Aural tests – just sing!

I have discovered the most wonderful resource for musicianship training – canonsSo much can be covered with the simplest of four bar canons, and perhaps the greatest beauty of all is that you need nothing more than two voices.

Take the following example:



The first objective should be to sight-sing the melody using solfa. I insist that my pupils do this, for two reasons. Firstly, it gives each note its place value in the key. And secondly, it is extremely focusing to be thinking about both pitch and syllable  – there is no room for passive participation here! Initially even a simple melody may prove quite testing, but this active engagement of the brain, this constant thinking ahead, is an excellent skill to be developing right alongside the aural skills.

Alternatively, or perhaps after an initial attempt at sight-singing, you can learn to sing it from memory, perhaps in two halves at first, but still using solfa.

With a more able pupil, you might dive in straight away and ask them to sing after you, in canon. This allows them either to read the notes as they sing, or else to memorize what you sung and follow that way – or ideally a combination of both. Still in solfa. They might get the notes right but a few syllables wrong – don’t allow them to get off lightly! Even if they get the melody perfectly correct, insist that the solfa is correct too, even if it takes a few more attempts.

And then there are the hand signs! These can be introduced whilst you are just singing in unison, and your pupil should sign too. The ultimate test, of course, is to sing the canon whilst signing the second part a bar later. But be warned, make sure you have practised this before you demonstrate in front of your pupil – it’s not easy!

A quick glance down the aural test requirements for the early ABRSM grades will show you just how much a little of the above covers:

  • Pulse. Singing together and in canon enhances an awareness of both rhythm and pulse.
  • Echo responses. Memorizing short phrases.
  • Recognising changes. Singing in canon requires careful listening to both rhythm and pitch, and students will soon be identifing their own errors.
  • Sight-singing notes in free time (Grades 4 & 5). The key here is solfa, and learning a few tuneful canons in this way will soon make the ABRSM tests seem insultingly easy.
  • Sing back a phrase. No problem – your student can now sing back a phrase at the same time as listening to how it continues!
  • Tonality. The place value which solfa brings (you just can’t sing mi without having worked out that it is the 3rd of the chord) is excellent for developing a sense of key, and singing in canon also encourages the student to listen carefully to the harmonies produced between the voices.
  • Singing back the lower/upper part. Once you have practised a few example, see whether your pupil can sing in canon without sight of the music; this really does develop their ability to hear one part and sing another.

I find teaching the ABRSM tests in order to pass the exam to be a pretty painful experience – but just learning and singing together a simple canon, even for a few minutes each lesson, is quite the opposite. Delightfully pure and simple, but incredibly focusing for both pupil and teacher alike. Let’s put the instrument down, or step away from the piano for a few moments, and sing!

This canon is the very first in a book of 109 canons selected by David Vinden in ‘Two-part hearing development” which is available here.

Plus …. a fab solfa video here!

4 responses to “Aural tests – just sing!

  1. Ok you have just made my head hurt! Brilliant exercise though – just tried it using my voice and my piano. Now just need to try it on my next unsuspecting pupil! Thanks for another great post!

  2. Sorry! Let me know how you get on 🙂

  3. Glad to hear you’ve caught the canon bug! I use canons all the time; my students have come to expect them in lessons and choir rehearsals now, with usually at least one for each choir in each term. I like the thought of using them as aural training for instrumental students, and I might just have to try that out this weekend…

  4. Pingback: Sight-reading – are we making it up as we go along? | music@monkton

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