can never replicate the feel of true weighted keys, they do provide enough simulation to be of use in teaching keyboard and music concepts. Recorder and guitar are also a popular instruments for achieving the same goals. I prefer the “Real” series of apps. There is Real Piano, Real Guitar, and Real Drums, all of which are excellent, with enough options and reasonably realistic sounds, even on the free versions. Real Guitar is of less use, because there is no provision for fingering chords or notes: they are selected with a push of the button. But the strumming and sound is realistic. The drum and piano apps are more useful, because they leave all of the playing to the user.

With recorders, there is less of a need for apps because the instruments themselves are affordable. Students can purchase working recorders for under five dollars, and can progress form beginning levels to highly proficient and advanced levels playing Renaissance and Baroque repertoire. Although students take a while to achieve a characteristic sound on most of these instruments, once they do, they are less prone to being self-conscious about performing in public, because not everyone can play and most friends, teachers and adults are impressed with proficiency on a musical instrument. Playing music develops confidence that carries over into other areas. These are all important benefits of instrumental music instruction.

There are pitfalls, though that must be kept in mind. People who play piano tend to have a less accurate musical ear than those who play violin. This undoubtedly is because  there is no possibility of tuning individual notes as one plays a piano, whereas a violinist must be adjusting intonation constantly. If intonation and developing a musical ear is ignored when teaching non-tuneable instruments like the piano, or semi-non-tuneable instruments like most wind instruments where real time tuning is necessary but restricted, then playing becomes a mechanical task; no more than operating a machine that happens to make musical sounds. To avoid this deficit in instruction, music teachers of instruments must include singing and ear training as part of their curriculum. Keyboard and wind instrument students must be required to sing their parts, learn solfege, and audiate what they are about to play, and then play fully, informed by their prior singing and audiating what the music will sound like if they play it correctly. This is a method that has often been taught in teacher preparation programs, occasionally included in instrumental method books, but too infrequently carried out by teachers. The value of sight singing for instrumental students cannot be overstated.

A second pitfall is that too many students do not receive enough experience being expressive and interpreting what Ensemblethey play. They often either spend hours practicing alone for solo auditions to music festivals, or practicing ensemble parts, or they are spending their playing time in large ensemble rehearsals where everyone is trying to execute the conductor’s interpretation, and where experience may not exceed playing the right notes, dynamics, and tempos. The real training ground for building musicianship on a musical instrument ought to be in chamber music ensembles. This can take the format of frequently practicing a solo with a pianist, or playing music in ensembles of popular instrumentations such as a trio, quartet or quintet. In these settings, every player is easily heard, and each player’s accuracy and expressiveness is apparent. The feeling of becoming lost in a large ensemble is replaced with the excitement and even thrill of hearing every moment of one’s playing combining with other timbres to form a vibrant, musical performance. Not only do chamber groups develop musicianship more effectively, but the added musicianship gained then goes back into the large ensembles in which those same students play. Ultimately, instrumental music programs must place a greater premium on building musicianship, and not stop at merely achieving note, dynamic, and tempo accuracy.

The Way of Musical Beat Development

2011Symposium_1_2In music, awareness and sense of beat develops from a largely kinesthetic-motor response in the pre-kindergarten years, to a more internalized understanding with older children. Beat can be felt in any of a number of locations in the body, but it must be felt. Beat is not something that can be understood only from an intellectual perspective. Knowing about beat is not a substitute for knowing beat, or even knowing the beat. Gordon found that beat is felt in the body only when a shift of weight is involved. This disqualifies foot tapping as a way of knowing the beat, because no shift of weight occurs when a person is just tapping a foot. Foot tapping can be part of choreography through which beat is performed or expressed, but it must be known and felt elsewhere. Rocking motions are effective with young children for this reason; a shift of weight is felt with each rock. Other motions that are effective include swaying of the body, swaying of the arm, walking and stamping with alternating feet.

All of these motions should be done while music is being heard or performed, and the relationships between the movements and what is heard or performed must be learned. Rhythms can be equal to, elongations of, or divisions of the pulse being felt through movement. It is best to let elongations and divisions be learned by rote and occur naturally as children are moving to a steady pulse, instead of pointing out the relationship and trying to teach the music theory behind it. As children become accustomed to moving to a steady pulse while singing, chanting and listening, they will develop a sense of beat.

To begin to help children internalize musical beat, the motions can progress from largeDance-and-Movement muscle to smaller muscle. For example, initially children will rock, sway their arms and walk. Later, when they have become secure with musical beat understood through these motions, smaller muscle movements such as finger snapping with a gentle sway, shoulder tapping, head nodding or bouncing on the balls of the feet can be incorporated. These motions are more localized in the body. When the child has become accustomed to several of them, they should be encouraged to choose the one with which they can most easily feel the beet. People feel the beat best in different parts of their body, so giving this choice increases the effectiveness of using movement to develop beat. The more localized and the smaller the muscles involved, the more internalized the experiencing of beat will become. Most people will never loose the urge to move something when they listen to music, and just the presence of that urge is evidence that a sense of beat has been internalized.

With the exception of finger snapping, I have so far avoided movements that create sound, such as clapping and patsching. I have found that students who are unsure of the beat will try to copy what they hear other students doing. As a result, they are always a little after the beat, and will practice this inaccurate pulse keeping so that they become quite good at it, but they will not develop beat independence. For this reason, I prefer to delay using sound producing movements until all students are secure in their pulse keeping, at least for their current  level and repertoire. Once non-sound-producing motions are being used comfortably, the pulse can be securely performed aurally with little need for remediation or further training. This same principle holds for transferring body percussion, which is sound producing, to instrument playing. I keep students on body percussion as long as possible before giving them Orff instruments to play. I also like to have them sing the rhythm or solfege syllables of the music they will eventually be playing on instruments during this stage of instruction.  Doing so prepares them for success on the instruments much better, and allows them to enjoy playing accurately from the start.  Beat is foundational to all musics of the world. The importance of developing a complete understanding of it cannot be over stated.

There will not be a posting to this blog on Thursday, November 27 or Friday November 28. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

What Is An Effective Approach to Teaching Sight Reading?

2011Symposium_1_2One of the perennial challenges for music teachers seems to be teaching sight-reading, particularly to older children who have not developed music reading skills at a young age. Music teachers often believe that students will get better at sight reading by practicing sight reading. This is true if students already know how to read music, and are trying to improve on what they already can do. But students who cannot read music, or are poor music readers will only practice poor reading and poor reading habits if they are sent off to practice. Music teachers must always equip students to practice before asking them to do so. With this in mind, I have some things students should be able to do before they simply go off and practice sight reading.

First, musical notes represent sounds, not fingerings. If you are teaching a musical instrument, require your students to sing what they are about to play before they play it. Even if they have to sing at a slowed tempo, auditing the pitches before playing them will be a tremendous help. I once tried an experiment with two beginner fifth grade trumpet classes. For one class, I taught them solfege and required them to correctly sing with solfege syllables every line of music before they played it. With the other class, I did  not teach them solfege or require them to sing, but just had them play the music. Both classes used the same method book, and had the same instructional times. The result was that the class that sang was four pages ahead of the class that did not sing by the December concert. Since then, I have found that singing consistently advances students faster in their instrumental music studies. Singers need to separate themselves from pianos. It is my opinion that singers rely far too much on a piano to learn their music. As a result, much of their repertoire is learned by rote, with little audiation taking place. Reading music must involve hearing tones in the imagination where none are physically present. Practicing sight reading must include producing physical sound from the written note, with no help from another sound source. Tuning can be checked with an electronic tuner to avoid inadvertently going flat or sharp.

Second, Western tonal music is composed within the context of tonic-dominant harmonic image05relationships, and of isometric patterns. The natural stresses that are applied by harmonic functions, metrical placement, note duration, and consonance and dissonance are all integral parts of the musical experience. When musicians read music, they must do so in conformance with the written rhythms, meters, beats, and patterns of tension and release that grow out of the rhythmic and harmonic contexts. It is not enough to sing the correct pitches and rhythms, though even this is too often not accomplished, but they must be inflected and interpreted in such a way that the hierarchical structure of Western tonal music is perceptible. The singer or instrumentalist must stress the appogiatura or suspension, must build tension approaching a cadence and release it on the resolution, must realize the subtle but crucial difference between the downbeat of a weak measure and the downbeat of a strong measure, must understand that there are many levels of beats present in music, from the division of the ictus, to the beat of the onset of each four-measure phrase. These are all elements of good music reading, and making them part of what is practiced when sight reading is practiced makes the experience more musical and less pedantic. Sight reading must be about more than pitches and rhythms, because music is much richer than that.

Third, anything that is written represents something that exists in the physical world. The world apple represents a particular variety of fruit. The word is not the fruit, but refers to the fruit, and is the name given to the thing that exists in the physical world that we know to be an apple. A note on a musical staff is not a color, picture, number, or even a solfege syllable, for those are just names for the representation, not the thing itself. The thing itself is the sound–that is what the written note represents. Regardless of what strategy or method is used to teach music reading, ultimately, the written note must be associated with the heard sound, and the student must be able to make the sound so that it is audible in response to seeing the written representation of it. This, I feel, is the step that is frequently overlooked. There is either no sound taught prior to revealing the note, in which case the student cannot know what the note represents, or the sound and written representation are taught simultaneously, which leaves the confused learner to wonder whether the sound represents the written note, or the note represents the sound. We must teach the sound, then the representations. That means sight reading is taught first by teaching the sounds contained in what is to be read, and then associating the sounds which are already familiar, to the notation of them, which is new. That is how sight reading ought to be taught.

What Solfege Is, And What It Is Not

2011Symposium_1_2The use of solfege syllables in teaching singing and music reading is one of those things that music educators cannot seem to come to a consensus on. some use solfege, some do not. some prefer to use letter names, some numbers, some no note names at all, just a neutral syllable. Some try using solfege, expecting quick or immediate results, and then when their students struggle to remember the syllables, or don’t sing or sight read any better, they abandon them altogether. While some of this disunity over solfege is a matter of personal choice, some of it is the result of misunderstanding what the use of solfege is supposed to accomplish. Solfege syllables are the labels with which verbal association learning takes place. Let me explain.

Anytime a human learns music or language, the person learns first through hearing. A word or pattern of musical notes has a particular sound to it that the person remembers, so that the same word or pattern of musical notes can be recognized if it is heard again. At this point the word or pattern of musical notes has no meaning attached to it; it is merely recognizable when heard. They can be compared to hearing a noise in the distance every day without knowing what is making the noise. We recognize that it is the same noise we heard yesterday, but we cannot identify it or associate with meaning or a source. Contrast this to hearing, for example, thunder in the distance. We not only recognize the sound as thunder, but the sound has meaning for us: a storm is coming and it is time to take in the laundry, close the car windows, and come inside before the storm hits.

With words and music, we next learn to associate a word for the thinkg or action it signifies. “Table” is the object we eat dinner on, and “cat” is the animal that sits on our lap and purrs. Although a person has learned this much, they will not know what the word “table” or “cat” looks like written down, or they will recognize the word but not know that it refers to the flat surface with four legs, or the soft furry purring animal that lives in our house. In order to be able to recognize the word and understand its meaning, the two must be associated. We see the word “table” written down, and we learn that it signifies the thing our dinner plates are on; we see the word “cat” written down, and we learn that it signifies the animal on your lap. This is association.

In music, notes and patterns of notes don’t have literal, explicit meanings the way words in language do. What weC-Major-Scale hear, and what we think and feel about what we hear, is what the music means. Musical meaning comes from the structural relationships we find between notes. Through relationships, notes form motifs, themes, and harmonic progressions. These are all made of notes, and the notes, like words, have meanings—meanings like tonic, dominant, leading tone, passing tone, or suspension. To be able to read music, there must be a name for each of these notes through which we can associate the sound with the meaning. That is what solfege syllables do. They give us labels or names for musical sounds that make it possible for us to understand them in a musical way. A key will give these names, these solfege syllables a context in which to be understood. A melody in fa major has fa as a tonic and do as a dominant. The tonic chord is fa-la-do and the dominant chord is do-mi-sol. Knowing these names, it is possible for me to instantly know, audiate, and even sing exactly the notes be referred to by the names, and if they are written down by the published notes. Fa always has the same pitch, as does do, la or any other syllable, regardless of what key the music is in. When solfege is used in this way—to name what is already known aurally, then it is of great benefit to the music student. On the other hand, trying to memorize solfege syllables as an end unto itself without knowing the sounds to which they refer will result in confusion and unsatisfactory results—the very thing that happens when teachers, with the best of intentions, misuse solfege in this way.

Thinking In Music is the Key to Music Literacy

2011Symposium_1_2One of the reasons teaching music reading and writing is so challenging for students and music teachers is that music is not used nearly as often as a basis for thought and actions. Every action begins with a thought, and thoughts are generally pictures or words; images or descriptions. Music for most people is something we hear and even understand in a musical sense, but not the form in which our thoughts are made. This condition is reinforced often, even in a music classroom. For example, to respond to music, students are often asked to write about music that is played for them in class. Regardless of the specifics of the assignment, the students are responding to music with words, not in kind with music. If students are going to excel at reading and writing music, they must get to the point where they are thinking in music—what Gordon calls audiation.

One example of how this can be done is finishing musical thoughts. The teacher plays the beginning of a musical phrase (called antecedent) and then asks a student to complete the phrase (called consequent) by improvising it on a barred instrument. If the student’s response is restricted to notes of the major pentatonic scale, to the same rhythm as the antecedent, and to starting on sol and ending on do, students who have been taught to sing a pentatonic scale with solfege can think of consequent sub-phrases at the same time the one student is actually playing one.  They can be cold-called to sing or play their idea before or the performing child to assure they are all actually thinking of ideas, and to prevent the other students from copying the performing child’s consequent sub-phrase.

Other opportunities for questioning and answering can further engage students in thinking music.  When the class is singing a song, an individual can be called on to sing the next phrase. A child can be asked to sing the first phrase of a song they remember singing last class. After hearing a familiar phrase with an intentional error, a student can be asked to locate the error and perform the phrase correctly. Improvising variations, and even playing “name that tune” are all activities that engage students of thinking in music instead of words. Unrestricted improvisation is another tool. The teacher sings a short musical phrase on a neutral syllable, and the student sings back a different phrase of the same length. At first, students will repeat what the teacher has sung, which isn’t all bad, because doing so requires audiation as well. But even if the child only changes one note, that one note is an original musical idea, being connected to another idea that the teacher generated. Playing or singing anything from memory is also a good use for thinking in music.

So far, I have only discussed melodic thinking in music, but thinking in music can also take place rhythmically. The Feed Your Brain Musicteacher can play an antecedent sub-phrase on a drum, and the student answers with a consequent sub-phrase, also on a drum. Devising complementary rhythms is another worthwhile activity. Students often find it challenging to play a rhythm on a drum with any “windows” in it. Their tendency is to play through without breath or pause. Learning to leave musical space and imagining what might fill that space from another player is powerful thinking in music, and another student, in filling that window and then creating space elsewhere is equally beneficial. These strategies are addressed excellently in Will Schmid’s World Music Drumming.

I have saved the most obvious activity for thinking in music until last, because it is the most obvious: composing. Students think in music when they write down original musical ideas. Not all composing done by students in music classes is thinking in music. Anytime note or rhythm selection is arbitrary, the student is doing nothing more than making a piece of visual art on a music staff. But when the student writes down a note and knows what it sounds like, and what groups of notes he or she has written down sound like without having it played or sung for them, or without playing or singing it themselves, then that music that is written down on that paper is the product of thinking in music.  Students should only compose what they can audiate. For this reason, they should not be allowed to compose before they can sight sing, because without sight singing skills, it is impossible for them to know what they are writing down.

Music teacher should take every opportunity to get their students thinking in music. Handling music like language (though not necessarily considering it to be a language) through questioning and answering in music, teaching sight singing, and guiding students through audiated composition projects should be done at every opportunity.

What’s an Effective Way to Teach A New Song?

2011Symposium_1_2For the most part, my students love to sing. This almost always is a good thing, but it is not always so. If I don’t make sure I start them off singing in their head voices, many will practice singing incorrectly, getting better at poor singing and no better at good singing. I like to have them do Gordon tonal patterns first, but transposed up so that at least some of the pitches are above middle line B-flat on the treble staff. They quickly go into their head voices, I compliment on using their singing voices so well, and then remind them to keep singing with their singing voices as we learn the next song.

Another problem occurs when I am teaching them a new rote song; they usually want to start singing it right away. They want to follow close behind me, singing along as I sing; even if it is the first time they have ever heard the song. This is doubly troublesome, because even if they sing a phrase correctly, they are only imitating me, not singing from audiating. Singing first for them, and then having them sing what I have sung after a brief pause forces them to recall what I sang, which is a form of audiation.

I sometimes let them start singing too soon, before they have heard the song enough times to remember it accurately. Then, they make mistakes that have to be corrected. For this reason, I often use questioning and song analysis during my introduction of a song. “Do you hear this chord?

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la fa fa la do do (remember, I used fixed do).

“ What function is that, tonic or dominant? Please sing that chord for me. Listen to me sing the first part of the song again, and then someone will tell me what note it ended on.

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la fa fa la do do re do la fa re do la fa la la so so fa

“That’s right, it ended on ‘fa.’ I’ll then ask several students to sing fa.

Now I’ll start the song, and you continue it from where I stopped.

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la fa fa la do do

The class then sings the song to the end. Notice I left them to sing the part that starts high enough for them to easily continue using their head voices. Next, I will hone in on a spot that is often troublesome.

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la

The class then sings, or should sing,

fa fa la do do

But the children often sing a third fa in place of la, because there were three occurrences of fa twice already. This is a passage that can be practiced until it is right. Then I will replace the solfege with the words, and sing it for them again.

Rocky mountain, rocky mountain, rocky mountain high

When you’re on that rocky mountain, hang your head and cry.

Everyone sings it. Next, I may go on to the next section, or I may have individual students sing alone the first part. The latter strategy has the advantage of affording the children more times of hearing the song. By the time we have gone through this entire sequence, the children have heard the song many times, have sung it in parts with and without the words, have practiced audiating when they had to continue where I left off, and as a result know the song very well. Through it all, I have been able to control when they sing and when they listen much more easily than just asking them not to sing while I sing. I have also avoided singing with the students, which, along with having them sing alone, as I have mentioned before, is crucial for developing independent singers, and for me being able to hear and objectively assess my students’ singing.

Can Tone and Chord Functions Be Taught With Fixed Do?

2011Symposium_1_2When it comes to choosing a system of syllables to sing for teaching ear training and sight singing, there seems to be a consensus that moveable do, sometimes called functional solfege, is needed for teaching chord and tone functions. To be sure, moving do to wherever the tonic is does help a singer remember where the tonic and other functions are. With practice, students can sing the tonic on do from any pitch at any point in a melody, and the function of chordal patterns can easily be identified by the combinations of moveable do syllables present; for example, any combination of do, mi, and so is a tonic patterns, and any combination of ti, re, fa, and/or so is a dominant pattern. The advantages of moveable do are in force as long as the work begin done is aural; but as soon as music reading is introduced, those advantages all but disappear and are replaced with illogic and difficulty.

Trying to learn to read music with moveable do is confusing, because pitches in identical places on the staff can be known by any one of seven names, twelve if chromatic syllables are used. While the advantages of avoiding this kind of situation are valued for rhythm syllables, they seem to be ignored for tonal syllables. Gordon opposes the Kodaly rhythm syllables, because macro beats are sometimes called ta, sometimes ti, and sometimes ter, yet he does not see a problem with having, for example, a C being sometimes called Do, sometimes Mi, sometimes So, and so forth. This difficulty, like the one with rhythm syllables, is avoidable.

Emile Jaques-Dalcroze was a professor of solfege and harmony at the Geneva Conservatory. Today, he is known for his method of teaching music known as eurhythmics, but solfege training using fixed do was an equally important part of his pedagogy. What interests us about his approach is that he used fixed do solfege to teach pitch and chord functions, something that many today don’t realize is even possible.

Dalcroze began with teaching students to hear the difference between a whole step and a half step. He believed that “every good musical method must be based on the “hearing” of sounds as much as on their performance.” From recognizing whole steps and half steps, he then went on to studying his unique form of scales. All scales were sung in fixed do solfege, from do to do (c to c). By adding the needed sharps or flats, Dalcroze would teach his students all of the scales, but always starting on do, singing up to the next do, and then finishing on the tonic. For example, a B-flat scale would be C, D, E-flat, F, G, A, B-flat, C, B-flat. The student would learn what scale was being sung by the placement of whole steps and half steps, and by audiating the tonic. The beginning note would have different functions, depending on the scale. In the case of the B-flat scale, the beginning tone is the supertonic, and the first half step comes after the second tone. If A-flat and D-flat were added, the beginning tone would be the mediant, and the first half step would come after the first tone. To help the student contextualize the tones in the major tonality, the teacher harmonizes the scale on the piano as the students sing until such assistance is no longer needed and the students can audiate the harmonization on their own. Using the piano to teach the harmonization also avoids students from audiating, for example, the B-flat scale as Aeolian. Only major scales are used at first. Once these are securely learned, it is a small matter to audiate the tonic of minor scales in a similar way.

You may wish to try this method out for yourself. Here are the scales written out. Remember to use fixed do for each scale. It is no longer common practice to use chromatic syllables, so us the same syllable for natural, flat or sharp on each pitch class.

Dalcroze Scales

From Exercices Pratiques d’Intonation by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, 1894