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the musical influences, surrounding events, and available resources that made these musics what they are? Many teachers could easily tackle these topics on the spot, and could present students with an accurate and compelling description within just a couple of minutes, but the process of helping students discover these concepts through sound is what really matters.

Many times the difference lies simply in when students hear the music in relationship to the spoken or written knowledge. Give them a chance to hear for themselves before anyone, including you, tells them what’s what! Consider, from both the math and world history examples how convenient and efficient it may be to “teach” concepts in a directed fashion, and how lasting and powerful it can be for students to learn concepts in an active, aural way instead.

Let’s explore one more example: performing ensembles. Most ensemble directors would agree that “good ears” generally help students play and sing better. We must ask ourselves, constantly, whether we are helping students to develop “good ears” or simply giving them what they need to make momentary progress. Do we tell our clarinetists they are cheating the fourth beat or help them discover and determine it themselves? Do we instruct our sopranos to simply “Wait for my cue; it will be crystal clear” or help them aurally understand the preceding material on which their entrance is based? Do we tune the drums for our young timpanists or take the time to teach them the skills they need to do it themselves? How about violinists? Guitarists?

In a recent meeting of my Percussion Methods course, I mentioned in passing that performing musicians all know that we don’t look up at the conductor all the time, and sometimes relatively rarely. My colleague, a fabulous choral conductor, happened to be in the room observing my class that day. The students all giggled and looked in his direction a bit apprehensively. I followed with “Yes, your director is in the room today, but he knows it’s true. If he expected that you would take every bit of musical information only from his gestures, your choir would be in big trouble.” Emphatic nods all around, including my colleague. We want our musicians to trust their ears and listen to each other; we have to give them the opportunity to develop those skills which will help them grow as independent learners and musicians. Ultimately, those experiences come back to reward our programs as our students gain confidence in their musicianship.

Getting Started Some readers may find these ideas to be fairly new; others may be doing these things regularly already. In all cases, periodic review of the ways you are approaching the materials in your classes and rehearsals is worth the effort. In music, educating the ears should play a key role in organizing and planning those instructional sequences.

The good news is that educating the ears does ala breve

not have to be costly or complicated. In class, shifting the emphasis to students’ ears may require simply encouraging them to use their voices freely or to listen before looking, for example. Establishing and maintaining an environment in which students expect to use their ears differently in your room than they have the rest of the day is crucial. Following are practical tips to help generate this routine. Again, these are simply a couple of specific examples that I hope will spark your own creativity.

Players and Singers Instrumentalists and vocalists may experience very different music educations especially as regards daily training of the ears for musical growth. Many instrumentalists learn to read scales, arpeggios, etudes, solos, and ensemble parts without necessarily hearing internally what they will play prior to executing it. Some of them will cruise through several years of band or orchestra without truly engaging the aural part of the musical performance cycle. A saxophonist can simply push down the right keys and blow a steady stream of air without aurally imagining the pitch, duration, or sound quality desired. A violist can hold down the right fingers and use kinesthetic memory to approximate the position needed to produce the right note, but again perhaps without actually engaging the ears fully in the process. Instrumentalists tend to receive lots of valuable technical and musical information in their training but sometimes they do not combine that information with trained ears.

Many vocal students run exactly the opposite risk. They can use their ears directly to find their way through a passage but may not have understood the context in which it occurred. As an illustration, singers can stumble into rehearsal late and still join right in on the ascending scale warm-up without having any idea what pitches they are singing. In that situation, they too are missing a piece of the musicianship cycle; they have survived the exercise but may not have learned anything lasting to apply to future situations.

The solution to both problems could be rather simple. Teachers can emphasize the missing link for each group. Instrumental students can play their warm-ups and scales according to vocalized examples; they can spend lots of time practicing apart from their written music; and they can improvise within certain parameters appropriate to the repertoire or instructional unit. Singers can ascend and descend through their warm-up patterns with notation of those patterns in hand; they can sight-read rhythmic patterns graduated in difficulty; and they can analyze recorded or spontaneous singing for pitch, rhythm, key, mode, or meter information. The goal is to get each “camp” to understand how the other functions; musicians who have substantial experience in both instrumental and vocal ensembles would attest to the benefits this approach can yield.

The Triplet

Consider one more example—likely to be introduced in a general music class, but possibly

a new concept for music students in practically any class: the triplet. You will probably guess from the preceding paragraphs that I would recommend students discover the triplet through their ears first. Of course! That may seem obvious, but take a closer look to review the points presented so far.

The core concept of a triplet is rather simple: dividing something into three instead of two. Math teachers use side-by-side pie charts, overlaid line graphs, or the ratio 3:2 to illustrate this same concept easily. In an ideal curriculum, they might even help students make connections to music by showing how a pair of eighth notes and an eighth-note triplet look beside each other. The music teacher’s job, though, is to introduce or reinforce the same concept through the ears. Students need to hear many triplets in many contexts, decode the information through tapping, patting, clapping, singing, or sketching, and arrive ultimately at the understanding of how triplets function in order to be able to use them to perform other music or create their own. Again, that may sound obvious to many of you, but too often teachers show this musical concept first and then play, sing, or lead some examples of it. Notice the subtle, but incredibly powerful difference. I am recommending that teachers help students to gradually reach concepts through their ears rather than to gradually reach their ears through concepts. This slight shift in approach can change everything.

In Conclusion I hope this article has sparked your interest in the role of students’ ears in your own classrooms. Our students do not have the chance to use their ears in special, sophisticated ways very much in typical school curriculum. We have ample opportunities to help them use and enjoy these amazing natural tools in our music classes and rehearsals. Take a few moments to search your own curriculum for additional ways you can educate those ears!

Nate Buonviri is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Temple University in Philadelphia. He has presented research and workshops on aural skills development across the United States and around the world. Buonviri is published in the Journal of Research

in Music Education, Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, Journal of Music Teacher Education, Percussive Notes, The Instrumentalist, and Music Educators Journal. His book, Building Better Dictation Skills, is available as of August 27th from Rowman & Littlefield. Buonviri is principal percussionist of Utah Festival Opera and drummer for Philadelphia-based Polkadelphia. He recorded two CDs with the Dallas Wind Symphony under the direction of Jerry Junkin and Frederick Fennell.


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