AHHE Associate Editor for Music
Hello again. My first blog highlighted particular upcoming music conferences, and in keeping with this I wanted to report to you my thoughts from a recent Aural Skills Pedagogy Symposium that was held on 7th April 2017 at the Royal Academy of Music, London.
Colleagues from Universities and Conservatories from the UK, Europe, and North America came together at this one-day symposium to present and listen to papers under the themes of how we teach, assess, use technology, and embed aural skills. A full listing of the papers and their presenters can be found at http://www.ram.ac.uk/research/research-events/aural-skills-pedagogy-symposium.
All delegates (regardless of whether they were from a University or Conservatory) recognised that one of the biggest difficulties facing educators of aural skills is that the topic is often side-lined in music education itself. A typical example many will recognise is when the student informs you of their prior ABRSM practical exam preparation: they spent months on the scales and pieces, and only two weeks before the exam did their tutor run through some examples regarding the aural part of the assessment. It was felt that aural skills should not be separate but integral to the training of musicianship. This may seem obvious but it is often not the case in our curricula, much to the disadvantage of our students. For an interesting empirical study on the advantages of singing through a melody before playing it on an instrument see Chie Ohsawa (2009) ‘The Effect of Singing the Melody in the Practice of the Piano’ https://www.academia.edu/4516450/The_Effect_of_Singing_the_Melody_in_the_Practice_of_the_Piano
We similarly collectively recognised at the symposium that we should be completely transparent in our assessment of aural skills; making sure that we put the theory of the skill firmly within the place of its practice. To assess transcription skills in an intangible space (such as a request to the student to write down a string of non-sequential intervals) is to send them on a fool’s errand that is neither useful in the real world (I can happily state that in my professional life I have never had to work out a string of intervals that was not grounded in a melodic or harmonic context) nor to the understanding of the music itself (Kent Cleland, Jena Root, and Simon Parkin all spent time within their papers showing how the association of the tonal-familiar was the key to progression in the acquisition of complex listening skills).
For someone like myself who is active in the field of embodied music theory strategies (watch out for my article ‘Rethinking the Guidonian Hand for twenty-first century Musicians’ in the second issue (first volume) of the Journal of Popular Music Education this July) what became apparent was the distinction between those who Kodály and those who Kodon’t [sic]. It would have been a surprise to have been at a conference on aural skills and not have the Kodály method mentioned. However, it was interesting to hear that whilst the aforementioned distinction I made (somewhat in jest) is in place, it is not as clear cut as those who have undertaken the specific solfège training and those who have not. There are various ideas and techniques that use the body without instrument to ‘play’ the sound being heard (for example, the idea of air guitar) and thus check and reinforce the connection. It is hoped that many of these ideas will form articles in a dedicated issue of a targeted journal for wider dissemination.
One of the most reassuring pieces of information emerging from the day, and particularly for those of use who do not have perfect / absolute pitch, is that the golden arrow of aural accuracy is not something that stays with that person for the whole of their life. Intriguingly, and as Gary S. Karpinski pointed out, those with perfect pitch discover that their recognition begins to be ‘out’ by an increasing distance from middle-age onwards (from about a semitone rising to a minor third higher than that of the sounded pitch). If ever there was a convincing argument for why all musicians should undertake regular aural skills training it is that the skills of relative pitch can be deployed when the gift of perfect pitch is lost.
The value of going to conferences is known and clear but it is often worth reminding ourselves of this fact as the pressures of academic life invite us to commit more time to internal responsibilities and activities. To help, might I remind us all of the JISC Musicology list that can deliver details of such conferences, requests for papers, and so on straight to your inbox and help promote discussion across the musicology community. If you haven’t already joined then all you need to do is send the one line: ‘join musicology-all firstname lastname’ to email@example.com to begin the interaction.
Until soon, Paul
AHHE Associate Editor for Music