Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Most Important Class

There is a class that every music student takes. Doing well in this class, and doing extra credit work in this class, is one of the best things any music student can do for their future success. Yet most students avoid this class, endlessly complain about it, and often do anything they can to get out of it. And sadly, many music schools don’t do nearly enough to emphasize this class and make it easy and comfortable to attend.

What is it? Sight singing and ear training.

Often held at hideously early hours, taught by bored and beleaguered doctoral students, squirreled away in the dark windowless spaces of the music building, freshmen in every music program sit and try to sing, their gravelly voices damaged from the previous night’s revelries. Why is it so despised? Part of it is exactly what I mention above: almost any class held under the grim conditions of sight singing would be hard to love. So attention music school deans everywhere – hold sight singing classes later in the day, in rooms with windows!

The other part of why we seem to hate it so has to do with us. Most instrumentalists just don’t like to sing. Having put in so much time and effort trying to make a pleasant sound come out of our instruments, we generally don’t want to have to put them down and listen to what comes out of our mouths when we sing. And worse, in sight singing class we’re having to sing in front of others, and our performance (at least the intonation aspects thereof) is being analyzed and graded. That activates all of our performance anxieties, but we don’t have our instrumental talents to shield and protect us from them.

There’s no denying it: singing is scary, and most of us don’t have lovely voices that everyone is dying to hear at 8:30 in the morning. But none of that changes the fact that learning to sing in tune leads to being able to hear and play in tune. Ultimately, our intonation has to come from our brains – from our ability to accurately hear and adjust our pitch to what is happening around us. Unlike our instruments, our singing voices are wired directly into our brain. Singing is a natural activity that all humans engage in from almost the beginning of our lives. When we work on our intonation with our voices, we are training our minds at a much deeper and more basic level than when we adjust the spacing of our fingers or practice our scales. Singing in tune builds a foundation of good pitch sense that makes our work with our instruments much more effective.

So go to sight singing class! Pay attention in it. If it seems too easy for you, ask the instructor for more difficult exercises. Do extra work on your own. We can all benefit from it.

A friend of mine graduated from a prominent conservatory and had an excellent teacher, but I would have given him a low chance of career success upon graduation. His intonation was terrible – his pitch center would drift all over the place. This person now has an excellent career and is constantly in demand to play with top professional orchestras. What made the difference? He got some ear training CD’s and listened to them (while singing along) in his car whenever he was driving anywhere. He did this for years, and ultimately overcame his pitch problems – not through practicing, but through ear-training.

I’ll be posting more on this topic in the future. Until then, good ear-training to all.....


Texas Tech Theory Department said...

As a double bassist-turned-theorist (I studied with John at Temple U.) I'm delighted to see your post! I think ear training and sight singing (and theory in general) has done more to shape my playing than all the Simandl etudes in the world.

I think part of the problem stems from too many students (and teachers, for that matter) thinking that sight singing and dictation are about sight singing and dictation--they're not. Any time you listen for cues in orchestra, you're taking melodic dictation. Any time you listen for a phrase ending, you're doing harmonic dictation. Any time you're on an airplane flying to an audition and going over your part in your head, you're sight singing.

I rebelled strongly against my first solfege teacher for the reasons you mention. It wasn't until I was out gigging that the importance of these subjects dawned on me.

To those interested in doing extra work, I would recommend George Pratt's book Aural awareness. It offers numerous very interesting out-of-the box exercises, all of which engage some form of ear training.


The Peabody Double Bass Faculty said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this post. I'm working on a post listing ear-training resources for those who want to improve their ear on their own and I'll be sure to check out the book you mention. - Jeff.

oceanskies79 said...

Hi Jeff, I will look forward to more post on ear training and sight-singing. I think I could do more of these to train myself.