Ear Training/ Mnemonics

July 31, 2009

This is more for me than any of my readers (do I have any??)

At almost 32 years of age, and with more projects on my plate than I can handle, I’m considering beginning a serious new training in developing my musical ear. My theory is: one builds coordination between


And the more each of these is developed, or pairs of these, the higher functioning the musician. Most of us can sing relative pitches in our favorite songs, and I suspect that there are ways to develop perfect pitch, even if you’ve been told you do not possess it. So one necessity for becoming a successful (read: competent) musician is to develop fluency with an instrument you already possess with voice. This will take years and a lot of practice. I do not have the most developed ear, although I play difficult pieces on piano, and am slowly learning to read notes on guitar, as I learn chords and rhythm patterns. I am deciding on a single voice instrument and I will begin learning to play it as an extension of my voice, completely by ear. I’m split between recorder and oboe/English horn. The recorder extends whistling, in a sense. It is simple and easy to carry and is featured in a lot of baroque ensemble music I enjoy. The oboe has such a beautifully distinct sound, a very solitary sound too, and is beautiful to look at and hold. Judging from this beautiful range chart http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Range_(music) the tenor recorder and the oboe have about the same range, but the oboe wikipedia page shows the range of the oboe going a bit higher. As I have wanted to play double reed instruments my whole life I think I may go with an oboe.

A simple, well designed ear training program should be very easy to write and should be easily available, though I haven’t found one. I’ve been working with big ears today, working almost exclusively on the minor 10th. I have given each of the 9 minor 10ths a name, corresponding to something the interval reminds me of.

C to Eb LOW [self explanatory]
C# to E NAMELESS [the last one to be named]
D to F AWKWARD [don’t know why]
Eb to F# PENTATONIC [they’re both black]
E to G FUGUE #10 [bach, of course]
F to Ab MOZART [f minor broken chords in K333]
F# to A GOLDEN [trying to recognize the pitch A whenever I hear it!]
G to Bb STANDBY [G minor is my default key for improvisation]
Ab to B HARSH [this B sounds distincly more harsh than the other notes]

So this is one of my favorite things to do: invent far more theory than is necessary or relevant. I love mnemonics (see for lack of a word). I hypothesize that I will learn the difference in these 9 minor 10ths by identifying them according to the mnemonic that pops up in my head when I hear each. We’ll see how this goes. I want to keep expanding this, and soon I want to be able to sit down with an oboe and play any melody that I can sing, or that I’ve just heard. This is my goal.

While I’m at it, let me share with future me a note to Maggie about teaching Ella piano, along a similar vein.

My take: the method books are garbage. Analogy– SCALES and ARPEGGIOS:MUSIC as PUSHUPS:KICKBALL. What’s also garbage, in my snotty opinion, is books that teach insultingly banal songs to children, such as go tell aunt roady, pop goes the weasel, etc. Kids who learn from those books will appreciate that music is to be appreciated, but they won’t appreciate music. I think the music should be rich enough to be incentive by itself, and as children easily learn very difficult piano, the praise and attention incentive is also there with serious classical music, and is not there with the two line steam boat willy strut.

I started Ella reading a chopin mazurka. I was careful to find an A minor piece, as key signatures take some work, but my philosophy is a good teacher can teach advanced material because
a) there is something to take away from it, even if it’s not a polished piece. Especially if the teacher ENJOYS the music, and can share some of that.
b) kids, Ella especially, are super fast learners.
c) the teacher being proud is an incentive to a student like Ella, and being proud cannot be faked. Setting the kid up to surprise you a bit is a good thing.

I try to teach a whole lot at once, but mainly: proper fingering and reading intervals, occasionally I would discuss a symbol such as ff, or a sharp sign as need be. I found one thing absolutely critical:


so I will say at some point “big step down,” or “stretch and 2, stretch and 3, and finish the arpeggio” or “thumb goes under and walk up to 4”
The actual descriptions matter a lot less than the consistency, 1) in saying exactly the same thing at the same place, and then 2), if you can manage, try to be consistent about saying “big step down” about some fixed large interval, i.e., each time you come across it. The latter point is not necessary and having a few descriptions for the same interval is probably good.

I’ve found that using natural language like this fools my student into thinking I’m just talking them through it, as opposed to always saying “a 3rd down” “a 4th up” “3 consecutive major seconds down” which would get repetitive and tiresome. But the consistency allows the student the ease of having mnemonic devices, subconsciously handed to them.

I started actually jotting down phrases in the margins of the mazurka, so that the same phrase could be recalled a day or two later, at some specific spot. Also, I played with abbreviating and finally omitting some of the comments. They are training wheels after all.

Fluency of reading is important at this stage, so just allowing her to build that transparent relationship where she sees intervals and almost instinctively jumps the right amount is good. Discourage learning each of the notes and where they are on the keyboard, that skill is a detriment to her development. Encourage singing, identifying pitches, thinking ahead to work fingering out herself, and furnish her with questions and comments about what the musician is doing. If you can make that sort of dialog fun you will set her up to be a pupil with the brightest and the best teachers, because that is what they will do. I’d say finally never let her get bored with it, since there are a thousand things to be fascinated with, but also don’t be afraid to be less of her best friend and more of her teacher when you are teaching her. Teachers who respect their students have high expectations, and my hope for her is that she learn a bit of the self-discipline that is required to make it far into music.

I can send music for her to listen to. She might want to hear some pieces and pick something not too difficult to play. It’s important that she only play music she cares about.

My challenge now is to get good enough at oboe and get Ella good enough at piano that the above is more than just bullshit.