I skipped my rhythmic dictation class in University more times than I’d like to admit. Trevor and I would head over to the cafeteria for hash browns and french toast instead. And while it was a great way to start our Wednesday and Friday mornings (and not so great for my University waistline) it didn’t seem to make much difference when it came to testing day. Everyone in my class failed miserably.
When It Comes To Ear Training, Drill Is Not Always The Answer
My prof’s approach to rhythmic dictation and ear training was to simply drill. We’d sit in a stuffy, windowless classroom for 90 minutes as he’d play examples and we’d write them down. They’d get progressively harder and we’d get more and more of the answers wrong. He’d prescribe more practice and we’d pretend that we were going to do it.
But funny enough, as I started teaching piano lessons, when it came time to prep my students for the ear training portion of their exams (clap backs, playbacks, and interval recognition) I’d resort to drill. I’d play examples, my students would attempt to get it right, the examples would get progressively harder and I’d prescribe more practice.
Being a pro-active person, I realized fairly quickly that drill wasn’t the answer. Just as I had tuned out and headed for warm potatoes and syrup, my students were also tuning out and dreaming of their own escape. Sometimes they’d get lucky and get it right. But nothing was really being accomplished. Something had to change.
3 Changes to Ear Training You Can Make Today!
Here are just 3 of the tricks I use when teaching ear training skills to my students.
1. The Magic of 7 – Did you know that our working memory can only hold 7 things at a time? This is why lots of phone numbers are 7 digits long (cue “interesting tip music”). This means that it’s most effective for your piano kids to first learn how to memorize in chunks of 7.
I use the sentence “Uncle Mac drinks lemonade” as it has 7 syllables. For clap backs and playbacks, my piano kids learn to match this sentence to the rhythm. They say it back to me in the rhythm they just heard and then clap or play back the example. Gradually they can learn to piece together two “pieces of 7” for longer bits of rhythm… and then three… and then more. It’s amazing how well the human brain remembers things when they are paired with words.
2. Listen First, Engage Second – Usually ear training tests provide 2 repetitions of the material. Train your piano kids to listen first, and then use some sort of muscle learning to engage with the second example. My kids either tap on the side of their leg, on the palm of their hand, or the roof of their mouth with their tongue. Muscle memory is a powerful thing, but if you use it the very first time, you risk distracting yourself. The first “listen through” should be done with the magic of 7 in mind; pairing words to rhythm. The second time should simply be reinforcing what they’ve heard the first time by engaging muscle memory.
3. Picture it! When doing playbacks or melodic dictation, it’s important for your piano kids to learn to think in pictures – meaning they can visualize the overall shape of the melody and the relationships between the pitches. Practice this skill by handing them a pen and some paper and by playing short bits of melody. Have your piano students draw what they hear. Some kids use a continuous line that follows the rise and fall of the melody, others use parallel vertical lines (one per note) that are short or tall (or the same) according to the pitch. I find it’s best to give minimal direction and just let your students come up with their own system; it usually results in finding the one that works best for them. Once they no longer have a pen and paper, encourage your students to draw in their mind as they listen.
Give The Tools To Make Drill Work
Does ear training take practice? Absolutely. Drill is certainly a part of practicing ear training. However, without concrete tools for how to listen and respond, your piano kids end up either guessing or tuning out. When given tools, your students will be much more successful at ear-training tasks, and will likely enjoy them a lot more too! Had I had the tools to get through my rhythmic dictation class, I would have likely attended much more frequently… and would have spent much less post-University time running off the frequent french toast splurges 😉
Did you know that PianoGameClub games also include ear training games? When you teach ear training through play it becomes an enjoyable way to practice and improve! Find out how you can receive 4 new piano games every month for just $8.