Leveraging Ear-Training in Your Group Rehearsals

Leveraging Ear Training in Your Group Rehearsals

In my studio, I often find myself teaching elements of fundamental musicianship to my college students, most frequently related to singing, ear-training, and awareness of their own sound. I’ve often wondered how dramatically student musicianship would improve if every student had the opportunity to learn these skills in a proactive, rather than reactive way.

I realize that young students often have more contact hours with their instrument in group rehearsal than a practice room or a private studio. As a result I view the group rehearsal as more of a group musicianship lesson. As a horn professor, I spend a lot of time thinking about the special needs of horn players in this group musicianship lesson. The following are my thoughts on what I believe horn players, and all musicians, need most from their very first rehearsals.

The Harmonic Series and Its Impact

The harmonic series is extremely relevant and important for horn players because music composed for the horn is frequently voiced in an area of the harmonic series where harmonics sit very close together. The proximity of pitches requires that horn players have absolute precision in placing partials to avoid chipped and missed notes.

I often ask my students to think back to the history of the instrument. Frequently students do not understand that the modern valve system is a way of connecting a set of natural horn crooks. Each fingering gives the student access to an entirely new harmonic series. This can often cause confusion for young players as they begin to experience what it feels like to search for partials.

With this in mind, the necessity for ear training and singing at a young age becomes clearer to me. When we consider the old adage, “If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it,” the role that ear training plays in the horn player’s education becomes more pressing. Horn players need to be able to hear a pitch before they play it. In this way, stronger ears lead to stronger horn players. The same is true for all members of the ensemble.

A young musician, new to music and the horn, will likely be distracted from the task of playing correct pitches by reading printed music, remembering fingerings, and deciphering rhythms. This distraction will cause frequent accuracy problems and could eventually undermine their self-confidence. A lack of self-confidence will likely be compounded if a director draws negative attention to the student’s mistakes. Try to always be empathetic and careful to correct in a positive, helpful manner.

Developing Pitch and Musicianship

A great way to begin the ear-training journey is to help students find an auditory anchor. Luckily the harmonic series has an anchor built right in. Harmonics 4, 5, and 6 (C, E, G) outline a major triad. Training your students to recognize this sound is a great way to encourage development of relative pitch. From the major triad, all other intervals can be taught and memorized. As an added bonus, routinely encouraging students to relate pitches to the major triad will help develop stronger sight-reading skills.

Accuracy and the development of relative pitch do not happen in the ears alone. Muscle memory is also an important component of this concept. It is important to encourage students to pay attention to the varying levels of resistance that they feel while playing each note. This recognition will help them develop a “taste” for each note, which is important for developing muscle memory.

At a certain point, it will likely also be important to encourage your students to resist “note testing.” Many horn students develop a habit of audibly testing notes before an entrance, serving as a kind of security blanket. Unfortunately, it gives students a false sense of security and delays development of muscle memory. Learning to trust the internal ear may be more time consuming at first, but will certainly be more beneficial for the development of musicianship in the long run.

The Singing Horn Player

As ear-training begins to develop, singing becomes the next most important tool for teaching musicianship. Singing also allows students to connect to the music they are learning by helping them detect the musical line and musical elements more quickly. Emphasizing the ideas of shape, line, style, phrase, and direction will help students benefit the most from singing.

It is important that young players be encouraged to sing. Without the obstacle of the instrument, the young horn player will often sing more naturally than they can play. Singing is sometimes the only way to understand the student’s musical idea. From there you can help them learn to convey that message through their instrument.

Specific advice for teaching young brass musicians to sing includes using solfege or a numbering system when singing, instead of “da.” This places notes in a spatial relationship to one another. For instance, when singing Do and Mi, we must leave a space for Re. Also, encourage the use of vowels such as “toh” or “oh” while your students sing. These vowels help to create a large resonating space in the oral cavity by keeping the back of the tongue low and the soft palate high, encouraging a richer and more resonant tone from the instrument.

Simple Routines for Success

Students learn best through simple and direct processes. Encouraging simple routines, such as “sing-buzz-play,” will help students quickly and efficiently learn. A great benefit of teaching through simple routines is that students learn to practice the same thing in multiple ways such as singing a phrase, buzzing a phrase, and playing a phrase. They learn to approach and experience the music from many different angles, thereby creating a deeper and more lasting connection to it.

Learning as a group starts when you find ways to incorporate these simple routines into your band or orchestra rehearsal, making use of the very unique group-learning environment to teach musicianship. Directors can use the group rehearsal to focus on blend, development of group sound, as well as rhythmic and tonal independence. Singing should play a role in the daily routine.

Daily routines can consist of buzzing or singing intervals with the piano, playing a “guess that interval game”, using simple drone exercises to encourage intonation or using simple, four-part tunes for students to sing and play together while warming up.

These are only a few of the many practices that could be instilled in your daily rehearsal to improve the musicianship of all of your students. If you plant the seeds of musical growth and learning at a very young age, I believe you will be amazed and inspired by how quickly all of your students start to develop mature musicianship.

Katie JohnsonDr. Katie Johnson is the assistant professor of horn at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She has performed at the Aspen Summer Music Festival, the Kent/Blossom Music Festival, and with the National Repertory Orchestra. Katie took first place in the horn division of the Susan Slaughter Solo Brass Competition in 2012, performed a solo recital at the 2015 International Horn Symposium, and recently performed Dana Wilson’s Concerto for Horn and Wind Ensemble with the U of TN Wind Ensemble.

Katie also served as a clinician at the 2015 Midwest Clinic. She completed her graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a Bolz Fellow and completed her undergraduate studies at Valparaiso University.

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