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Cultivating musical conversations

8 years ago

  Aural awareness is an essential skill for all musicians. One way to help students with this area of their musical development is to encourage them to talk about the musical features of the pieces they are learning, as ABRSM’s Syllabus Director, Nigel Scaife, explains. How often should we ask students to talk about the musical and stylistic features of the pieces they are learning? How important is it to encourage them to think about these things and to articulate their thoughts? I ask these questions to stimulate reflection on certain aspects of aural training, particularly relating to Grades 6 to 8.

Developing a vocabulary

If students are to talk about the musical and expressive features of the pieces they are learning, or listening to, they will need a ready vocabulary. Development of this vocabulary begins in the early years of learning with the basic elements of music, such as ‘legato’ or ‘minor key’, and leads on to more sophisticated concepts, such as ‘imperfect cadence’ or ‘Baroque style’. Asking questions such as ‘what in the music gives this piece its character?’ can be challenging, but it’s a good way to reveal musical understanding and to develop students’ vocabulary. It also helps to nurture a reflective approach which will help when it comes to expressing musical intentions in their own performances.

How music works

By encouraging students to relate words to the reality of music as sound, you are also helping to ensure that their aural responses are supported by relevant theoretical concepts. This is essential if students are to understand how music works. And how music works is the real ‘theory’ of music – not just the rules of notation but the ‘whys and wherefores’ that explain how music is put together. As Paul Harris put it recently, ‘music theory is about what makes music work. It’s the story behind the notes; it concerns all the stuff that falls in that area that is ‘about’ music.’ Let’s look at cadences as an example. The best way for students to learn about and understand these is in their musical context. Cadences exist to punctuate phrases and articulate musical structures. They are not simply isolated pairs of chords that you can analyse by Roman numerals on a piece of paper. In preparing for the aural tests, students will benefit from plenty of practice at listening to and identifying cadences. They need to learn to recognise and absorb the sound and musical effect of each type of cadence, in pieces familiar to them. The third volume of ABRSM’s Aural Training in Practice series includes a number of ‘cadence journeys’ for use in lessons, to help make the activity of cadence identification an engaging and enjoyable one, and these can be used alongside a student’s own repertoire.

Linking aural and theory

As the grades progress, the connections between aural and theory become ever stronger and more embedded in the aural tests, reflecting how they should be interconnected in the learning process. Take, for example, the identification of modulation at Grades 7 and 8 - one of the most challenging aspects of the tests at these higher grades. Most pieces of music that students learn will include at least one modulation, and perhaps many more. We can use these pieces to explore a number of questions: Why does music modulate? How do you know if the music has modulated? Which key does it move into here? How does modulation affect the form of the piece? Modulation is a process – a journey from one key to another that adds interest, variety and often drama to musical expression. An understanding of how modulation shifts the ‘centre of gravity’ of the music will help students to project the musical meaning more successfully. Without this understanding it is unlikely that they will be able to fully convey the composer’s intentions. Knowing how the harmony works in a piece can also help with memorisation. Where modulation is concerned, understanding how the circle of fifths works, and that closely related keys are adjacent in the circle, will provide a good theoretical foundation. But what are the aural impacts of moving from one key to another? Moving clockwise around the circle means ‘going sharp’ – adding one sharp more or one flat fewer in its key signature – so the music sounds brighter and the key sounds ‘raised’. Going anticlockwise means ‘going flat’ and does the opposite, giving the effect of the key being ‘lowered’ and the music mellowed or darkened. Learning to recognise modulations to the dominant and subdominant, by identifying the characteristic qualities of those keys in relation to the original tonic, will often take time - after all, these are quite sophisticated aspects of music. But by making sure aural awareness and theoretical knowledge connect in your teaching, you will be giving students the best possible route to understanding the ‘story behind the notes’. This in turn will influence the way in which they interpret music and convey its emotional content in performance.

Making connections

At the higher grades, there is an increasing requirement for joined-up thinking, listening and awareness. In the D test at Grades 6 to 8, candidates are asked to draw conclusions about the combined effects and implications of different features. The ability to make connections between familiar and unfamiliar music is an important element here, so listening to music related – by genre, style, period or composer – to the music the student is learning will be really beneficial. YouTube and Spotify provide a huge and easily accessible resource to support this, but it may be that you need to steer the listening and give it focus. Our Aural Training in Practice books provide repertoire suggestions for listening activities and ‘stylistic hallmarks’ for the various periods of music history, but stylistic pointers only really make sense when they become part of a ‘learn as you listen’ process. Personal experience of each style and period, gained from recordings, concerts or a student’s own playing, makes the study of its features more interesting, more relevant and easier to understand.

Enhancing aural awareness

Developing aural awareness is a vital part of musical training that can be enhanced if we regularly discuss with students the features and stylistic fingerprints of the music they are learning. Through this dialogue they will not only develop their all-round musicianship but also their ability to communicate expressively, and with stylistic awareness, in performance. And that is what it’s all about!

This article was originally featured in the May 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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