Archive for aural skills

Ch-ch-ch-changes

As many of you know, I’ve been in the process of applying to other schools for a tenure-track teaching position. Because of this, I’ve been putting off making some changes to the way I teach my classes, figuring that upon moving to a new school, I’ll likely need to make some significant adjustments anyway.

Well, as I approach another final year here at UNC, I decided I should stop putting them off, and so students who have had me for theory or aural skills in the past will notice some fairly significant differences beginning this semester. I’ll go over these on the first day of classes, of course, but since you’re reading this, you’re obviously pretty bored, so I’ll give you a little (okay, maybe not-so-little) preview of what’s to come:
Music Theory: A Revised (But Not Really) Late Policy

As I understand it, I am fairly well-liked by students at UNC. Though I’d love to credit my rugged good looks, I know it has more to do with my homework policy, which allows students to turn homework in late and redo any and all assignments for a higher grade. The irony of this is there is enough proverbial rope there for students to hang themselves pretty easily; without the sharp teeth of an unbending deadline, students often get lazy and end up procrastinating their homework submission to the point of failing the class.
Now, I could certainly adopt a no-late-assignments allowed policy, but I don’t feel good about punishing a student because he or she happened to forget to bring a completed assignment… or (more likely) forgot the assignment was due today and neglected to get to it. I gave this a lot of thought this summer, and I think the way to solve this issue is to simply follow my own syllabus. See, this is what my syllabi say about late papers:
Homework must be turned in at the beginning of the class period on the date which it is due. Late assignments will have their grade lowered by two (2) points for each class period it is late. Assignments will not be accepted later than six (6) class periods after the due date. Exceptions will be made for unusual circumstances at the instructor’s discretion.

The thing is, for the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I haven’t assigned late points… and I’ve allowed students to submit assignments as late as the last day before Finals Week. The reason I’ve done this has to do with bookkeeping: with papers coming at me from all directions, it’s hard for me to keep track of when something was turned in. But after yet another semester of getting close to half of the homework for the semester on that Friday before Finals Week (and none of it particularly high quality work, having been procrastinated and completed under duress), I’ve decided to solve the bookkeeping problem with technology:

I’ve always loved stamps, so bring able to justify the purchase of one of these bad boys is awesome.
So starting with this semester, homework that is submitted on the due date gets no penalty, homework turned before six class periods have passed (that’s three weeks!) gets late points taken off, and homework turned in after six class periods will get a zero. I’ll still grade it, so students can at least prepare for the final. Homework can still be redone up through the last day before Finals Week, but the late points stick.

I’ll make sure students are warned about impending due dates; I’m envisioning a chart showing due dates and late points that I’ll post online and bring to class. The goal of all this, of course, is to discourage procrastination… whether or not it helps, time will tell.

Music Theory: No More Keyboard Labs

Oh, I’m sorry, I should have made sure you were sitting down before you read that.
Keyboard Labs — computer-graded tests which involved applying theoretical principles to the piano keyboard — have been a part of the curriculum since well before I arrived at UNC. Waaaaay back when, they were given by the instructors in their office: students would come in one at a time and suffer through transcribing progressions while the prof sat there and graded their proficiency with it. When technology allowed it, these tests were moved to the Piano Lab, proctored by lab monitors, but hated only a little bit less by the students. (Probably because they could cheat on them easier. What, you think I didn’t know?) Over the last five years, as the UNC Theory Faculty has almost completely changed (Dr. Ehle and I are the only two theory faculty who were teaching here six years ago), fewer and fewer instructors are incorporating Keyboard Labs into their classes; in fact, I believe I was the only one doing them last semester.
On a practical level, I think it’s silly to pay lab monitors for an entire day of proctoring to serve only one professor’s needs, even if that professor is me. On a curricular level, our Class Piano curriculum includes most of the skills covered in these tests, and so I think it’s time to bid this long-standing institution a perhaps-not-so-tearful adieu.

To account for the portion of the course grade taken up by Keyboard Labs, I am increasing the Daily Work portion of my theory course grades to 50%, and I am going to try to have a few more graded in-class assignments to balance things out a little.
Sorry, still don’t believe it? It’s true… Keyboard Labs are dead. Yes, that means you don’t have any scheduled theory-related things on Friday! Yes, between practicing for these tests and taking them, that means you have a little more spare time than you used to. And before you get too far in planning what you are going to do with that extra spare time…
Aural Skills: Homework

Okay, wait, just hear me out on this one. Believe it or not, my goal with adding graded homework assignments to Aural Skills is to actually improve the students’ life, rather than make it more painful.
The thing with Aural Skills is that there’s only one way to get good at it, and that’s individual practice. I could spend every minute of every class period on ear training exercises and it would do very little to help the students. Why? For several reasons. First, the in-class stuff has to be targeted at the median skill level, so there are inevitably going to be some students who are bored stiff and others who are frantically trying to keep up (and spiraling into frustration). Second, there is no way to spend time on everyone’s weakest exercises; some students may need more practice with rhythmic dictation, while others may need more time on chords. Third, in-class exercises have to be rushed, and often students don’t have time to go through the entire thought process they need to before being given the correct answers. And having the answers given, no matter when it happens, makes the student approach it differently (“I’ll try this and see if it’s right” as opposed to “I better focus and really try hard so I can get a good grade”).
Of course, practicing outside of class has always been expected… I implore my students on a daily basis to this end, but let’s face it: most students don’t spend the time outside of class that they need to. I don’t take this personally — I know that most of them really do intend to spend more time on it — but college students are crazy busy, and individual aural skills practice tends to always be a weak point.
So then that brings us to the idea of somehow requiring aural skills practice for a grade, and that often takes the form of MacGAMUT or something similar. I won’t go into my gripes with MacGAMUT here (as an aural skills teacher I applaud it but as a computer interface designer it gives me wildly violent convulsions), and most other software I’ve seen tends to get pretty limited especially with the higher-level chromatic stuff. Plus, working with any of these programs is about as fun as watching paint dry. Like, really boring paint.
So what I’m going to try is homework that might be marginally fun to do: transcribing popular music. It’s going to be pretty restrictively guided transcriptions… for example, dictating the melody of a song using solfege, or notating only the rhythm of some other song. I’ll provide answer blanks that guide the student through it pretty carefully, with lots of instructions, and I’m choosing songs very specifically to match the skill level of the class. Sure, they’re going to be challenging, but it’s music people enjoy. The Beatles. KT Tunstall. Muse. Owl City. And I’ve found out how to make the music itself available through Blackboard, so there shouldn’t be any need to spend gobs of time in the lab or Music Library to do the homework.
And my intention with this homework is not to create more work, but just to structure the existing work a little more. Doing these transcriptions counts as time spent practicing your aural skills… heck, it’s the way I keep my own skills honed.
Aural Skills: No More Gigantic Exams

The other big change — and this is probably the biggest one — is getting rid of the one thing the students and I both hate the most about Aural Skills: these monumental, hour-long exams that blast into the scene like Godzilla at midterms and finals. For the students, it’s pure, concentrated pain — before, during and after the exam.
So, you know what? Bam. They’re gone.
Well, of course, I still need to evaluate the students, so it’s not that testing is going away, but why have it all crammed into one day? Fatigue plays a huge part of student’s trouble on these exams, and having everything on one day makes for a ton of preparation. Plus, if that particular day is your off-day, you’re hosed.
So I am breaking the evaluation into 9 smaller (10-15 minute) tests over the course of the semester. Each one will be over one particular skill (for example, melodic dictation) and will have a more casual feel to them. Between these tests and the four sight-singing tests we always have, every Thursday will have some sort of evaluation, but I think having everything spread out will be less overall stress (remember, no midterm and no final!) and more chances to improve one’s grade.
All Classes: More Blackboard-y Goodness

Lastly, I’ve spent the last two or three weeks really trying to work with my arch-nemesis, Blackboard (why UNC would choose an actual supervillian to provide online course management, I’ll never know) and I’m happy to say that we have come to a slightly better understanding of each other. As a result, I am not only beefing up the amount of stuff I’m posting on Blackboard (as I mentioned above, all the Aural Skills homework, with recordings, will be up there) but I have also figured out how to export my gradebooks into Blackboard without needing a ton of extra effort. The Grade Center in Blackboard will now have individual assignment grades as well as overall averages, so students will be able to see exactly where they are at, gradewise (including which assignments have yet to be handed in). I should be able to update the system after each grading session, so it should stay pretty current. Really, the only thing Blackboard’s Grade Center won’t have is the Tuition Wasted Through Absence column… but you can check with me personally if you’re worried about that one. (That, or just not skip class.)
Once More Unto The Breach
To be honest, this may be the most prepared I’ve been for a semester for a very long time, but with all these changes, I fully expect something to go haywire and need to be revised on the fly, so bear with me. Either way, I look forward to 15 weeks jam-packed with theory and aural skills goodness… starting Monday. See you all then!

Aural Skills is a Funny Thing

I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be an Aural Skills teacher when they grew up.

For you non-music-majors out there reading this: (First of all, why are you reading this?) Aural Skills is a set of courses that music majors are required to take, generally as freshmen and sophomores, which help them learn ear training, which is the capability to notate music that they hear; and sight-singing, which is the capability to sing a written melody that they haven’t heard or sung before. The classes are named differently depending on the college or university: sometimes they’re called “ear training” even though they incorporate sight-singing, sometimes they’re called something like “musicianship.” Regardless of what they are called, they almost always deal with ear training and sight-singing, and they are almost always hated by the students with a firey passion.
Well, you may find it interesting that the professors of the classes feel about the same way. Okay, “hate” may be too strong word, but I would wager that most Aural Skills teachers look forward to teaching Music Theory more than they do Aural Skills. The reason for that is simple: Aural Skills classes are usually taught by Music Theory professors.
Sure, that makes sense, right? After all, Aural Skills is part of Music Theory. Except for one thing: it’s not. Aural Skills is not Music Theory and never was.

Yes, the Aural Skills curriculum correlates well with the Music Theory curriculum, and it is primarily this reason that the Theory faculty usually teach the classes. But they are different disciplines. Music Theory is, as I’ve usually defined it, the art and science of figuring out why music sounds the way it does. It is the exploration of what makes music tick. Aural Skills is something entirely different: it is the development of physiological skills, both aural and oral, that are necessary for a professional musician or music educator.
So if Aural Skills doesn’t really fit in the Music Theory department, where should it be? If you go through the list, you’ll find that there is no good answer to that. Sure there are some departments — Music History, for example — where it obviously doesn’t fit. Others seem right at first until you get to thinking about them. The Music Education Department? While a music education class should cover how to teach aural skills, it doesn’t have the responsibility for teaching aural skills any more than a music ed class should teach you music theory. The Voice Performance Department? That’s probably another close fit, but aural skills is an aspect of general musicianship, and it is not specific to performance.
What about having a separate Aural Skills Department? A few of the larger schools in the country (Berklee, for example) do just that. For most schools, however, the administrative costs of having a department devoted to Aural Skills makes little or no financial sense. Plus, having a separate department also implies that you have at least some faculty whose career is specific toward that discipline, and as I mentioned above, Professors of Aural Skills are pretty hard to come by. (It’s worth mentioning that the more than a dozen faculty members in the Berklee Ear Training Department are, like most faculty at Berklee, performers.)
So what do we do? The Theory Department is probably the best place for Aural Skills, but we — students, faculty and administrators — need to realize that it is indeed a separate discipline, and should be treated as such. I wasn’t too aware of this when I first started teaching, but over the course of the last decade I’ve learned a few interesting things about Aural Skills:
  • It’s not only a different discipline, but a different type of discipline: it’s physiological (involving mind and body working together) rather than purely cognitive;
  • Research in Aural Skills pedagogy (the science of teaching aural skills) is a hugely underdeveloped field; and
  • I have come to find the stuff fascinating.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching theory and generally look forward to my Monday-Wednesday schedule more than my Tuesday-Thursday schedule, but I feel like eleven years of teaching Aural Skills has given me some insight that has really started to coalesce in my mind over the last few years and which I’ve been able to apply in class to the benefit of my students. I’m going to try to blog about these over the next little while (read: “very periodically over the next twelve months or more”) in preparation for a journal article or something.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll get someone so excited about it that they’d want to grow up and be an Aural Skills Teacher? Ooh… hopefully not.