Author’s Note: These two new aural skills books are quite different in tone and orientation, the one narrower in its emphasis, the other broader.
|Sight Singing Complete, 8th. ed. by Maureen Carr and Bruce Benward, with Taylor Greer, Eric McKee, and Phillip Torbert
(New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015).
Maureen Carr, Distinguished Professor of Music at Penn State University, builds upon the work of Bruce Benward in this new edition of Sight Singing Complete. Her tightly organized book consists of sixteen chapters, each of which contains five distinct sections. The chapters themselves are ordered in increasing complexity, as one might expect, with earlier chapters concentrating on straightforward rhythms and diatonic melodies and later ones introducing rhythmic complications such as displaced hemiolas and additive meter; and melodic challenges in the way of dissonant leaps, modal mixture, and modulation. The last three chapters delve into highly chromatic tonal music of the early twentieth century, melodies based on octatonic and atonal collections, and melodies based on twelve-tone rows.
Without exception the first section of each chapter deals with rhythm. Most often this section begins with a series of "modules," one-bar rhythms intended to be practiced first in isolation, then in combination. The next subsection contains two-part rhythms, which can be realized either as duets, with each performer taking one of the lines, or as solos, with individual performers responsible for both parts, tapping one line with one hand, the other line with the other hand. The last subsection, entailing composition, affords students the chance to build something new out of the materials with which they have been working. True, directions for these composition exercises are minimal: students are told little more than to use patterns introduced earlier in the chapter to form a coherent four-bar phrase. Unfortunately, this relative lack of guidance might cause some students to flounder needlessly. On the other hand, it may well spur them to develop their own judgment, to trust (and strengthen) their own musical instincts.
The next three sections have to do with melody, with the first of these containing a number of subsections. The first subsection concentrates on very small units, typically intervals, and strategies are offered for hearing and performing them. Sometimes quasi-Schenkerian stem-and-slur analysis is included so as to show the dependence of diminutions—tones of lesser structural significance—on structurally superior tones. At other times stems are dispensed with; slurs, in this case, represent tones that are to be retained in memory as a kind of orienting pitch. For example, one exercise in B-flat major (100) includes slurred B-flats and Ds, the former slurred to indicate its "tonic-ness," the latter to indicate its status as a member of the tonic triad and its potential to serve as the leading tone to the key, E-flat major, of the next exercise. At still other times, other symbols are used, even if their meaning is often less explicit than implicit—which could be a source of possible confusion. Students are then presented with melodic excerpts anywhere from two to six bars long that prominently feature the interval or intervals under consideration. Further chances to work with these materials come in the form of activities centering on composition and improvisation.
The next two sections include melodies drawn by and large from two main sources, the first of these being Western art music. The range of composers is impressive, and among those represented are Schubert, Bach, Barber, Stravinsky, Robert and Clara Schumann, Mozart, Rameau, Ravel, and Holst. Their melodies are given either at pitch or transposed. Folk music traditions serve as the other main source. The range of traditions also is considerable; among others they include Russian and Scottish, Native American and Jamaican, Hebrew and Irish, Haitian and Creole. Some chapters, particularly the earlier ones, contain perfectly serviceable melodies written by the late Bruce Benward.
All chapters also contain melodies in C clefs, with special emphasis given to alto and soprano clefs. Certainly no time is wasted in introducing soprano clef: exercises using it appear within the very first chapter. Exercises using tenor clef, while hardly rare, are by comparison less numerous. About this emphasis on C clefs, particularly the soprano, opinions will assuredly diverge; some teachers may find it old-fashioned and lacking in relevance, while others may see it as another chance to improve their students' musical flexibility.
The last section of each chapter includes exercises for ensembles, many presented in SATB settings, and most including quite specific expression markings. Some of these exercises are also designed so that students sing one line of music while accompanying themselves on the piano. The accompaniments in certain cases are written on a single staff, but in other cases, and much more challengingly, are given in full score. With respect to the melody, the accompaniments display varying degrees of rhythmic and contrapuntal independence.
Some of the exercises are richer than they appear. For instance, early on there is a duet by Fux (16), which gives students a chance to gain experience in reading soprano clef and to work with the relatively uncommon time signature of 3/1. But the inclusion of this duet also gives teachers a chance, by pointing out the role played by its composer in the teaching of counterpoint, to begin to imbue their students with a feel for the depth and richness of the history of music theory. Later there is an improvisation exercise that has as its foundation a talea from a work by Machaut (102). Students are to improvise a melody to go with the given talea, then devise a new isorhythmic bass to fit their improvised melody. This exercise effectively transforms a dusty concept into a vibrant reality—and gives students yet another means through which to make music. Arrayed throughout the book, as gems on a crown, are exercises dealing with canon: there is a crab canon by Haydn (190), a puzzle canon by Schoenberg (261), three- and four-part canons by Brahms (209-212). These exercises point to the enduring charm exerted on composers by the technique of imitation and by the thrifty use of musical materials.
Enduring, too, in its way, is Sight Singing Complete, which in this latest edition issues anew a timeless challenge: that of honing the skill and art of singing as accurately and musically as possible.
Ambitious and sophisticated, Aural Skills in Context, with its exercises in sight singing, ear training, keyboard harmony, and improvisation, aims to cover all the bases. The book contains four large units and a total of 27 chapters, each chapter beginning with a straightforward explanation of the topics covered therein. An impressive dedicated website can also be accessed at http://www.auralskillsincontext.com ; its contents can be sampled by using "guest" as both login and password.
As for sight singing, all the examples—and all parts thereof—are intended to be sung; they consist of single-line melodies and excerpts in anywhere from two to four or more parts. Sometimes familiar pieces are presented in novel textures. For instance, the opening of the first movement of Beethoven's piano sonata Op. 14, no. 1, is reproduced in three parts (711-720). Not uncommonly, pieces are transposed to make them easier to sing.
Ear training exercises take a variety of forms. There are dictation exercises consisting of just a few bars that test short-term musical memory. Then there are dictation exercises of longer duration that require students to pay attention to broader melodic and harmonic gestures. More than one hundred drills are found throughout the book; these concentrate on a variety of challenges: singing particular intervallic leaps, performing modulations, resolving enharmonically equivalent chords, and so on. Each drill, it should be mentioned, is supplied with commendably thorough instructions. Assignments on "contextual listening" feature longer examples and are accompanied by anywhere from three to ten questions pertaining to meter, phrase structure, scale degrees, Roman numerals, and cadences.
The exercises in keyboard harmony, grouped under the heading "Chorale Workshop," are among the best in the book, testing as they do a student's ability to make sense of abstract ways of representing music. It is one thing to play a five-chord progression if it is written out plainly on staff paper; it is a harder, more challenging, thing when given, say, that the chords are I, I6, ii6, V7, and I, and that the melody consists of , , , , , . These keyboard exercises also contain excellent advice about voice leading. That proffered on p. 311 is representative in its encouraging tone and in its emphasis on practicality: "You should do your best to avoid parallels, doubled leading tones, and augmented seconds . . . but your focus should be on the relationship of the outer voices."
The exercises in improvisation are also very strong, largely because their instructions are detailed, and because these activities either build on topics already covered or anticipate those soon to be introduced. Typical are the five exercises in the eighth chapter (215). One of them is based on rhythms presented in earlier in the chapter. Another takes as its foundation the chords used in the foregoing "chorale workshop." Still others look forward to a piece given in its entirety later in the book.
Nearly every chapter contains an excursion beyond the repertoire of the common practice period. In such excursions students are exposed to a great variety of jazz and popular music, some of it ("If We Ever Meet Again" and "Forget You," both released in 2010) of quite a recent vintage. One excursion (589-590) introduces the tritone substitution, a technique found in such subsequent examples as "There's No Business Like Show Business" (621-22) and "Sophisticated Lady" (795-96). Examples from popular music crop up, too, all throughout the book—sometimes making for odd, or at least unlikely juxtapositions. Thus the appearance on facing pages (256-257) of REO Speedwagon and Brahms! The drawback to mixing these repertoires is that it runs the risk of trivializing the differences between them.
Many of the exercises are furnished with an abundance of questions. In a Schubert example (495) students are asked to identify the cadence approximately halfway through and the key in which it takes place. In an example by Clara Schumann (606-607), students are first alerted to the role played by chromatic chords, then asked to identify the chords to which they resolve. Only occasionally do leading questions appear, or those that admit only a yes-or-no response. If there is one drawback to all these questions, it is that their great number may have a numbing effect, leading some students to ignore them.
Given the degree of theoretical sophistication it demands, Aural Skills in Context seems almost to be a companion volume to an as-yet unwritten Oxford University Press publication entitled Music Theory in Context. Ear training books sometimes steer clear of theoretical matters, thereby missing opportunities to connect what students learn conceptually in theory classes with what they hear in actuality in ear training classes. Not so with Aural Skills in Context: theory and analysis are closely linked with musical perception and performance. The main difficulty this poses comes when the authors' theoretical stances diverge from one's own.
Consider the small but not unimportant matter of the passing second-inversion triad. The book encourages students to label these chords as "P6/4" regardless of the scale degree of the root. While I can see the purpose of doing so—second-inversion triads have never been used in common-practice music with the same freedom and flexibility as first-inversion triads—I would prefer that my students be able both to designate the Roman numeral of the chord in question and to specify the kind of second-inversion triad—passing, pedal, cadential—it is. Further, it is far from clear why passing second-inversion triads should be denied their Roman-numerical name when passing first-inversion triads retain theirs. To cite but one example, in the expansion of a tonic triad from root position to first inversion, both V6/4 and viio6 function after all as linear chords—as voice-leading chords whose purpose it is to join structurally more significant tonic triads. Were I to use this book, I would likely be forced to do one of two things: either (in the interest of time) adopt the labeling encouraged by the book; or (with an eye toward pedagogical consistency) spend an inordinate amount of time in an aural skills class explaining a matter better treated in a music theory class.
I imagine that this book would work very well in large departments or schools of music, wherein graduate student labor—supplied especially by doctoral students in music theory or composition—is plentiful. It is hard to imagine its being used effectively by teachers who are not theory specialists, simply because of the sophistication it demands. Likewise hard to imagine is its being used by anyone lacking comfort (if not facility) at the keyboard: again, not that the keyboard exercises are technically demanding; but any teacher expecting his or her students to perform them should be able to set the example through fluent demonstration.
These reservations notwithstanding, Aural Skills in Context provides students a considerable workout for their listening ear and mind. Used diligently, it will strengthen their musicianship, enlarge their understanding—and heighten their wonder.