I often begin my piano/musicianship lessons with a little mental warm-up, and one of my favourites is this: I sing a note (do) and ask the pupil to complete the major triad, first with mi (the major third) and then so (the fifth). Although most students know full well what a major arpeggio sounds like, plucking one out of thin air, unaided, can be surprisingly difficult at first. This is a great way of developing inner hearing; I ask the pupil to imagine the sound of an arpeggio, or perhaps even to put their fingers over the keys and imagine playing it. Somewhere inside their head is that ‘sound bite’ of an arpeggio, and often is not so much that they don’t know the sound, but more a question of not being able to recall it. Once they have found it, I go on to sing a variety of different pitches and ask the student to sing mi and so above it.
Once they have the hang of this, I move the goalposts by singing them so, and asking them to sing down the rest of the major triad, mi and do. This is more of a challenge; we are used to hearing/singing arpeggios from the root upwards, but not from the fifth downwards. Most find do first, and then fill in the gap with mi; with the more able student I will insist that they sing so, mi, do (in that order) which might mean doing some ‘sums’ in their head before presenting their final answer out loud. The ultimate challenge is for me to sing the third (mi), and for the pupil to find the root (d0) and the fifth (so).
Most students are surprised to discover that a major triad consists both of a major third (from do to mi) and a minor third (from mi to so). It is this element – learning to distinguish between and to pitch major and minor thirds, up and down – which makes this such a focusing exercise, and it’s what I like to call musical mental arithmetic. Arpeggios needn’t just be meaningless technical exercises – far from it in fact; adding this aural/theory/solfa dimension immediately gives them so much more value.
With a piano pupil this might be a three minute ‘game’ (fun eh?!), with a musicianship pupil it might lead into some sight singing exercises – after all, once we know where do, mi and so are, we have a strong internal framework for finding other notes; la is just above so, ti is just below do etc. Solfa is such a useful tool, and having used it now for the past couple of years in my teaching, I would never choose to be without it. Most noteworthy, if you’ll forgive the pun, is that at no point does either pupil or teacher even need to touch a musical instrument. In my book that is proper aural training.