Teaching listening should be a big part of all music lessons…I mean of course it should, right? We are teaching music after all – which is, in essence, a particular type of sound.
Yet, when I was learning piano, and when I first started teaching, the importance was placed on reading music. Piano students were supposed to learn to read pieces first, and then somehow transform them into music later.
This is also how lots of method books are set up, they follow the most logical progression of reading skills, sacrificing melody and harmony along the way.
Why did I spend so much time discouraging students from using their ears?
This certainly is not what I intended to do, but it did happen. From the start, I was focussed on creating good readers. First and foremost, all my strategies emphasised reading, with everything else coming in second place…that is until I realised what I was doing and why I was doing it.
Let’s look at some of the ways I used to discourage listening, and how I’ve flipped it to start actively teaching listening.
Some form of aural tests are part of almost every exam system. Much like the sight reading tests in exams, these are short, compartmentalised versions of real world listening skills.
I’m not criticising them, I’m glad there is a listening portion of practical exams. I’m just not happy that these are the only aural skills that are taught in most piano lessons here in Ireland.
In my own piano education, these tests were practiced a few weeks before the exam. I don’t remember even receiving much advice on how to listen for the answers, just the tests being drilled until I got it right. Everything in my training was telling me that listening comes last.
Again, we’re teaching music making…right?
From the start I am now teaching listening skills as an integrated part of lessons. My littlest students could be clapping on each beat, with a jump on the first beat of the bar. Teenagers might be improvising over an accompaniment that continually changes metre, and having to guess the new time signature as we play.
For the first 7 or so years of my piano teaching, I almost never played for my students. I played their exam pieces so they could make selections, and occasionally demonstrated small sections, but not often.
I was so concerned with making sure my students could read independently that I forgot to inspire them, or help them be musical.
I currently have a very dedicated, musical, and academically strong 12 year old student who is about to take her grade 5 piano exam. She has been working on a 40 Piece Challenge this year, and learning music at a wide variety of levels.
As we move towards the exam I didn’t want to give her more challenging repertoire, as I knew it would just get ignored in favour of exam work.
So to transition her into a piece we will be working on once the exam is over, I decided to give her a listening assignment. All she had to do is listen to the piece while following along with the score. That’s it, easiest assignment ever!
This week at her lesson she asked me a very serious question:
“I just want to know” she said,
“How this piece can be soooo beautiful?”
She started playing little sections of the score, to demonstrate to me this unfathomable beauty.
Yes, she definitely will not have to work as hard to read this piece, as she’ll be able to “fall back” on her ear much more. Isn’t the trade off completely worth it though? She’s so excited to learn this piece after her exam is over, because she’s completely in love with it.
Do you sing in your piano lessons?
I don’t remember my first two piano teachers singing at all. Not one bit.
Somehow though, I was supposed to be able to sight sing a melody in my exams. I dreaded this part of my exams. I felt like I was just supposed to intuitively know how to do it, and the fact that I couldn’t was just a lack of talent on my part.
What complete and utter nonsense I know this to be now! We don’t magically know, or not know how to sing at sight. It can be and should be taught. I now teach my students to sing using solfa (with moveable do). If they are taking exams those sight-singing marks are a “gimme” not a hard part.
Singing shouldn’t just be for singing exercises though, I sing all the time in my piano lessons.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a singer, not at all! However I think if I want my students to do something, I better show them I’m willing to do it myself. 😀
Simply singing along improves my student’s phrasing, dynamics, rhythm and articulation to name just a few things.
For instance, if a student can’t get the hang of a slur into a staccato note, I’ll try singing along with a “Doo-da!”. Often this is enough to fix the problem, no long winded explanations or analogies needed. Having ways to verbalise articulations can really aid memory and make at home practice more effective too.
How much listening do your piano students do?
Are you teaching listening in your lessons actively? Do you do aural exercises? Do you sing along or teach singing?
I’d love to hear your ideas for creating active and engaged listeners!