25 January 2012

The Importance of Aural

Conductor Jason Lai caught me during the interval of an SSO concert last week and asked me about aural training.  He was worried that so many students in Singapore seem not to be able to hear music.  They can play it, they can read it, they can even analyse it.  But they don’t seem to be able to hear it.

I know exactly what he means.  There is an emphasis on teaching the techniques of playing an instrument and on the mechanics of musical theory which rather overlooks the fundamental fact that music is an art form which communicates by sound; there is, in short, no purpose in music if you can’t hear it.  Of course, unless you are impaired in your hearing you can hear music, you can even, with a lot of concentration, listen to it.  But what Jason meant was the ability to link what you know and understand with what you hear. 
I have spent a lot of my recent life working on a book which addresses this very point, and yet I have neither the time nor the funds to devote myself sufficiently to the task to get it completed and out into the public arena.  Until then my suggested solutions to Jason’s dilemma must remain somewhat half-baked, but it is a matter of great concern to those of us who, recognising the supreme achievements of so many Asian musicians, still worry that they find it so difficult to cross the threshold between being a superlative executant and becoming a brilliant communicator.

One solution lies in the graded music exams which most students in south east Asia undertake on an annual basis but rarely seem to benefit musically from.
Among the unsung glories of the Trinity syllabus is its aural tests.  For those unacquainted with this excellent aspect of the graded music exam syllabus, here is a rough outline:  From Initial (pre-Grade 1) to Grade 8, candidates are played a single, grade-specific piece of music, and as they move up the grades so they are asked more and more detailed questions about it until, with grade 8, they are simply expected to describe exactly what they have heard.  To put into words, as it were, what they have been listening to in such a way as to be describing it as a unique piece of music.

Naturally, when these tests first entered the syllabus, teachers were horrified.  The tests signalled a fundamental change from everything that had gone before, and certainly few teachers had any idea how to train students for them.  In the earlier grades it is quite straightforward since the aspects the candidate needed to identify were specified (time signature, tonality, articulation, dynamics), but from around grade 6 onwards the net is cast rather more widely and the examiner's wording much looser; “Please comment on any significant features you might hear in the piece”.  The key word there is “significant”, but few pick up on this.
To help teachers grapple with these tests, in the first year of their existence it was suggested they might begin by working through a check-list of musical features mentally discounting or expanding them as the piece was played; things like tempo, texture, dynamics, articulation, pulse, character, style, period.  Unfortunately, teachers still work this way with the result that their students do not listen to the totality of the piece but only to certain pre-determined specifics.  So it is that we examiners experience this sort of thing with tiresome regularity –  
A piece of Debussy at his most impressionistic.  The candidate describes “Simple quadruple. Begins mezzo-forte, crescendo to forte, diminuendo to piano. Mixture of legato and staccato.  Homophonic texture.” 
Each might be applicable to the piece (although I despair at the “homophonic texture” phrase; ask the candidate what they mean and they have no idea, added to which many accidentally describe it as “homophobic texture”  – is that a synonym for a dislike of Britten?) but such a response doesn’t begin to describe the piece they have heard in its uniqueness. 

Students simply are not taught to listen in such a way as to recognise the individuality of a work.  Do teachers get their students to immerse themselves totally for a month or two in a single composer’s output?  It’s the only effective way to learn not only the art of recognising instantly a composer’s individual hallmarks, but also of listening to music analytically, which is what all practising musicians need to do.
The Trinity aural tests are the ideal first step to training students to hear music to the level Jason, I, and many other musicians regard as an absolute pre-requisite to a career as a musician.  It’s not the only solution, but if it is taught properly, it’s a valuable educational tool.

11 comments:

  1. One of the best ways to learn to listen is by attending concerts (lots of them) as well as listening to recordings (lots of them). Ever wondered why there seems to be a correlation between poor aural skills, empty concert halls and CD shops closing down?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Aha! You've hit the nail on the head here! Students don't listen to music. If they want to access a particular piece they go to YouTube. They must have the video - the concept of listening without visual stimulation is an athema to them - and they have no perception of quality. Thus it is that Hopeless Hanna from Hanover becomes a YouTube sensation because the uploaded video of her bungling her way through Hammerklavier includes the enchanting specatcle of her pet dog Howling at her all the way through. And these idiots tell me they have "listened" to music?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I find ctl's idea of attending lots of concerts and listening to lots of recordings a typically Asian / Singaporean approach to the issues of aural development. More is not always the answer, just as more practice is not always the answer to making better music. To me it is about how we develop music students in Singapore and some other parts of Asia.

    The opportunities to attend way more concerts than any of us could, and to expose ourselves to many, many more recordings, courtesy of YouTube and the www means that students and enthusiasts have the exposure, albeit not always in the highest fidelity. While I would dearly like to see students listening to a wider range of performances and programmes (rather than mostly SSO), and to full fidelity recordings rather than MP3s via earbuds, I don't see these as the obstacles to their aural development.

    Rather I find the way teachers approach aural development as a major problem. I'll be direct -- many teachers do not have the aural skills themselves, and are not in a position to guide or develop their students in the first place. Those who do are pressured by curriculum, parents, even "critics" and competition judges who don't value abilities that come with finely developed aural skills.

    I have witnessed well-meaning (?really?) teachers and parents egging students to attend concerts, especially by big-name artists, but invariably the post-concert discussion is about dazzling technique and the encores. I have also seen teachers and students earnestly take copious notes at masterclasses, trying to capture every little "how-to", but clearly missing the "why" of performance and communication. Attending a hundred concerts and masterclasses is hardly going to do anything for the students, because they were told (implicitly) that the concerts were for them to 1) learn about the music, 2) learn how to play better.

    My experience with amateur musicians from Japan is very different. They are aurally sophisticated, musically knowledgeable and have a deep appreciation for music and performance, well beyond virtuosity and technique. It would be interesting to understand more about how they train young musicians, not just in conservatories, but their general music training.

    ReplyDelete
  4. How very constructive. I did not mean attending many concerts and listening to many recordings as a knee jerk reaction to improving one's aural skills, but as a starting point for a true love of music to develop. Musicality and music skills simply cannot be forced, but can be nurtured by growing into the music. Attending concerts, listening to recordings and reading the excellent programme notes that come with these is merely a start. The trouble is many teachers do not do these themselves, and thus are hardly in a position to encourage the same with their students. For Singapore to be even be a fraction of Japan will take time and patience, but it will come when a critical mass of people become involved in music-making, especially amateur music-making.

    ReplyDelete
  5. As an aural exercise, attending a concert is of very limited value; there are simply too many visual distractions and, as Mervinb says, too often the techniques of the performer become the focus of attention rather than the music itself. Listening to music, so far as conservatoire students are involved, must be associated with a specific means of training which encourages them to associate what they hear with what they know. It is that chasm between music theoretical and music practical which is at the heart of my piece and which, I believe, was the concern facing Jason Lai.

    In my semester teaching second year students at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore I inherited a course which invovled them in writing reports on live concerts. Without any guidance (other than a stern warning against plagiarism, which seemed deeply irrelevant in that context) they gave me a frightening insight on just how superficial their listening skills were. Were I to run the course again, I now know that such things cannot be done cold by Asian students who need some proper guidance in focusing their ears on music rather than merely reporting on what the musicians on stage do.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dr Marc,
    Thanks for another thought provoking posting, prompting a flurry of insightful comments.

    While there is much that I have to agree with, I feel that there is one very important gap in the story about learning to hear to music.
    Yes, concerts, yes CDs, yes Youtube (the existence of which is amply justified by David Finckel’s fascinating “cello talks” alone), yes learning a wide range of works and talking with your teacher. But the thing that is missing is: making music with other people. Appreciating or making music wholly on one’s own is as sad as, drinking alone, playing sports or games alone, talking to yourself or ... well there are other examples, but let us not dwell on that.

    You can play music on your own, without listening or hearing, in a brilliantly mechanistic sort of way. But if you play it with other people, without hearing, it all comes apart. And making music with others is what brings music it to life. Am I the only person who attends concerts, listens to CDs, watches youtube, and feels “why am I spectating? I’d rather be part of the performance than part of the audience”.

    I think that a big flaw in the intensive-certificate-battery-farms that we see in this part of the world is that students are trained to be loners. Virtuosos bred in solitary confinement. When I grew up (long ago, far away, and distorted by nostalgia), we learned an instrument so that we could have the enjoyment of playing music with other people. It gave a purpose to the days and hours (ok, sometimes minutes…) of practice that went into learning a piece. And with parents, siblings, friends that played – then naturally there were always opportunities to make music together – even if only to fill in open strings in the background to someone else’s more advanced playing. And you weren’t cool if you couldn’t fit in with the others, or lost your place, played at the wrong speed, badly out of time, or (in the words of Flanders and Swann) played “much too loud, much too often, and flat“. And (just like kids playing football or cricket in the park) you get forced to pick things up - sight reading, transposition, improvising, filling in for missing parts, jumping a bar or two when something goes wrong, or playing the viola part because no-one else wants to. And when you make music with other people, you talk about music with other people, and you think about what you are doing, and how it works, and thus you hear. Not in the most analytical way, perhaps, but with enthusiasm and energy, and that opens the door to all the other things.

    I don’t think this happens much here, for children, and I am puzzled why. I can speculate a number of reasons, some quite uncharitable – lack of time, space, opportunity or encouragement, due to kiasu-ism (how can you get ahead, if you are co-operating with others ?), or is it about exams - no-one gives certificates for making music in groups, for fun ? I don’t know. But, as a parent who would like my kids to get as much enjoyment from music as I did, and do, (as well as a better technique), but don’t give a damn whether they pass any exams, how do I do that in Singapore ?

    Yours
    Dr Peter

    ReplyDelete
  7. Dr Marc,
    Thanks for another thought provoking posting, and a flurry of insightful comments.

    While there is much that I have to agree with strongly, I feel that there is one very important gap in the story about learning to hear to music.
    Concerts - yes, CDs - yes, Youtube - yes (the existence of which is amply justified by David Finckel’s fascinating “cello talks” alone), learning a wide range of works and talking with your teacher - yes. But the thing that is missing is: making music with (or for) other people. Appreciating or making music wholly on one’s own is as sad as, drinking alone, playing sports or games alone, talking to yourself or …. well there are other examples, but let us not dwell on that. You can play music on your own, without listening, in a brilliantly mechanistic sort of way. But if you play it with other people, without listening, it all comes apart. And making music with others is what brings music it to life. Am I the only person who attends concerts, listens to CDs, watches youtube, and feels “why am I spectating? I’d rather be part of the performance than part of the audience”.

    I think that a flaw in the intensive-certificate-battery-farms that we see in this part of the world is that students are trained to be loners. Virtuosos bred in solitary confinement. When I grew up (long ago, far away, and distorted by nostalgia), we learned instruments so that we could have the enjoyment of playing music with other people. It gave a purpose to the days and hours (ok, sometimes minutes…) of practice that went into learning a piece. And with parents, siblings and friends that played, then naturally there were always opportunities to make music together – even if only to fill in open strings in the background to someone else’s more advanced playing. And you weren’t cool if you couldn’t fit in with the others, or lost your place, played at the wrong speed, badly out of time, or (in the words of Flanders and Swann) played “much too loud, much too often, and flat“. And (just like kids playing football or cricket in the park) you get forced to pick things up as you go along - sight reading, transposition, improvising, filling in for missing parts, jumping a bar or two when something goes wrong, or playing the viola part because no-one else wants to. And when you play music with other people, you talk about music with other people, and you think about what you are doing, and how it works. Not in the most analytical way, perhaps, but with enthusiasm and energy, and that opens the door to all the other things.

    I don’t think this happens much here, for children, and I am puzzled why. I can speculate a number of reasons, some quite uncharitable – lack of time, space, opportunity or encouragement, due to kiasu-ism (how can you get ahead, if you are co-operating with others ?), or is it about exams - no-one gives certificates for making music in groups, for fun ? I don’t know. But, as a parent, I would like my kids to get as much enjoyment from music as I did, and do, (as well as a better technique), but don’t give a damn whether they pass any exams. Does that make me unique in Singapore ?

    Yours,
    Dr Peter

    ReplyDelete
  8. Dr Peter is right, but he is not unique in Singapore. Make good music, with fellow music makers who love it for itself, rather than than the paperchase. And there are many good examples of that, such as in amateur choral groups there exist here, and of course, the marvellous Orchestra of the Music Makers. However, good music making must be allied with good training, and that is where professional help by good teachers of music (those who can inspire rather than merely instruct) becomes all important. The "Singaporean problem" is that many parents think that all academic activity must be rewarded with some kind of paper to be of any worth. That obsession is what that negates all creativity and makes the process a chore rather than pleasure.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dr Marc,

    As Chang Tou Liang gently demonstrates, providing an answer to a rhetorical question is a good way of pointing out its vacuity. I stand corrected.
    Yes indeed, Singapore’s amateur and semi-pro music scene is busier and better than it has ever been before, as OMM together with Singapore Festival Orchestra, Re:Mix, TPO and various other groups and choirs (and those that organise them) admirably show.

    Given the rising quantity and quality of adult musicians in Singapore, what does that say about the “paperchase” approach to teaching children ?
    Is it evidence that, overall, it does work: ensuring that those students who have the urge to continue playing after Grade 8 / Diploma and into adulthood have both the enthusiasm and the technical foundation to do it well ? Or does it show, given the size of the population, that the poeple who make up these groups are the “survivors” of a system that during childhood drives many talented people away from music. I don’t know. As a foreigner, who is also not a trained music teacher, I realise I should tread carefully, and not make too many sweeping criticisms of a system which has bred many impressive musicians.

    The “paperchase” approach, and the question of “hot-housing” young musicians is a divisive subject, as we saw with the controversy over so called “Tiger Mum” phenomenon. Hard on the heels of that, came the biography of Andre Agassi, and his observation that he had always hated tennis, but was forced to do it from childhood. And didn’t the Williams’ sisters say the same thing ? I know I am straying somewhat from the topic of this posting, but I frequently find myself wondering what parents can do to pass on their love and enthusiasm for a subject, as well as helping their kids to develop the self-discipline needed to do it well, without the one being cancelled out by the other. I think Tou Liang puts his finger on the important point – the critical element for teachers (and parents) is inspiring not merely instructing. Simple, yet very, very difficult.

    I would be interested to read further thoughts and experiences on this topic in this blog !

    yours,
    Dr Peter

    ReplyDelete
  10. Just had a lovely dinner with some friends, which anded with an impromptu hauskonzert involving all the couples who happened to be amateur musicians. One (an engineering professor) played the flute, another (who runs a pharma company) played the cello and sang a mean baritone, while I tinkered on the keys. Later I was joined by the wife of the pharma guy in a series of Mozart duets. The hostess (a family physician) cooked up a fantastic meal and is also a keen harpist. All of us were just dusting cobwebs off the instruments, and having some fun even if we weren't terribly good (for now). But I think it says something about our music teachers in the past to have gotten us interested in music in the first place, and to still have that interest to pick up decades later. Now we're thinking of having our next musical party!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks for this post - that's really interesting. I was a classical music student in Malaysia. My parents did take me for concerts and I listened to CDs and cassettes of classical recordings at home, which was useful in giving a broader perspective of the world of classical music than the exam pieces, but it's true I did not have much training in how to hear or listen to the music.

    I would second the comment about playing in groups, which in itself helps you to at least hear the different parts - I thought that quite cool when I first started playing in an orchestra as a student. However, I think good guidance is also needed to help us know what's going on.

    Your post makes me think that perhaps that is the reason I so much enjoyed playing in my college orchestra - we had a superb conductor, who talked to us a lot about what we were playing, and really opened up the music to us. Come to think of it, a significant portion of rehearsal time was him talking rather than us playing. I felt I was learning so much at every rehearsal - and perhaps that is what I was learning - how to listen.

    (Not that I've already learned - I'd be interested to know what you recommend in terms of how people can be trained to hear music better - and indeed what you mean by "hearing").

    ReplyDelete