As music departments around the country explore ways to improve curriculum requirements and to make degree programs more effective in building quality musicians, it is an appropriate time to reevaluate Ear Training and Sight Singing classes. Certainly we all know, either from teaching these classes or from having been in them ourselves, the difficulties many students experience singing with solfege syllables or taking dictations. For some, ear training and sight singing can be the most dreaded and frustrating class in the music curriculum.
What, after all, do we hope students will gain from Ear Training and Sight Singing classes? Typically, we want them to be able to look at a melody and "hear" it in their heads, to be able to use their voices to gain a natural feel for the shape of a melody, to develop their reading, rhythmic and analytical skills and awareness of the sound and structure of the elements of our musical tradition. No small tasks, to be sure. The following are some ideas for reshaping ear training and sight singing, suggestions for ways in which these classes might better contribute to our ultimate goal of developing intelligent, capable, sensitive, and expressive musicians:
1. Ear Training. Our traditional work with interval and scale identification, chord recognition, and melodic dictation can be helpful for opening students' ears to the "nuts and bolts" of musical language. Ironically, though, we often fail to develop students' listening skills in the areas which make music music. What if classes were to concentrate more on the style and nuance of musical expression? For example, given a melody, students would write the dynamics and expression marks as they hear it performed. (As students progress, this could also be a part of appropriate melodic dictations). Or they might have comparative listening projects: given the score, students would write in the expression marks for two different performances of the same short work or section of a piece. Also included might be exercises in error detection for a performance of a given melody or ensemble excerpt. Students would listen for problems with pitch, rhythm, phrasing, and expressionall practical preparation and experience for what we do as musicians.
It may also be helpful to use these classes in a more flexible way in terms of students' needs. For example, if a clarinetist were having trouble with interval identification or some aspect of intonation, why not place him or her in a duo, trio or other small ensemble to work on this? Allowing students to focus on intervals or chord progressions using their own instruments may help them develop listening skills in a more constructive way, in addition to singing and taking dictations from the piano.
2. Sight Singing. Surely one of the most difficult areas for students is singing melodies with solfege syllables. As anyone who teaches these courses knows, most students today either do not have the time or will not give the time to become truly proficient in solfege, even with four semesters of study. Also, as we all know, it is not an easy skill to acquire (four semesters, in fact, may not be enough time to develop this ability). The result for many students is often much struggling through a melody, confusing syllables and generally missing expression altogether. How many times have we heard students say: "I can do it, just not with the syllables"? Teachers deal with this in a number of ways, including allowing students to choose a method which seems comfortable for them (either fixed do, moveable do, numbers, note names, etc.) or using syllables for some exercises but not for others. It seems, as teachers, that none of us really wants to abandon using syllables altogether (it's almost like admitting defeat). We recognize, of course, the merits of it and the tradition. But is it worth it to retain the use of these difficult syllables when, for so many students, it seems to hinder rather than help them achieve the main point of study, which is to grasp an understanding of the structure and expressiveness of the melody and to realize it through singing? Perhaps our best goals for this aspect of the class will be that students can analyze a melody, achieve a sense of tonal relationships and tendencies of tones, make connections with the expression, and sing it comfortably with a neutral syllable.
3. Melody. While we have music theory courses centered on the study of tonality and harmony, we have no standard courses on melody. Generally, students do a very brief section on melodic structure in theory class, but no significant time is given to this integral part of music. What if the final semester of Ear Training and Sight Singing (assuming four semesters in the sequence) became an overview of melodies, from Gregorian Chant to today? Students could study melodies in depth, analyze, listen to and sing through them, gaining a new awareness of the sound, structure, expressiveness and historical development of Western melodies. This could also work as an upper level course taken after completing Ear Training and Sight Singing, similar to music theory's Form and Analysis.
Too often, Ear Training and Sight Singing classes (and music theory) fail to help students make the important connections between analysis and performance. By emphasizing musical expression more and giving students additional "hands on" experiences, these classes may more effectively awaken and develop students' musicality and musicianship.