Archive for September 2008

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.

Goodbye, MUS 113-170; We Hardly Knew Thee

So yesterday in our weekly Academic Area meeting we made a small change that should save a lot of grief.

For those of you unfamiliar with UNC Music Theory, here’s the deal: theory students, in addition to registering for a theory class, must also register for a zero-credit-hour lab section. This section represents Theory Keyboard Labs, which are computer-graded tests taken every Friday outside of class. The professors do not have much to do with this; while they decide which tests to give, the only other thing they do is receive and record a grade report issued by the lab proctors.
The reason for this lab section, as I have always understood it, was to account for the fact that students had a required element of the class that was scheduled separately from the actual class.
Now the real pain with this was at registration time, especially in the fall with new freshman theory students. Here is the typical exchange between me and a theory student who is finding out that he or she passed the Theory Placement Test, which allows them to skip MUS 104 and go directly into MUS 113 and 114:
Me: “It looks like you passed the Theory Placement Test. Congratulations! We recommend that you register for MUS 113: Music Theory I and MUS 114: Aural Skills I.”
Student: “Oh, uh, do I take them at the same time?”
Me: “Yes, they’re meant to be taken concurrently. MUS 113 is offered on Mondays and Wednesdays, and MUS 114 is on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can’t sign up for either second-semester course until you pass both of these first-semester courses.”
Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”
(Time passes. Sometimes it’s minutes, other times it’s several days.)
Student: “Uh, I wasn’t able to register for MUS 113 and MUS 114 because it says the sections are closed.”
Me: “Right. That’s because you need to have the professor of each of those sections clear you to register. You need to choose the sections that work with your schedule, and then contact the professor and have him clear you.”
Student: “Uh, contact them?”
Me: “Yes. You can send them an e-mail, or you can just attend the class and ask the professor afterward to clear you for the course. Then you will be able to register.”
Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”
(Time passes again. Usually longer this time around.)
Student: “Uh, I could register for MUS 114, but I can’t register for MUS 113… it gives me some sort of error.”
Me: “Right. That’s because you need to sign up both for your regular section of the course, and for MUS 113-170; that’s a zero-credit-hour lab section you need to take.”
Student: “Oh, when does that meet? How does that work?”
Me: “Don’t worry about it yet; it will be explained in class. All you need to do right now is register for the thing. But here’s the thing; the computer requires that you register for the lab section and the regular section simultaneously.”
Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”
(Time passes.)
Student: “Uh, I tried to register for that keyboard lab section but it’s closed too.”
Me: “Right. And that’s because you probably need to get cleared for the keyboard lab section too.”
Student: “Oh, is that something my professor does?”
Me: “Not necessarily; it depends on whose name is on the keyboard lab section. It might be your professor, or it might be one of the other professors who are teaching MUS 113. You’ll need to ask your prof.”
Now, you may be thinking, why not just explain this all to the student in the first place? Believe me, I’ve tried.
Me: “It looks like you’ve passed the Theory Placement Test. Congratulations! We recommend that you take MUS 113: Music Theory I and MUS 114: Aural Skills I. You should register for both classes concurrently, since they are on different days and you need both to move into the second semester classes next spring. What you’ll need to do is find the sections of those courses that work for you, and then contact the professor to have him clear you to register. You can do this either by e-mail or phone, or by simply attending the class and asking the professor after the class to have you cleared. After he clears you, you will still need to register for the courses. And when you register for MUS 113, you will also need to register for the zero-credit-hour lab section, MUS 113-170, which represents Keyboard Labs, something you don’t need to worry about right now but which will be explained to you in the first few weeks of classes. The Keyboard Lab section might have a different professor of record, meaning that you might need him to clear you for that section before you can register. Once you are cleared to take both, you can then register, but the computer system requires that you submit the registration request for the regular section and the lab section simultaneously, or it will give you an error.”
Student: “Uh… what?”
So, anyway, what happened yesterday? We voted unanimously to do away with the separate keyboard lab sections entirely. The decision may need to be approved by the School of Music Curriculum Committee (I’m not sure why… it’s a registration change, not a curricular change), but hopefully they’ll be off the books by Spring.
And theory students, don’t get too excited. We’re deleting the lab section from the registration procedure, but the keyboard labs themselves will remain. And for some of you, they start this Friday! How fun for you.