Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ear Training for Beginners (Plus "InTune!" App Review!)

One thing I neglected my first year of teaching was devoting time to ear training. I was probably overwhelmed as it was, but really it's not difficult to incorporate this critical musical skill. We want our student musicians to have discerning ears. You can start this right from the beginning of the year. Here are a few of the things I did this past year. I feel like it's resulted in more musically intelligent students.

Listen and Describe Tone Quality

It's one thing for us to tell them if their tone is fuzzy, or airy, or pinched. It's another thing for the kids to recognize it and gain confidence in identifying good tone and weak tone. We started doing this while we were still exclusively on mouthpieces.

If you can model all of the problems, that's a good place to start, but if not you can also listen and pick your models from the class. Tell the students not to be okay with just any sound, but to really strive for the best sound they can make. In the early part of the year I'll spend multiple days a week doing this kind of listening activity where individuals play and invite students to identify what kind of tone they hear. Eventually this turns into asking them to identify their own tone quality.

Analyze Mistakes

Again, it's one thing for us to tell them where the problems were, but it's another thing to have the students be able to identify it. One of the major reasons students don't fix mistakes in their own practice time is that they get so wrapped up in the mechanics that they stop listening to the product they're producing. Despite my efforts this year I still have a couple of students that play every note like its a quarter note. Almost all of my students, however, are able to play and hear when they make rhythm mistakes and they'll stop to fix it.

This is easy to do. Simply replace your instruction with questioning. "Who can tell me what we missed that time?" Sometimes they'll just be guessing. If that's the case, tell them to play it again and listen more closely to see if they can catch it. Of course, just like with a full band, this sometimes fixes the mistake all by itself. But if they are stopping for a concept that they have already learned, then they should be able to recognize when it doesn't happen, and most of them will be able to give you that answer. If they can give you the answer, you can go one step further and ask them how to fix it. If they've been paying attention, they'll tell you! I like doing this because I'm also trying to train my advanced students to teach.

Make sure it's something they should know by that point. Otherwise, if they aren't performing a newer concept up to par then you should be the one to point it out and give the solution.


Kids have no problem singing, and the earlier you start, the more expected it will be. Caution, if you go for a long time without singing then they will start to become "too cool" for it. That was a mistake I made this year. But even if they hit that point, it doesn't mean you can't get it out of them. Singing well is just a matter of doing it on a regular basis. Like anything else, once they're used to it, it's no big deal. My low brass class is the best at singing accurately, and no surprise they can make those leaps of 4ths and 5ths with much more confidence than my low brass students. It really does make everything better, including their ability to recognize wrong notes and rhythms. The more detail you incorporate into the singing, the more beneficial, so use it to learn articulations and dynamics as well.

Higher or Lower?

This semester we started focusing on matching tone to build up to playing in tune. Eventually we started actually learning how to tune the instruments by learning where and how to adjust. I always start by teaching them to listen for waves or "beats" in the sound. Normally that's all I would do, but for my high brass class it didn't seem to be enough. 

So I turned to the exercise of "Did the second person sound higher or lower?" I was surprised at how many of those students could accurately answer the question! I started out making it much easier (to hear beats and in sharpness/flatness) by pulling the second kid's tuning slide as far out as it would go. Then you have the kid fix it and hear the difference. That kind of exaggeration can really help in the beginning stages.

InTune App

Even with a year of ear training, I still had a student in that class who couldn't hear the difference between two tones. She told me almost daily that she couldn't hear the difference between someone with a good tone or bad tone ("They sound the same."), couldn't hear the beats in the sound unless it was really, really out of tune, and certainly couldn't hear if one person was sharp or flat to another. 

I was invited to try out an app called "InTune". It's in the Apple app store, but I believe it's available for Android as well. It's also extremely affordable at a mere $0.99. It's a very simple app. It plays two tones with the question on the screen being, "Is the second pitch higher or lower than the first?" You push the arrow you think it is. If you get it wrong it will tell you, and if you get it right it goes to the next rep. Each successive rep is harder than the last. If you make a mistake, it makes the next one easier. 

The distance between two pitches starts out as a half step, and then it gets harder from there. It cuts the distance approximately in half each time until you're in the 1-2% of a half step range. The presentation is pretty basic, but this is really a great tool.

I decided at one point that since my student wasn't able to hear the same things the other students were, that while we were doing the live ear training stuff I would give her a smart device with this app loaded and some headphones, send her into one of our other rooms, and have her play three games. It gives you the score in the percentage of a half step (so you start at 100% and go down; my best score was 1.41%). I told her to write down all three scores under the day's date and show me when she was done. I let her do this for three days. The first day was actually better than the second day, which helped me reaffirm that part of her trouble was simple confidence issues. But the third day was more improvement. When I had her back with the full class, she was at least attempting to answer the ear training questions and had improved confidence. She wasn't a star, but she made a great improvement. 

I haven't tested it with other students yet, but I haven't had the need to. I did show the students the app and how to play it, and they thought it looked neat. We played as a class. It's a simple app for only a dollar, and I think it's a great tool for some basic ear training. I liked that I was able to differentiate the ear training instruction for a student who wasn't making any apparent progress and then a few days later I had measured results showing she was making some progress, and I could see evidence of it in a live situation.

I hope this post gave you some useful ideas! One thing I'd like to do for next year it come up with way more ear training games for different situation, or just find more ways to incorporate it. What kinds of things do you do to train students to have discerning ears? Please share your strategies and thoughts in the comments! 

Thank you for reading! Until next time, take care and good luck!

Musically yours,
Mr. Cooper

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