Developing aural skills is an oft-neglected but essential part of our jobs as piano teachers. It can be astonishingly easy to forget when we get caught up in music reading, technique and other pursuits, but at its essence music is sound. Therefore, ear training and aural work should be something we include right from the get-go – not as an afterthought, or just something we prepare for a standardised test.
If your students are doing exams or other assessments, you may have specific aural aptitude tests in mind and be tempted to focus on exercises which prepare students for these.
I would encourage you, however, to take a more holistic view of your students’ aural development. If you pick one of these tools and commit to its regular use in your studio your students will pass the specimen aural tests with flying colours as a byproduct. Moreover, they will have a well-developed ear that they can use to enhance their musical experience.
A very important first step for a new teacher is to simply use their voice and get their students to do the same.
Have your students sight sing their new pieces, hum the piece they’ve been practising to test their aural memory and make up their own lyrics to sing along with their performances.
Consider the voice to be a bridge from the external musical world to the internal one. Do everything you can to strengthen that highway.
When you’re ready to take the singing a step further you might consider a more specific system, such as solfa.
Solfa can seem mysterious to those who haven’t used it before but it’s really a very simple and intuitive system. Try starting with some basic solfa singing warmups with your students and you can branch out further once you get comfortable.
An alternative singing system is to use numbers instead of solfa syllables. This is functionally different than solfa as the numbers are usually tied to scale degrees, regardless of tonality. For example, a major scale in solfa is do re mi fa so la ti do and a natural minor scale most people would sing as la ti do re mi fa so la. However in a number system these would both be sung as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.
I personally prefer solfa to number systems in my own studio but they’re still a very valid option to explore and experiment with.
Playing by ear refers to the practice of listening to something and then figuring out how it goes. It is not the same as rote teaching because although the teacher may demonstrate certain parts, the primary mode of learning is that the student listens and adjusts what they are playing to match a recording or their knowledge of a song.
Not every student has to be proficient in playing by ear, unless that becomes a specific focus of interest for them. But all students should be exposed to this possibility.
Some students will find this an easy and intuitive skill and others will find it baffling. Do not give up on developing a basic ability to play by ear in the students who find this more difficult.
Pick a song you love and know well which has a clear melody. Work it out on the piano without referring to a score or even playing the track. It doesn’t matter if you end up in the same key as the actual song, but keep going until you have at least a few lines worked out and sing along with your playing to check your work.
Make some notes about this process in your Music Journey Journal and then ask a question about this lesson in the community.