Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning Written by ANDREW EALES
The topic of singing in aural tests has long been a contentious one, but has become more so in recent years. Not only have growing numbers of teachers noted how unpopular the singing tests are, but research in the field of cognitive science now casts doubt on the previously assumed validity of such tests.
In this article I will explore the requirements of the five main boards, consider the links between singing and “audiation”, touch on some basic scientific research (with links for those wanting to read more) and suggest change.
“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’”
The month of May seems to me to be one of the most magnificent of the year, at least here in the UK, where the lingering spring blossom gives way to an explosion of early summer abundance. The temperature strains upwards towards ideal, but the mornings retain their wonderful freshness.
It’s really quite magical!
Meanwhile, back indoors…
What cruel irony, then, that this is the very time of year where many young people are cooped up revising, huddled over computer screens, readying to be herded into drab school gymnasiums where rows of identical desks await. It’s not that I’m against assessment; I am really not. But here in the UK we endure plenty of overcast, wet and windy days when studying indoors perhaps makes more sense.
In music education the same forces are equally at work, even though we instrumental teachers, perhaps more than anyone, have reason to challenge these assumptions. Have teachers, pupils and parents become so convinced of an exam-led narrative of education that we are losing our ability to discern the deeper and richer benefits music can bring?
“The Grades” imagine a fixed, artificial destination (or series of mini stop-offs) which can too easily distract us from that all-important scenery that actually makes our musical journey truly rewarding.
So many adults returning to the piano tell me that they quit lessons as teenagers because they hated taking exams so much. I would suggest that we need to very seriously reflect on this.
For the Daoist philosophers, one of the highest imperatives is for humanity to reawaken to the natural world around us and discover our place within it. Recognising and following the seasons, both in the natural world and our inner journey, is fundamental to our true success.
Throughout history, the Daoists were keen musicians and artists who demonstrated that far from adding to our sense of separation from the natural world, artistic expression can provide an avenue by which we come closer to it.
As one of the ancient sages explained:
“As a general principle, music is the harmony between Heaven and Earth, and the perfect blend of Yin and Yang. Great music brings delight, enjoyment and pleasure to ruler and subject, parent and child, and old and young alike.”
The Annals of Lu Buwei, 3rd century BCE Brindley, EF: Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China State University of New York Press, 2012.
The Natural Musician
As in all things, it is authenticity and balance that we need, and there are many ways we can promote this. For example:
Try to learn pieces and techniques at a natural, unforced pace.
Learn to be mindful as you practise, and non-judgmental as you critique your own (and others’) playing.
Aim to match the repertoire you tackle to your broader life goals, choosing pieces which inspire and enlarge who you are.
Always listen to your playing, immersing yourself and connecting with the source of the sounds.
Balance time spent working at the piano with time spent playing it; remember Active Repertoire so that your piano playing has a “success foundation”.
“Separating theory from practice can’t be a good thing.”
While this is a great soundbite for those promoting theory courses, the obvious irony here is that ABRSM have themselves, for generations, separated music theory from practice in their own examination syllabus and published materials.
Paul Harris’s new series ‘Improve your Theory!’, written for students preparing for ABRSM Theory Grades 1-5, aims to change this situation for the better. Introducing the series, publishers Faber Music explain that:
“Firmly rooted in Paul Harris’s Simultaneous Learning approach, it will transform how music theory is taught and learnt, improving every aspect of musicianship along the way. Never before has theory been so fun or seemed so natural!”
The books have already been awarded “Best Print Resource 2016” at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence, so let’s see if they live up to the hype…