In my second guest post of this new series, George Bevan (an organist, choirmaster and Director of Music at Monkton Combe School), pictured below, writes about his experiences whilst teaching intervals, and offers some suggestions for effectively tutoring this important skill. I hope this may be useful for all who teach instrumental music exams. Over to George…
It is not uncommon for students to be sent my way, usually a few weeks before an impending grade exam, to go through some aural tests. So this morning I found myself exploring grade 4 Trinity tests, which include identifying intervals – my favourite! As with many of the aural tests set for exams, I find that there can be several different approaches and that these generally fall into two categories: those which just work, and those which actually deepen the musical instinct of our students.
Those which just work
The age-old technique is to associate each interval with a well-known tune ie. a perfect fourth sounds like the beginning of Away in a manger. This was how my piano teacher taught me to recognise intervals as a child. It’s okay I guess, but since I was a chorister at the same time, it always struck me as a little strange to be imagining the opening of Away in a manger in the middle of a Palestrina mass – yes it works, but on so many levels surely that can’t be right?!!
At least the student has to match up in their head what they hear with their ears. [Anders Ericsson would call this a mental representation; Paul Harris would call it making connections.] But aside from this, I can’t see any merit at all to this approach. If you just want your student to get the answers right for the exam, then this method works. But why is this skill being tested? Trinity say it’s to develop your skills in recognising intervals. I’m afraid that doesn’t answer the question.
Those which actually deepen the musical instinct of the student
There are so many more connections which can be made here, all of which are going to develop our students’ understanding and skills, and ultimately their musicianship.
Let’s consider the nature of each interval, starting with seconds. Instantly we have the scope to introduce or revisit all of these concepts: minor second = same as a semitone; major second = same as a tone; seconds are dissonant.
Thirds are major or minor. It may seem obvious, but even without the fifth of the triad above them, they sound like a regular chord. [Add the perfect fifth above and most students will hear this clearly]. At this point, I play a quick game of ‘second or third?’ Never mind the major/minor-ness of the interval for the moment – it’s simply a question of is it a dissonant sound, or a pleasing one? Insist on an immediate answer. This will develop an instinct to listen for dissonance or consonance. Once they have this, then you can narrow it down to whether it’s major or minor.
Perfect fifth. Is this chord major or minor? Neither! A great opportunity to discuss that all important third in a triad as being responsible for making the chord either major or minor. Without, it sounds hollow, almost like you can put your hand in the empty space in the middle. [Add a third, either major or minor, and then play it without again to illustrate the point.]
Sixths. These are major and minor too. So now we play a variant on the ‘second or third?’ game, but now it’s called ‘small or big?’ and we play it with either thirds or sixths. They all sound major or minor, so now what we’re focusing on is this: are they close together or far apart? Again, insist on an instant answer to develop instinct, this time for spacing. Then refine – major or minor?
And now ‘second, third or sixth?’ Answer straight away – is it small, big or dissonant? And then refine.
Another way of approaching intervals is to sing. Specifically to sing a scale. It’s called a scale for good reason – it’s what we use to measure the size of an interval. But I had a problem this morning with my student – it quickly became apparent that he can’t sing (yet!) I played him a perfect fifth, B flat to F, within his vocal range, and asked him to sing a scale from the bottom to the top. He sang the B flat (pretty badly but near enough). This was followed by four more notes, and he finished sort of close to an E. It certainly didn’t resemble a major scale; I asked him whether he knew what a major scale sounded like, and he replied – perhaps a little doubtfully – that he did. His second effort at singing the scale was even worse. I’m sure he does know what a major scale sounds like, but he couldn’t find that sound for himself in his own head, and he couldn’t reproduce it. From what I know of him, I suspect that this causes him no end of problems. In short, each note that he plays on his instrument is an external entity, and not part of a linear progression running in his head. Surely that can’t be right?
Not so long ago I heard an examiner at a training session, outlining the ways in which she had prepared a piano pupil, who couldn’t sing, to score adequately in the aural tests despite his weakness. The one suggestion which she didn’t make was to teach him to sing. Is it a piano teacher’s job to teach their pupil to sing? If necessary then yes, of course it is! The importance of singing is not so much the external sound, but the need to have a mental representation of the sound inside your head. When I play a rising minor sixth, I know what it is going to sound like before it happens because I can hear it. And the proof that I can hear it? – I can sing it.
Being able to sing up and down a scale, in the same way as we might measure centimetres on a ruler, is an invaluable skill in learning to measure accurately. We can get a sense of magnitude in comparing a second with a sixth by singing our way up, step by step. It focuses listening skills, especially if we are insistent that our students sing in tune, and it helps them to create all sorts of aural connections.
Intervals are also harmonic. Understanding how thirds and fifths (and fourths and sixths for that matter) fit in the wider context of chords will immediately make sight-singing so much more straightforward. And if you can sight-sing, instrumental sight-reading is so much easier. Tonic solfa is an incredibly useful tool as well, in as much as it also gives intervals context within the scale. Singing a perfect fifth from doh to soh feels very different from singing from mi to ti – in the case of the latter interval, it is so much easier to aim at the characteristic sound of a leading note than it is to try to summon up Twinkle twinkle little star out of nowhere…. If we are serious about teaching rather than training our students, I can’t see how the name that tune method stands up to any level of scrutiny whatsoever.
In many aspects of instrumental technique, the best method is simply to show our pupils what works; leaving them to work it out for themselves takes too much time. But in developing musicianship, we need to encourage them to explore for themselves at every turn; ironically, just teaching them what works deprives them of so much opportunity for discovery. I cannot stress how important it is to spend time exploring these sorts of things with our pupils – the very things which some teachers say they don’t have time for because they need to cover repertoire, technical work etc. What’s the hurry? Let’s take a little more time, and teach in a way which will serve our pupils well beyond the confines of the exam room.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.