SmartMusic, Sight Reading, and Aural Skills

Much has been written, in this blog and elsewhere, about using SmartMusic with young band and orchestra students. Less ink has been devoted to using SmartMusic to guide the development of sight-reading and aural skills, particularly at the college level. MakeMusic’s Leigh Kallestad recently spoke to Matthew Shaftel, Associate Professor of Music Theory at Florida State University, about how SmartMusic has been implemented in their programs.

Leigh Kallestad: What is your role at Florida State University?

Matthew Shaftel: It’s my eleventh year as a faculty member at FSU. I’m a trained singer and I have my three degrees in music theory and music education from Yale University. My job here entails teaching upper-level graduate music theory classes, upper-level undergraduate classes, and music theory core classes; basically the whole curriculum.

Each year 340 freshmen and sophomore students take sight singing and ear training. We needed a way to guide their aural skills training in a productive and focused manner, but this was virtually impossible to do to the extent we wished with the available human resources. Today the students are all using SmartMusic.

LK: How did you guide aural skills before you used SmartMusic?

MS: Since we have such a large group, it has been a challenge to find a way to give them guided practice. We tried three different textbooks before my colleague Evan Jones and I developed and adopted our own textbook. We tried two different computer-assisted instructional models, and an older model of pre-recorded practice CD’s with live singing juries before we settled on SmartMusic. Basically, we were using various software programs for dictation practice, but were completely dissatisfied with the products. In all the cases, there were a number of support issues, and crashing made them virtually impossible to use. In addition, we were seeking a solution that could accommodate real musical repertoire.

That’s about the time that we looked at SmartMusic. The SmartMusic gradebook had just been developed and I realized that the SmartMusic instructor/student suite intersected our own materials perfectly.

LK: You were using SmartMusic before we had vocal assessment content. Did you create your own content?

MS: Yes. We developed these materials over a two-year period. The first year, we experimented with SmartMusic; by the second year we decided that we were just going to adopt it for all 340 students. We released a chapter of the materials and a set of SmartMusic exercises each week. It was very intense because overall, we have between 450 and 500 excerpts drawn from real music.
Some of these are just short excerpts, but others are entire pieces that have been arranged for multiple voices. These excerpts are drawn from a broad range of styles–Folk music, popular music, etc., but the majority of the excerpts are classical works that have been adapted for multiple student voices. The idea is to replicate a real-life musical experience while providing exercises of increasing difficulty.

LK: Did you have the students singing harmony exercises?

MS: Yes, and that’s one of the things that we found lacking in other software. We wanted students to sing melodies, harmony-lines and bass lines, but always with other parts playing. That’s one of the places where SmartMusic really excelled. In fact, it’s really the only option.

LK: Have you adopted a curriculum for your aural skills classes?

MS: Yes. Our book has been through three major revisions and we are in the process of our fourth revision, which I’m really happy about. We have developed units for each week; we have a good sense of where we are going and how our aural skills assignments interlock with a written theory curriculum. Things have been very smooth.

LK: How do you compare your aural skills class results using SmartMusic to your pre-SmartMusic days?

MS: There is no question that there is a vast improvement. Here’s what I really love about SmartMusic: When students are sight reading a line with SmartMusic, they are invited to participate in a musically relevant process. They are thinking about dynamics, they are thinking about articulation, and they are thinking about harmony, because all the other parts are participating in them. Also, SmartMusic encourages a musical fluidity, which is such an important aspect of literacy. That fluidity (because of the cursor and the ability to draw students through an exercise at certain tempo) means that when they go to their studio teacher and are asked to sight read something, they are able to replicate a complete musical process with a certain level of musical fluidity. We are getting reports from the studio teachers that they are happy with the skill level of our students.

On the written tests, it’s very clear that the time that they have put in practicing their aural skills has really paid off. In fact, that’s one of the advantages of SmartMusic, because I can see exactlyhow much time a student has spent practicing. Also, I can see that they have practiced regularly and that makes a huge difference.

LK: Have your students been able to transfer their aural skills SmartMusic experience to other parts of the SmartMusic program?

MS: Yes, especially the students who see teaching in their future. They begin to see that this is a tool that they can use throughout their careers and in many contexts. I think that it’s pretty obvious to them that this is the way to go.

There is a local middle school teacher that graduated from our program just last year. She is aiming to get SmartMusic at school and use it with her students.

LK: What would your advice be to other music teachers that are dealing with aural skills classes?

MS: The old paradigms of aural skills are falling out of favor, and with good reason, because they focused on a curriculum that is more than 100 years old. In that curriculum, you only learned intervallic, note-to-note reading, often in less-than-typical musical contexts, but it really wasn’t successful.

In certain national studies, our Florida State University aural skills program using SmartMusic is the top-rated music skills program compared to other universities.

LK: Thanks so much for sharing your story with our readers. Do you have any closing comments?

MS: My colleagues and I are all energetic people that just can’t rest with “lukewarm.” I would like to see other programs find better ways to prepare their students for what is out there today.

I’d like to thank Matthew and Leigh for sharing their insights with us. Please share yours with us too by clicking on “Comments” below.

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