Aural Skills: Yes, They Really Matter!

aural skills Apr 04, 2016


I won't say I told you so, but...

I was reading a post on one of my favorite music blogs, The Bulletproof Musician, and was so excited to find someone else talking about one of my favorite subjects: aural skills.

The latest post begins by exploring the very real benefits of mental practice, meaning practice away from the instrument. My students have heard me talk about this before.

There are many effective ways to practice and make meaningful progress even when you don't have your instrument at hand.  Perhaps the first and most obvious way is to listen to recordings. We are musicians and by extension, we are auditory learners, at least in part.

I also recommend that my students play the "air harp." I know it sounds funny, but pantomiming your practice can help you learn your music in a different way. You can review the basic physical movements required to play while you are listening to a recording or simply reviewing the music in your mind. Both these techniques can help you learn timings, tempo and coordination. Most especially, you get the benefit of "practicing" without playing any wrong notes.

A third way to practice without your instrument is to sing your music. Sing through the melody of the piece, calling the notes by nae if you are able. You can use the music as a reference, or sing from memory for more of a challenge, and more benefit.

But the Bulletproof Musician post goes on to point out that mental "away from the instrument" practice is most effective for those musicians who have well-developed aural skills.

What are aural skills? In a nutshell, they are the skills that allow you to connect what you see with what you hear. These are the connections between eyes, ears and fingers that help you sightread better, learn music faster and play with more understanding. And aural skills study makes intentional those skills which we often label instinctive or intuitive.

I taught aural skills at The Curtis Institute of Music for nearly twenty years, and many of my students there didn't see the relevance of aural skills study. Until they were making music in the real world.  That was always my "I told you so," moment, not that I ever actually said that. But my students discovered what all musicians discover sooner or later: that developing your aural skills is one of the most valuable things you can do for your playing.

If you're interested in polishing up your aural skills, or if you're unsure of what you can do to improve them, here are three easy suggestions:

  1. Sing or say your music, using the note names, daily. You can do this while you are learning and repeating a difficult passage. You could sing your arpeggios and scales.  You can sing while you play or instead of playing.
  2. Practice intentional memorization. Rote memorization relies on repetition and is prone to fail at the worst moment. But intentional memorization includes learning notes and note names as well as other musical features. To learn more about that, check out one of my earlier posts on memorization.  This is a great way to learn a tricky spot, or you can use it on the opening or ending few bars of any piece.
  3. Improvise regularly.  Improvisation is a great way to make those connections between what we hear and what we play.  And just a little bit can help in a big way.
Aural skills - I told you they were important!

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