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Educating Those Ears!

When I describe my research in aural skills pedagogy to friends and colleagues outside of music, I tell them it entails training students’ ears for better musicianship. They often reply “Well, isn’t that basically everything in music education?” with a surprised look. “Well…yes…” I respond, knowing that all too often the ears ironically get crowded out of curriculum by other musical topics. The purpose of this article is to explore the role of the ears in the wider school curriculum and specifically in music curriculum, and to highlight ways music teachers can help students create and maintain focus on their aural skills while they grow as musicians.

Ears in the School Curriculum Consider for a moment some of the courses students take in high school: geometry, English, biology, physical education, world history, art appreciation, chemistry, and algebra, for example. None of these courses typically contains much emphasis on students’ ears. Students may be hearing instructions from the teacher or listening to audio as they watch a video demonstration, but they are not focusing on their ears as the fascinating natural tools they have been given, or maximizing the potential that lies within them.

Foreign language courses can provide students with specific focus on nuance and variety of sound by virtue of spoken communication that does not match the native tongue. Unfortunately, many schools require only two years of these courses, and students begin them relatively late in life. Furthermore, foreign language courses in high school often are taught and learned mostly visually; students might read from a book, memorize a chart of endings for verb conjugations, study the order of words for sentence structure, and compose phrases, sentences, and short stories. All these activities can be accomplished without the ears! Quality pronunciation and acute attention to aural nuance frequently take a backseat.

Among all the classes listed above, students have ample time to exercise their visual and kinesthetic faculties. For example, math classes incorporate formulas, shapes, and graphs, and history classes offer charts, maps, and timelines, all of which students study in visual layout. Chemistry entails measuring, pouring, and mixing, and physical education introduces stretching, exertion, and body control, all of which students study kinesthetically. Music classes can, and should, provide students the opportunity to explore their aural capabilities in special ways, an opportunity not afforded them by most of the rest of the curriculum.

The example courses above are typical of high school curriculum, but elementary and middle school classes offer much of the same. A broad look at classes at these levels also reveals heavy


Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education. by Nate Buonviri

emphasis on visual activities and learning tools, some emphasis on kinesthetic activities and tools, and relatively little emphasis on aural activities and tools. Note, for example, that elementary and middle schools tend not to offer even the basic requirement classes in foreign language that high schools offer. Therefore, special attention to developing students’ aural skills may be even more important at these educational levels; music teachers can help.

Ears in Music Curriculum Putting out a call for stronger advocacy for music programs in our nations’ schools is not the focus of this article; I would be “preaching to the choir.” We all know that more and better music programs would benefit our students. I will instead put forth a call to music teachers who already have at least some classes in place. Please do not neglect those ears while teaching music! We have a responsibility in our classes to prompt students to use their ears in ways they do not use them during the rest of the day.

Not all K-12 students will go on to become professional musicians but all of them can benefit from getting a real glimpse into what musicians actually do. What musicians actually do is use their ears to create, perform, understand, and enjoy a very special art. Some would say this is a biased opinion, but one cannot fairly judge a statement to be biased until one has tried it. Thoroughly. This is the problem. Students who do not have the opportunity to really flex and exercise their ears in exciting ways can never fully understand as adults why it would be important for the next generation of students to have that same opportunity. To repeat and clarify my call: for those of us lucky enough to be teaching music classes, and who understand the unique beauty of an aural art, we need to make the most of the opportunity to help students focus on developing their ears in special ways.

You may be thinking “Aren’t we already doing that?” You probably are, to a certain extent. My aim in this article is to prompt you to review how you approach students in daily music activities; considering how to develop their aural skills in a way that takes into account the lack of focus on those skills across the general curriculum.

Many of our advocacy efforts tend to focus on how music relates so well to other subjects, supporting at the very least better standardized test scores and at best a more integrated curriculum with interdisciplinary flair. The problem is that many of these connections involve material apart from the ears. For example, transfers from music to mathematics might involve understanding metric structure with its corresponding beats, divisions, and subdivisions. This can be, and all too often is, understood without the ears; it can be explained with a chart. Transfers from music to world

history might involve particular connections between composers and authors, or compositions and world events. Again, these are helpful for students, but can be studied without hearing a note. The important question is not “What are we teaching, and what connections are students making?” but “How are we teaching it, and how are students making those connections?”

Examining Your Approach If we wish to highlight the ears more in music class, the best place to start may be in the activities we are already doing. I present here some representative applications and accompanying examples. I hope they will serve to spark your imagination about similar activities you may currently offer and to illustrate how just a bit of adjustment can produce a dramatic change.

Since I alluded to a couple of interdisciplinary connections already, we will begin with those. In many cases, the easiest and most effective way to exercise students’ ears is simply to reverse a given learning sequence. Take the example of a chart showing the division of a whole note into two halves, and the two halves into four quarters, and so forth. The summary information is already laid out. I would suggest that our job is to help students arrive at that information through their ears rather than presenting the chart and explaining it away. For instance, can students listen to a short piece without any visual aid, find the pulse, discover the number of pulses in a cycle, determine whether the pulse is breaking down into twos or threes, and determine how each of those divisions is further broken down? Can they do that several more times with contrasting examples? All of these steps require them to discover musical math through their ears, not from a chart. Once the aural work is finished, the chart serves simply as a reminder.

The second example I mentioned previously was helping students make connections between music and world history. These connections help them understand chronological developments both in music and in the world in general prompting them to reinforce knowledge in both fields reciprocally. If we push them to do this with their ears, we help them develop a part of their mind that otherwise would idle. Instead of mapping events on a timeline or showing images or videos illustrating a composer’s life and world events, we can approach the summary information through sound. Helping students arrive at realizations through gradual aural steps can make all the difference.

For example, can students listen to recordings of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Duke Ellington’s big band and draw comparisons in the sounds, textures, and form, followed by educated guesses and resultant discussion about

October/November 2015

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