If I play you a note, can you sing it back?

When I see a pupil in order to practise aural tests, which I have done literally hundreds of times, the first thing I always do is ask them to sing a note. Surprisingly often it plays out something like this:

Me:  Sing this note to me please. [plays note on piano]
Pupil:  Can you play the note again please?
Me:  But I’ve only just played it!
Pupil:  Yes, but I’ve forgotten it!

The request to hear it again might even come whilst the note is still sounding! Of course it may well be that the pupil is using stalling tactics – any excuse not to have to sing. It can be scary, and I do mean that quite sincerely. Worse, however, is that I suspect that many genuinely believe that they can’t remember the pitch. At this point I have to insist, gently but firmly:

Me:  Just sing the note.
Pupil:  I can’t.
Me:  Sing it.
Pupil:  Lah! (correct note)
Me:  Well done!
Pupil:  Oh!

The thing is, unless they have genuine pitching problems (see The Choir who can’t sing) they will almost invariably get it right; the only problem has been in believing that they can remember it.

Following my recent post 17 x 24? Fantastic thinking, I have been asking numerous colleagues and pupils to work out this sum for me, out loud. Quite a few, including several staff, have said that they couldn’t do that. At this point, I have had to insist, gently but firmly (!) and all have gone on to work it out correctly! This says a great deal to me about what we believe we can or can’t do, versus what we can actually do if we push ourselves a little more. In order to do this sum, we need to store a few numbers with a view to recalling them again; we might not think we can do this, but actually we can. And it is exactly the same with pitch; if we listen in the knowledge that we will be asked to recall that information, we can do it. We just need to ignore the ‘lazy’ voice in us which says we can’t!

I have been working this term with a boy who is in the Choir who can’t sing. He is preparing for a Grade 8 instrumental exam (ABRSM) in the summer, for which the aural tests are very demanding at the best of times, never mind one who really struggles to pitch notes at all. But this morning we had a major breakthrough! He has come a long way (really!) and is now 90% reliable, perhaps even more, in singing back notes in tune, although there is still some dodgy ‘wiring’ in there somewhere! However, when I have tried to get him to sing scales, he wanders way off key – although he can start in the right place, he invariably ends up losing his way very quickly. Singing up a five-note scale and back down again has been hopeless, until today that is…

This morning, having been thinking about memory, it occured to me that he didn’t have a point of reference, that he didn’t remember where it was that he was supposed to be heading back to. In effect, he was working out his sums but forgetting the subtotals as he went along. In simply pointing out that he needed to store the key note, sing up the scale and then return to that same key note, he then sang the scale in tune. It really was that easy. It wasn’t perfect, but the penny has dropped and he knows it! [Incidentally, I use solfa (do, re, mi etc) for this very reason – it helps to identify specific pitch references which are so critical to singing in tune and with understanding.]

I am still working on the wiring problem! We can be working for fifteen minutes singing basically in tune, and then all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, he will lose his way and not be able to sing back a pitch at all accurately. And then as suddenly as it went, he will be back online again. However, as he practises his singing this problem is showing up less and less often, and with this morning’s huge step forward, coupled with his a real desire to improve his skills, I am confident that he is heading in the right direction.

The joy of teaching is in the fact that every pupil is different, and whilst some just get it, others sometimes need some creative thinking on the teacher’s part to unlock their gifts.  This morning I learned just as much as my pupil, if not more!

[In February 2016 we made a video of the Choir who can’t sing, performing You raise me up. Yes, the choir is still going strong – click here to take a leap forward in time….!]

One response to “If I play you a note, can you sing it back?

  1. Pingback: A safe place to sing | music@monkton

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