Sing!

The following quote is taken directly from the British Kodály Academy website:

Singing gives direct access to music without the technical difficulties of an instrument. Singing and active participation is therefore the fastest way to learn and internalise music and to develop musicianship skills. It is also the proof of accurate internalisation of the rhythm and melody. Through unaccompanied singing and active participation a student can begin to acquire skills essential to all musicians: musical memory, inner hearing, true intonation and harmonic hearing. Kodály-trained instrumental teachers regard these skills as pre-requisites for instrumental study at every level.

I regularly encounter young instrumentalists who looked amazed, horrified even, at the merest suggestion that they might sing something. Even more upsetting is when this is accompanied by a look which seems to say “Why do I need to sing? I’m a pianist!”

Reading the above lines more carefully, it strikes me that too many of these attributes are overlooked by teachers and pupils alike, [and who should the blame sit with?] who are perhaps too focused on learning to be in instrumentalist rather than a musician. It may sound harsh, but without that inner hearing, where is the point of reference exactly? In many cases, I fear that there isn’t one. The pupil who consistently counts a bar wrong probably can’t feel the pulse, but how often instead does the teacher try to address the problem with tedious counting exercises? More often than not, I have found in these instances that not counting, and just feeling it – internalising the music – works much better! And the best way to do this is to set the instrument aside for a moment and sing. It doesn’t have to be a lovely sound, but once a phrase has been mastered in this way (and I mean mastered, not just sung wrong, once, to appease the teacher) then the student has a point of reference.

I often tell my piano pupils that their fingers should follow their ears. If they can sing the melody, their fingers are more likely to wander in the right direction because they have a sense of where they should be going, because the ear is in charge. If not, playing can simply become a matter of decoding the dots on the page, and being delighted when the right sound comes out (assuming that they can tell!) Likewise, if intonation is a problem for string players, I suggest that they try singing the line. If they can’t sing it in tune, then what chance of playing in tune? But as soon as the ear knows what is right (and the ear has to be involved in singing) then the student will know if he/she is playing out of tune. Again, without giving these vital skills the necessary attention, playing is reduced to putting fingers in roughly the right place. I have a pupil in our orchestra who used to argue blind that F sharp was a ‘high 2nd finger’, and that was what he was playing, so why was I complaining that he was out of tune?! The fact that the F sharp was in a D major chord, and needed careful placing, seemed to be beyond him. Goodness knows what he was listening to, but I suspect not much! [He is much improved these days btw!]

I dream of Singing Week, when all instruments are set aside and teachers encourage their pupils to study their repertoire by singing it! Perhaps a little miming might be allowed as well…

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