You’re The Guide, Now Where Are You Taking Them?

2011Symposium_1_2When I write my lesson plans, a lot of thought goes into stating a goal, finding materials, and ordering everyithing into what I think will be an effective progression of steps that will guide my students through the lesson and what I want them to do, leading them to the destination of the goal. While it is necessary for me to think through all of this before I teach the lesson, if I don’t share my reasoning with the class, they may not connect the dots as they progress through the lessons, and some learning may not be lost. I’ve found that while it is good to share the goal with the class, this alone is often not enough. Just because students know what they are to be able to do by the end of the class doesn’t mean they will pick up on their own what each step along the way has to do with achieving that goal. When I explain at the beginning of the class, not only what they are going to do, but why they are going to do each task, and how it will advance them closer to achieving the overall goal, students are noticeably more motivated and more engaged in the lesson. Let’s see how this looks in a class I recently taught.

The goal was that students will be able to use standard music notation to improve their efficiency at learning a musical work. The music was a piece the class had already practiced singing, though it was not completely learned. I began by telling the class that they would learn how to use a musical score to gather information about a piece, and to assist them in learning the music faster than just by listening to it. i then distributed copies of the vocal parts to the first page of “Dry Your Tears, Africa” by John Williams. I reminded them that this was a song they are already familiar with, and then told them they had two minutes to gather as much information as they could just from looking at the music. After two minutes, they began telling me what they found. First came pitches, rhythm, and meter, then the words and the fact that the text was in a language other than English. One student said the title suggested the song had to do with sadness because of the word “tears.” Another student was able to  notice that there were two voice parts, and that they were soprano and tenor.  By the end of this discussion, everyone was aware of the wealth of information that was available to them by looking at the score, and most of which had been overlooked by just learning the music by ear.

Next, we began to apply what we had found to performance. We had discovered that rhythm was one of the many things Op.59_No.1written in the music. The rhythm of the song was simple; all quarter, eighth and half notes, so they tried clapping the rhythm from reading. It didn’t occur to them to think of how the song went while they read the rhythm, so their first attempts were more imprecise than I anticipated. Then a few of the students thought of singing quietly while they clapped. I recognized this as a good idea, and the whole class did the same. Now with the notation and their performance melded together, first their clapping became more precise, and then their singing became more precise. As they became aware of how their singing and clapping were not together, they realized that both needed to be more precise and brought into agreement. Once this was done, their performance improved dramatically.

As we worked our way further into the music, I told them to apply the same strategies as they practiced a less familiar section of the music. While they were tempted to just keep singing the section, thinking repetition would result in improvement, I encouraged them to use the notation to read the rhythms they were unsure of. We reviewed the use of slurs to connect notes that are sung on the same syllable, and checked to be sure we noticed all of the notes included in the longer melismas. Slowly, as they shifted their approach from learning by ear to learning form notation, their performance began to improve more quickly, just as I had told them it would. Because everyone likes expediency, they were now gaining enthusiasm about using music notation. By the end of the class, they had used music notation to a delve deeper into the music, and had learned many uses of notation in learning music, and learning about music.

Effective Strategies for Teaching Students to Play In Tune

2011Symposium_1_2Teaching students to tune is an area of concern for many music teachers. Students, particularly young ones, often need frequent attention to help them tune correctly. While there may be times that student difficulties tuning are physical, such as an inability to turn a tuning peg on a string instrument, many times the difficulty is that insufficient ear training has been provided, or ineffective methods are taught to students.

Although I played clarinet in elementary, middle, high school, college, and beyond to the present, my ability to not only tune my instrument accurately but also to play in tune and hear intonation continually as I and the ensemble I was in played a musical was not at a proficient level until I learned to use solfege and sing accurately. Learning not only melodic solfege not only improved the accuracy of my singing, but also of my clarinet playing and of my ability to hear chord functions and individual voices within a known chord function as I played. Until then, my conception of playing in tune was matching the pitch of the person next to me who was playing the same part. Using chord functions or ear training to anticipate and know what each note should sound like, whether or not the person next to me was playing it, was a new and revolutionary concept to me. Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, I was playing in tune and enjoying harmony like I never had before. It added a new excitement to my performing musical experience. With a trained ear, tuning became more a matter of anticipation than reaction. While it is true that there will always be reactionary adjustments to intonation, the need for reaction is greatly reduced when pitch can be anticipated. Another way of saying this is that it is unlikely one will hit a target without knowing what the target is. When a players or singers know what pitch they are aiming for, they have a much better chance of hitting it. Ear training is the first and I would argue most important step in teaching someone to play or sing in tune.

With that in mind, the problem with a common method that students are taught to use to tune should become quickly rote noteevident. A tuning note is played, and all instruments are tuned to the single pitch given. This is an exercise in matching pitch. Often, a statement to the effect of “continue to listen all the time so that you continue to play in tune” is all the information a student has to go on. In other words, keep matching pitch with someone, and you will be in tune.  But with whom should a player match pitch? Should they match pitch with the person next to them, behind them, with the oboist, the bassist? Who is the standard bearer of A = 440 or whatever frequency has been chosen? Leaving the choice of who to match pitch with to each individual students leaves the tuning standard up for grabs, and almost guarantees different sections of the ensemble are tuning to different pitches. The other problem with this strategy is that pitch matching is less effective than tuning by chords and chord functions, but relating one’s pitch to a chord or chord function is completely absent from the pitch matching strategy.

The solution to many tuning problems is found in these two strategies: train all ensemble members in ear training by having them learn and sing exercises and short songs and chorales in solfege. Teach them chord functions, and the voice leading tendencies of each individual part as it goes from one chord to the next. Teach them to sing intervals and to sing transpositions of motifs in different keys. Using singing as part of the warm-up routine is of more value than spending the extra time matching pitch to an oboe or clarinet. The ear training gained by singing with solfege will go a long way in improving everyone’s playing intonation. Secondly, teach students to always tune to the instrument that is one octave lower than theirs. This means the bass voices (bass, tuba, baritone sax, bass clarinet, etc.) begin the tuning by matching pitch with the tuning note. When these players have tuned the unison, then the tenor voices are added (cellos, tenor sax, baritone horn, etc.). When the tenor and bass voices are playing a unison that is in tune, the alto voices are added, and then the soprano voices. The tuning for the ensemble always starts with the lowest instrument or voice, and the lowest instrument or voice remains the standard bearer. When this procedure is followed, the harmonics throughout the ensemble remain in tune, resulting in a rich full sound that is simply not possible with other methods of tuning, especially those that rely on unison pitch matching.

Students will still need to overcome physical difficulties to successfully play in tune. Embouchures must be set correctly, posture and breath management must be correct, and tuning pegs, slides, joints, an barrels will still need to be manipulated, sometimes by little hands that can barely grasp them. But students will be able to anticipate the right tuning, and their ear will lead them to it as they play when effective ear training and octave tuning methods are taught and employed.