Category Archives: aural training

SingTrue – a brilliant new app

As I’ve said before, I have come to the conclusion that there are three things which are vital in order to be able to sing well. These are:

critical listening [ears]

good breathing [voice]

confidence [mind]

Last term I took on the challenge of teaching a young member of our sports staff to sing. She revealed over lunch one day that not only could she not sing, but that she was terrified of singing. I found this hard to believe – she seemed like the confident type to me! So it was with great surprise, when she came for her first lesson, that I discovered that she really was completely traumatized even by the prospect of singing, to the point where she was reduced to a quivering wreck. Genuinely so. I won’t forget that lesson, ever.

singtrue2Over the coming weeks we coined the term ‘humming lessons’! It quickly became apparent that our main difficulty was simply going to be able to get her to make any sound at all, never mind dealing with any pitching issues. And when, eventually, she managed to hum a note, it became clear that her ability to pitch was as bad as I’ve ever encountered (that’s bad, by the way). Wow, what a project!

On the whole, without practice things don’t get better. Using a knife and fork is tricky at first. And if as a trumpet player your tone is a little rough, it doesn’t actually get any better unless you practise regularly. And if you haven’t sung for the best part of *15 years since being publically humilated in front of the rest of the class in Year Five, you won’t have had much practice at pitching notes accurately.

Several months ago I was contacted by Christopher Sutton from, who was planning on designing an app to help people to sing. He had encountered our Choir who can’t sing project on my blog, and wanted to tap into my experience. I had my doubts; after all, probably the biggest part of this whole initiative depends on me! The whole confidence thing is tackled by me getting alongside each individual and saying ‘Come on, I believe you can do this!
targetEnter SingTrue, launched next week for iPhone/iPad, and in a word, brilliant! No surprise that there are three modules – ears, voice, mind. I have been amazed (and flattered) to see so many of my little teaching tricks – and those of others too – incorporated into this clever piece of software. I’ve been been playing with the app for the last few days (official release date 21 October) but it has suddenly dawned on me that there is one potentially huge problem with my teaching; me! I’m there, in the room, with my pupil. And therefore the whole confidence element is a problem. In many instances it’s not insurmountable, and in fact most boys just get on with it. Girls generally find this more difficult though, and in the case of this pupil, I realise now that I was getting in the way! I think this is a great app. I wouldn’t want to be replaced by an app, but it does allow those who’ve had no practice to have a go, without fear of being heard by anyone – however encouraging their teacher might try to be.

*Insert your own number if this story sounds all too familiar. Sadly, I often encounter people, many in their forties or fifties, who have never sung because they were told as a child that they couldn’t. And so they haven’t 😦

[August 2017 – staggered to discover that apparently 450,000 people (!) have ‘found their note’ using Singtrue]

Why is a piano like a calculator?

Well, if you press the right keys it will give you the right answer. [That’s not a joke by the way – I hope I’m funnier than that!]

The fact is, a calculator is a really handy bit of kit; quite often we can find ourselves using it to add up stuff which we could readily do in our heads, but frankly it’s just easier to get the calculator to take the strain from our brain.

It’s the same with sight-singing. Asked to sing a major third above a given note, it’s all too easy to say that’s too difficult to work out and reach for the piano. But I think we can work it out. It’s like mental arithmetic. In order to do this we need to do a few sums in our head using our inner hearing. Perhaps I imagine singing a major scale to myself and stop on the third note.  Or maybe I sing the first two notes of ‘While shepherds watched’, knowing that this also makes a major third.

I sometimes wonderKeyboard Keys Close Up whether children think that pitching notes is some sort of unfathomable mystery! How should I know where that note is? Well in maths we have systems for working things out, which we are hopefully taught from an early age, and which we then have drummed into us for years to come. 12 x 3 = 36. I happen to know that one now, but if I do forget it I have various strategies for working it out; on my fingers maybe [I call that Mostyn maths, but that’s another story], or in columns on a piece of paper or visualised in my head. So when I ask someone to sing the A above middle C, I’m not just expecting them to pluck it out of the air. Someone with perfect pitch can. Or else someone who knows their theory knows that C up to A is a major 6th, and remembers that’s the tune to ‘The day thou gavest’ – they can do pitch it too. Or someone who can sing up the major scale, rather like moving up successive positions on a number line; they can find it too.

But someone who has only ‘worked it out’ by playing the A on the piano and then singing it, what of them? Well they didn’t work it out. They cheated! They used a calculator in the non-calculator paper!

Mental arithmetic takes practice, and as a core subject our pupils spend a great deal of time each week crunching numbers in some form or other. Hopefully in their heads, which encourages them to develop their skills of retaining and retrieving information, which is of course a transferable skill. In contrast, how much time do our musicians spend doing the equivalent mental ‘arithmetic’, developing their inner hearing skills? Our instruments, be it flute, piano or guitar, need technical mastery of course, but I think we need to be wary of spending all of our time ‘tapping in the data’ and enjoying the instant answers, and perhaps need to spend more time working on the real stuff.


Learning to sing, one step at a time

One of the things which I have found time and time again with people who can’t sing is that you really can’t take for granted that they understand how up and down works! More specifically, getting them to sing the correct note back is one thing, but then we get to the really tricky bit – how far is down?!

I have a new ‘project’ this term, a sixth former who wants to learn to sing. I heard her early last term, and at that point she was having real difficulty in singing back a note even remotely close to what I had sung to her. However, in just ten minutes she made huge progress, taking on board the three things which appear to me to be so vital – critical listening, good breath support and confidence. So what impressed me immediately when I saw her this Friday was that she had clearly mulled these things over since the summer, to the extent that she was generally able to sing back a random selection of single notes pretty accurately. A bit out of tune perhaps, but close enough for the moment!

Having established F (above middle C) as her ‘go to’ note, I set out to extend this down the scale from soh to doh. So I asked her to sing down a ‘step’. [Remember, her pitching is still unreliable.] I sang her an E flat, and she sang me …. a middle C. A perfect fourth down – that’s miles out!

The trouble is, she doesn’t know how far a ‘step’ is. If the scale is seen as a ladder, she clearly has no idea how far apart the rungs are! It might appear extraordinary, but for those who struggle, we simply can’t assume that they know how the scale works. ‘Down a step’ is a vague concept, as vague as asking someone to move ‘one’ to their left. One what? One inch? One metre?

After a little more ‘calibration’ we eventually managed to start singing down five note scales – soh, fa, mi, re, doh. And here’s the interesting bit; although she now had a pretty good feel for how far a ‘step’ was, she still ended up too low by the time she reached the bottom of the scale. And the reason why? Because there is a semitone between fa and mi.


What sensible scale, outside the realms of music, has a different distance between two points in an otherwise equal pattern?! Crazy! So actually, despite her lack of experience, I found myself admiring the combination of her logic and her new-found pitching skills. And once I’d pointed out that, for some strange reason, one of the ‘rungs’ in the major scale is smaller than the others, she quickly grasped the concept and her five note scales dropped rather beautifully into place.

How many young instrumentalists play scales and remain completely unaware of this strange phenomenon of tones and semitones? Quite a lot at a guess – they don’t need to know, because their instrument does the hard work for them. I think that’s a shame. And I also think it’s quite ironic that my new student, equipped with this little piece of knowledge, is beginning to make fantastic progress with her aural skills, and in some ways might already be seen as ahead of the game.

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]

What is an arpeggio? do mi so warm-up

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.

do mi so

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.

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!

As easy as do re mi? A “beginner’s” guide to solfa

For as long as I can remember I have been able to sight-sing with confidence, doubtless due to my early training as a chorister and subsequent involvement with choirs for many years since. It still remains, for me, the most important thing for any musician – to be able to sing.

Three years ago I signed up for a British Kodàly Academy Spring Course. I can’t quite remember why, but one of the things which did interest me was the knowledge that the Kodàly approach uses solfège, the naming of each note of the scale as do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. I was interested to see whether there was anything in it, since I had my doubts – after all, I could sight-sing perfectly adequately without, so what possible use could giving all the notes funny names be to me? As I soon discovered, I was missing the point.

The first event of Day One was choir. We learned a song from memory by repeating back phrases sung by our director, which was challenging for one reason only – we were expected to sing in solfa! For me pitching the notes was easy, but remembering which solfa name to sing them to was not, and immediately I found my brain racing to keep up. And it was relentless! Just as I thought I had the hang of it, we cut to something different – learning another melody, or clapping and/or stamping a complex syncopated rhythm. And then (I should have seen it coming!) we put all of them together; melody, rhythm, others singing the countermelody, and the solfa! By the time the hour was up I felt like I’d done a day’s mental workout. They say that music uses both sides of the brain – definitely!


And then on to musicianship training. I was aware that there are different hand signs for each of the solfa syllables, but was not yet aware of their full potential. We learned some relatively simple pentatonic melodies from memory, and again the most difficult element was singing the solfa names. By now I realised that I was becoming much more actively aware of the relative position of each note in the scale, rather than just pitching each note from the previous one. The latter system still worked for the pitch, of course, just not for the name. Interesting. And then we were asked to perform a melody in canon. First at the piano; play first, and start singing a bar later (in solfa). Challenging, but manageable, and I have to say I felt very proud of myself for negotiating the task successfully, albeit with my brain running at full tilt. And then with hand signs. That’s right, sing first (in solfa) and then sign the canon a bar later with the solfa hand signs. “You’ve got to be joking” I said to Klara, the delightful Hungarian lady who was taking our class. Evidently she wasn’t. As encouragement, she performed the canon in three parts, using both hands, without even breaking a sweat! Respect.

Back in choir, I soon discovered that when the music changes key, do moves too – and so of course does everything else! Never before have I been so intensely aware of the place value of each note in a melody, and in observing every modulation as it occurs. I realised that much of the time I sight-sing on autopilot; yes, I am constantly listening, but perhaps not always thinking so hard. On the other hand, solfa actively forces you to listen and to analyse, and the intensity of this experience is actually very surprising. It is an amazingly powerful tool for teaching complete novices (as my Choir who can’t sing will testify) right through to analysing Schubert symphonies in detail, which I did on this year’s Spring Course which was hosted at Monkton.


This approach to musicianship is so refreshingly rigorous, and I love it! It certainly incorporates all of the 5Es which are at the centre of what I believe to be most important in teaching music  – Engage, Enthuse, develop an Enquiring Mind, Equip and Empower.



Singing for pianists

The third of my five ‘E’s for outstanding instrumental teaching is developing an Enquiring mind. I think that it is vital that the teacher gets into the habit of asking questions rather than answering them, so that the student quickly learns that he is expected to work things out for himself. A simple example: “don’t forget the E flat in bar 5” becomes “which note did you play wrong in bar 5?” It is so easy to fall into the trap of giving the answers, but telling is not teaching and we should not be in so much of a hurry to teach a piece of music that we forget to teach the student.

Assuming the student answered the question correctly, let’s make the next question a little more difficult: “Can you sing me the E flat please?” At this point, in 9 out of 10 cases, the student will reach for an E flat on the piano – if they get the chance that is, because I’m ready for them! “No, don’t play it, sing it.” For me, this really gets to the crux of the problem. Sitting at a piano is like having a calculator in an arithmetic exam, but easier; if you want to know an answer, just press the relevant key and the answer is immediate.

At the simplest level, this is going to test the student’s aural memory. Can they remember, in their inner ear, any of the notes which they have been playing in the last few moments? The questions which they need to ask themselves are going to be the equivalent of a mathematician showing how they reached the answer – if they think that you are just expecting them to pull an E flat out of the air then of course they have every reason to panic!

A few more leading questions might help; “The phrase started on a B flat, can you remember what that sounded like? Yes? Well, can you sing me a B flat then?” Once they have sung the B flat, a little theory might be required: “How far away is E flat from B flat? Ok, sing up a four note scale from the B flat and we should get there!”

My piano pupils are used to this type of questioning, resigned to it perhaps! They realise that I am serious, however, and although in the early days some will just dig their heels in and refuse to sing – I had a pupil once who took weeks and weeks even to pluck up the courage to proffer a single squeak – they all know that it is an expectation. The benefit, of course, is that they are using their ears, and they soon realise that it can be quite helpful to have their ears connected up with what their fingers are doing.

This style of teaching encourages the student to use their brain, their memory, their ears, their knowledge of theory, their voice …. and sometimes diversionary tactics! The alternative “don’t forget the E flat in bar 5” seems unhelpful in comparison.

Sight read no jumps

I was fortunate enough to gain a place as a chorister in a parish church at the age of eight, and received five years of the most wonderful musical training. In fact, there was a series of very specific tests which we were expected to work through, and success was rewarded with a coloured drawing pin on a chart. Wow! (Actually, I was hooked from day one!)


More specifically, there were 7 blue, 15 red, 5 green and 5 purple tests. The blue ones were along the lines of ‘read a hymn’ (Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes!), sing a scale G to G etc – all things which a seven/eight year old needed to get to grips with if he was going to progress to becoming a ‘full chorister.’ It was a very simple system, but the tests became increasingly demanding – I can’t remember what any of the purple ones were, but they were probably along the lines of ‘process down the nave of the church with a candle in one hand, whilst sight-reading the alto line of Stanford in G with the music upside down!’

However, I do remember several red ones, including ‘sight-read no jumps’. Our assistant choirmaster, Mr Baker, would draw a stave, a treble clef, and a major scale from middle C to top G, on the back of a scrap of paper. All that was required was to be able to sing up and down the scale, by step, as he pointed to each note, but changing direction occasionally. The aural equivalent of going up or down a ladder, one rung at a time. Looking back, we must have learned

  • the ‘sound world’ of the major scale
  • where the tones and semitones were
  • that next door notes move either from line to space, or from space to line

Not too tricky once you got the hang of it, but nevertheless something which needed practise and familiarity. Sight-read jumps, on the other hand, was fiendish, and the test board, all neatly organised in rows and columns, had a notably empty column under this heading – the few boys with a red drawing pin at this point were held in great esteem, and quite rightly! In short, if you can do this, you can do anything, and I do mean that quite sincerely.

Sight read no jumps is not difficult, but I believe that it is necessary for all musicians to practise it and master it. I regularly encounter young musicians (and also older ones) who quite simply can’t sing from one note to the next. I find it difficult to allow them to justify why not – scales are the alphabet which we work with, and we must have a basic working knowledge of the scale. They might not like it, but when I ask my piano pupils to sing a musical line in lessons, they know that I’m serious and they just get on with it. After all, the ears need just as much training as the fingers.