Large institutions, certainly including schools of music, favor policies that make it easier for them to function smoothly, even if some of the policies aren’t much good. The pernicious trend in education in recent years is to bean count everything, i.e. come up with standardized tests or other measuring for as much as possible.
The Counters of Beans don’t see why everybody can’t do the same thing and be measured in easily quantifiable ways. Learn this. We ask you about it. You get it or you don’t. There are some fields where the spit-it-back method works reasonably well. Multiplication tables. Phonetic symbol representation of foreign language pronunciation. Who sailed the ocean blue in 1492?
Music, not so much. Sure, you can force the system on it (we already have it in how we grade scale proficiency: up and down and octave or two or three, count up the missed notes), but you get a one-dimensional view that missed a lot. A real education is a rich, messy compost of experiences, with lots of serendipity, lots of experiments, and side trips, and getting dirty, pursuing passions and projects, making as many mistakes as possible, galumphing (thanks S.N.!), guessing, try try again, what’ll happen when you do this? We need to pick a lot of knowledge (notes of a scale), but it’s always better in a meaningful context than in a sterile but efficient delivery system. The counters want everything all laid out. Everyone should play the same pieces (sure, there is a central, standard repertoire. But should everyone really play only the same pieces?).
I’m digressing a bit from where I want to go, which is how we train our ears. When I was doing music theory/ear training way back when, we did a lot of dictation – entirely at the piano – of single lines and of 4 part chorales. What was missing? Developing an ear on my own instrument, for one. Only pianists got to work on ear training on their own instrument (it would have been interesting if pianists had to do ear training/dictation with the horn. Or flute. Or tuba). They had a distinct advantage in this class, not only because they were tested on their own instrument, but also because – unlike the rest of us melody instruments – they were used to playing and hearing chords. I actually did very well in that class, but the reason was because I had spent a whole lot of time (some years) outside of class playing (and tuning!) my guitar, banjo, e-bass, dulcimer, and autoharp. No electronic tuners in those days – it was all ear. In my early years I didn’t do too many exotic chords, but I could hear all of the basic chords (major, M6, M7, minor, m7, Dom7, diminished) very well; the difference was as clear to me as red from blue from yellow. Some years later I worked on jazz guitar and acquired an even acuter sense of chord identification.
So, assuming that your music theory classes didn’t provide you with as good of aural skills as you might like, what could you do to improve your ears? Let’s freeform some ideas.
•Play a chord instrument. I take that back. You don’t really have to be able to play piano (although it’s great to have that skill) to mess around on it and hone your aural skills. You can create various chords/harmonies and listen closely to what they sound like. Start with a major triad. Then add every other note in the diatonic scale as a fourth note. Listen to what they sound like; give them names if you can (e.g. CDEG is usually called C add 2; CEGAD is C 6/9). Repeat in minor. Then dominant 7 chords. Aural training works best when you have a partner. Then you can play aural games and (sort of) quiz each other. One game: play a major chord. Then add one note – can your partner tell what scale step the new note is? Keep changing keys to keep it fresh. Add diatonic notes first; then repeat and add chromatic tones. Repeat until you can hear immediately that the added note is a #4 or a b6 or a 9. Try it first chord then note, then later play the four note chord as a block chord, all together. Another way to do it: have the partner play the block major (later minor) chord (triad) while you play ever other note against it – hear what it sounds like, hear the degree of tension.
•Play strings of notes for each other. Start with one note (always middle C), then add one note. The partner must play the string back, then add another note for you. See how many notes you can remember. 14 or more is very good. Start with major scales, diatonic notes only. Later: minor, Dom7, chromatic.
•Play call and response with a partner. Start simple: one measure of 4/4. Start with four quarter notes in C major. Every time that the partner gets it right (which should be just about every time – if they can’t get it, you need to simplify), you make the next one just slightly more challenging.
•Sing! Sing familiar tunes. Sing all your etudes and solo horn stuff. Here’s an interesting test: in front of a recording device play the horn concerto (e.g.) that you’re working through headphones. Sing the solo line along with the solo horn on the recording; your singing will be recorded, but not the source material. Play it back and listen to how close (or not) your pitch is to the original.
•Play a simple tune by ear every day, if possible in several (or many!) keys. If you have time, repeat in minor. If you’re ambitious, play through the tune many times, each time making it a little different. Add ornaments. Add notes. Subtract notes. Jazz up the rhythms. Connect leaps with scales. Add neighboring tones. Change the meter. Change the register. In the back of my book of improv games for classical musicians, there are several pages of familiar tunes that might help you come up with a new tune every day. For convenience, below is a highly abbreviated version of the list:
Folk Songs: Abide With Me, Clementine, Down in the Valley, Oh Susanna
Children’s songs: Go Tell Aunt Rhody, Lightly Row, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle, Wheels on the Bus
Classical melodies: Dies Irae, Funeral March (Chopin), Ode to Joy
Foreign Language: Alouette, Frere Jacques, La Cucaracha
British Isles: John Peel, Rakes of Mallow, Blue Bells of Scotland
Rounds & Canons: Dona Nobis Pacem, Heigh Ho, Kookaburra, Row Row Row Your Boat
Patriotic songs: America the Beautiful, Yankee Doodle
Love songs: Down in the Valley, On Top of Old Smokey
Oldies: Camptown Races, Long Long Ago, Happy Birthday
If you haven’t try to play melodies by ear before on the horn, you may be surprised that even simple songs are trickier than you might think. Make your first goal being able to play Mary Had a Little Lamb in all keys. Then Happy Birthday. You will notice that if you do this every day, it becomes easier and easier to find the notes (surprise!), even in less familiar keys. Do this with a friend, if possible – it’s always more fun (i.e. motivating) to play tunes with accompaniment (and then you switch and then you have to come up with some accompaniment, which means you have to figure out what the chords are and how to use them to create a harmonic/rhythmic accompaniment.
Once you feel pretty good about finding simple tunes, up the ante and start finding more complex tunes. Jazz standards and broadway tunes come to mine. Beatles’ tunes are always good. Here are some ideas for more challenging tunes:
Jazz standards: All of Me, All the Things You Are, Autumn Leaves, Blue Bossa, Blue Monk, How High the Moon, Satin Doll, I Got Rhythm, Summertime
Broadway/Movies: America (West Side Story), Do Re Mi (Doe, a Deer), Edelweiss, If I Were a Rich Man, Maria, Moon River, My Favorite Things, Over the Rainbow, Tea for Two, Tonight
Everyone knows different tunes. Use what you can here (or in the book), but the best thing is to put together your own list (there are also lists of all kinds on the web).
Do one or more of these suggestions every day and watch yourself get Big Ears!