How to teach aural tests: don’t!

With just six days to go until her Grade 8 exam, I gave my piano pupil her first lesson on the aural tests; in fact, her first lesson on ABRSM aural tests in two years. She will pass the aural with flying colours*, one of those candidates where the examiner will smile to herself and think “at last, a real musician!”

To be fair, she is an able pupil. But my point is that my aim has always been to teach her to be a musician first and foremost, not just a pianist.

LBSinging back the bass line is not a problem for her. She can sing just about every line in every piece which she has learned, so why should a simple Grade 8 aural test phase her? Not only that, but when we learn a new piece, she fully expects to be asked to sing the melody whilst she plays the bass line, or the other way around. From memory. Well why not? It’s not easy the first time of course, but five years down the line it has simply become a skill which she has developed and now takes in her stride. Having memorised sonata movements by Scarlatti and Beethoven, and a harmonically complex Brahms Intermezzo, how hard can a simple tonic/dominant bass line be?

Identifying chords, cadences and modulations? Don’t you need to be able to do that to play Beethoven? On one level, I suppose not. If, however, you are looking to develop the musician as well as the pianist, then it’s vitally important that we learn the implications of chords and modulations, and indeed the entire harmonic structure of a Classical sonata movement – or any other piece for that matter. Drawing out these instincts should begin in the very first lesson, not  a month before the exam when we realise we haven’t looked at the Grade 8 aural tests yet! And yet I regularly see students at this point, to ‘do’ the aural test bit, who just look blankly at me when I mention the word modulation. Realistically, what chance have they got? It’s just too late.

Sight-singing? Ok, so she has had the advantage of singing in our a cappella Chamber Choir for the past year or so, and so holding her own vocal line, whilst still challenging, is nothing new. And she is perfectly used to pitching intervals; in every piano lesson I will ask her at some point to sing the third in this or that chord. Grade 8 sight-singing tests are strongly harmonic; you can learn to sight-sing by pitching alone, but it is so much easier if the pupil has good harmonic understanding. See above. Sight-singing is not guess work, far from it – it requires understanding. And understanding is laid down over time, not in a few desperate last minute aural classes.

Features of the music/style and period. We talk about these things all the time – no really, all the time! I don’t generally say ‘Let’s go from the top of the second page’, but rather ‘Let’s go from the second subject’ or ‘Let’s pick it up at the beginning of the G minor passage.’ Where’s that? ‘Good question!’ Develop an enquiring mind; in my experience, students enjoy being challenged.

I run aural classes each term to give extra support to our instrumental teachers, and yes, some straight forward exam technique can turn a daunting task into a very simple one. But the best way to teach aural, I believe, is in the context of the instrumental/singing lesson. In this way it becomes an integral part of their learning, not some extra chore to be dealt with in exams. They will also become self-sufficient, thinking musicians.

[*Postscript – marks just in, full marks for the aural tests, and a distinction overall! :D]

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2 responses to “How to teach aural tests: don’t!

  1. Couldn’t agree more! What a great blog post!

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