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The importance of Sight-singing, Ear-Training, and Theory in Piano Study

During my years at the New York City H.S. of Performing Arts, I was thankfully exposed to a myriad of ear-training classes that provided a solid foundation for my piano studies. Without, sight-singing/solfeggio, keyboard harmony, and music theory, I would have skimmed the surface in all realms of music-making (Chamber music, solo performance, and accompanying)

When I continued my studies at the Oberlin Conservatory, these courses and more spanned a period of 4 years in each field of discipline. You can add eurhythmics, music history and piano literature to the mix.

Yet in the daily private piano teaching milieu, where students are strapped for time with a host of extra-curricular activities, sometimes ear-training and theory are overlooked, or relegated to a supplementary status in the total learning environment.

Not a good choice.

If children are to benefit from a complete, well-rounded music education, then the elements of ear-training must start at the very beginning of lessons.

For wee beginners, ear-training amounts to singing melodic lines, using hand signals in the spirit of Hungarian mentor, Kodaly, and absorbing the “singing pulse” as opposed to a metronomic, robotic rhythmic framing. Once notation is taught, an understanding of “skips” and “steps” must be internalized and reinforced by these very singing activities. All music must be living and breathing from the start to have meaning on a cognitive, affective and kinesthetic level. (three ways of “knowing’)

My pre-school music classes in the Bronx enlisted pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments for sound explorations (xylophones, marimbas, rhythm sticks, tambourines) And our teacher, centered at a grand piano, enriched our melodies with embellished harmonic support.

Piano lessons then followed two years of such group Music Appreciation, which today might have its equivalent in Music Together classes.


Individualized Piano Lessons

Intermediate and Advanced Students:

As pupils progress in their piano studies, theory, sight-singing/ear-training should be integrated into lessons–perhaps best applied in the analysis of a piece of music. But this undertaking is meaningless unless the pupil has a solid, continuous exposure to Major and minor scales in all keys around the Circle of Fifths. The foundation that feeds ear-training is scale study–which is the point of departure for learning about harmonic relationships. (The process is gradual and cumulative)

As an example, I’ve snatched a segment from a recent Skype lesson to England, where the student (late intermediate level) and I explore two melodic and harmonic intervals using solfege (syllables that replace letter names) The “DO” or first note of a scale is “moveable” allowing for an easier understanding of harmonic shifts in a piece of music.

(In my opinion, solfege, should follow music letter-name learning. In too many cases, beginning students who have transferred to my studio from Yamaha Schools or have been taught solfeggio exclusively for too long, experience difficulty making the transition to note naming. The same deficit results from a purist Suzuki teaching approach)


In the following Skype segment, the student and I worked on identifying a melodic and harmonic 2nd, followed by the same for a third.

Ideally, a portion of every lesson should be devoted to these ear-training/theory activities and then directly applied to repertoire. In this way a student grows and develops with a deeper understanding of the compositions he is studying.

P.S. I am now teaching piano in Berkeley California, with a second studio in nearby El Cerrito. Skype lessons are available upon request.



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