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ABRSM Aural - How Well Does It Assess Aural Skills?

ABRSM Aural Tests and Trinity College Aural Tests are quite different, not least in the fact that Trinity doesn't involve any singing. So which is better at assessing Aural Skills?

ABRSM Aural - How Well Does It Assess Aural Skills?

In this post I want to explore whether singing in particular, is necessary to assess Aural Skills and how Trinity College Aural Tests get round this requirement or even improve on it.

In the early grades many of the tests are the same in both ABRSM and Trinity, such as, clapping the pulse, identifying dynamics and articulation and recognizing where a change occurs and whether it is a change of pitch or rhythm. However, in Grades 1-3 of ABRSM, you are required to sing back three short phrases to develop your melodic memory. In Trinity Grades 1 & 2, this is replaced by stating whether the last note of a phrase is higher or lower than the first and then by the 3rd Grade up to Grade 5, you need to identify the interval between two notes. If anything, this is what you need to do, for the sight singing tests of ABRSM, identifying the difference in pitch between notes. As you go through to higher grades in Trinity, your ability to hear in your head what you see on printed music is also assessed by studying a copy of some printed music and identifying changes that the examiner makes to what is printed, either in pitch or in rhythm. At first this will be in the melody but for Grade 8, there will be three changes which could be in the harmony or the melody. This listening out for lower parts has a similar objective to singing the lower part of the higher grades at ABRSM.

Cadences and modulations are tested by both boards, as one goes through the grades, although in Grade 8 ABRSM you are required to name the chords at cadence points, which could be any of the following, 
 I, Ib, Ic, II, IIb, IV, V, Vb, Vc, V7 or VI
...quite a list!!!

As any of you who have listened to my help video on how to do this will know, this has more to do with theory knowledge than Aural Skills.

It has been my experience, that the parts which the majority of my students struggle with in ABRSM Aural, are the singing parts. Does that mean they are bad at Aural, that they cannot hear? Or that they find the singing itself difficult?

Please let me know in the comments below if you think singing is  necessary, to assess aural skills, if you identify with what I said about the singing parts being the hardest.

Back at the beginning of the year, ABRSM, in my opinion dumbed down their theory exams. I wonder if something similar is in the pipeline for their Aural Tests in the near future. If so, remember, you heard it here first.


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Vertical Tennis - A Common Problem of Beginner Piano Students

It has been the case, many times in the past, that I have taken over a student when they wanted to change teacher. Often this came with accompanying bad habits. Even with students that started from the very beginning with me, it could be easy to let bad habits start developing if they were not kept in check.

One of the main things I come across is a student's tendency to always look at their hands. This is a natural reaction when first starting out on the piano, but if left unchecked will lead to problems later, not least an inability to sight read music fluently. Even if the student is watching the music in between notes, this constant nodding up and down between hand and page becomes a bit like watching vertical tennis. 

Invariably, such students make mistakes precisely at the moment they are looking down at their hands or at least, hesitate at that moment and to be honest, a hesitation in music is a mistake. To overcome this habit, I have often hovered a sheet of paper just above their hands so that they cannot see them and to their surprise, they often play better when hands are not visible.

But what about when you have large leaps of hand position. Surely you need to see where you are jumping  to. Not necessarily. Can you find your mouth with a spoon lifted from a bowl? I rest my case. If we repeat any muscular action enough times, we can reproduce it accurately without thought or visual aids. Try it out. find a piece of music that you need to move your hand position and repeat the jump enough times so that you could do it with your eyes closed. At first, it is likely to be a bit messy if you are not used to doing this, but with time and perseverance accuracy will improve.

Related to this is the worst thing ever invented for beginner students - note stickers. They not only don't encourage students to learn the positions of the notes, but also actively encourage them to look down, rather than up at  the page.

Then there is writing the letter names on the music. OK, this will make the student look up more, but they will be at a disadvantage in the future with regard to sight reading skills. Very often, this also encourages the student to concentrate on just the pitch of the note at the expense of rhythm, which leads me to my last moan for the day.

Playing without a sense of pulse. Even when learning a new piece, however complicated or easy, there should always  be a steady beat. This may be a very slow beat as you are tackling a particularly demanding passage, but a beat should nonetheless be there. This will eliminate hesitations later, speed being achieved gradually with metronome only after you can play in time at a slower pace. If you can't play a piece in time without hesitation - you're playing too fast.

I would be interested in your thoughts on some of these bad habits. Do you identify with any of these, do you have any more things you think should be included - leave them in the comments below. 


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Music and emotions - Valentines special

How does music have the ability to affect our brain and emotions in a way that plain noise does not?

How does music have the ability to affect our brain and emotions in a way that plain noise does not?

Music is a common phenomenon found in all cultures of the world and crosses the boundaries of language. The styles of music themselves vary greatly in these various cultures, but through them all, a common ability to effect our emotions exists.

But how is music able to evoke emotion in such a way?

Even to the untrained ear, music possesses something that noise does not - structure. This structure is most obviously perceived by rhythmic patterns. Indeed, powerful emotions can be evoked by just percussion instruments such as tribal drums. The brain even has neural oscillators which it can synchronize with the pulse of the music. On a deeper level, melodic phrases have a predictable structure that form recognizable patterns which are pleasing to the ear. Going still deeper, the overall form of the music also is based on patterns and structures such as Rondo or Sonata for example. All these predictable patterns are perceived by the brain as "pleasing" and so induce a positive experience for the listener.

Then again there is the element of pitch and harmony. Going back even to Pythagoras, there were theories of what intervals were considered "perfect" because of the coincidence of the certain frequencies of the different notes in a certain interval. For example, without going into too much physics here, the frequencies of the notes in a perfect fifth have more in common mathematically than those of a minor 2nd.. Unconsciously our brain perceives all these patterns and structures as something pleasing. Just think for a moment about the meaning of the word "harmony" outside of a musical context.

Talented composers manipulate the emotion within a piece by knowing what the listener's expectations are. I'm sure there have been many times when you anticipated what is coming next in a piece of music that you have never heard before. The composer can either fulfill your expectations or maybe surprise you with something unexpected and thus play with your emotions. Expectation builds anticipation, which when met, results in a  psychological reward, releasing feel good hormones.

So what does all this have to do with music education? Many times when my students are about to take exams, I advise them to forget about the notes and concentrate on being musical rather than mechanical - To enjoy the music and let that enjoyment come out in one's performance. Let those neural oscillators synchronize with the pulse of the music, appreciate the patterns in phrase and form, appreciate the way the frequencies of the different notes in a chord harmonize. Get away from just playing the right notes and try and find the beauty in the structures which the composer intended.

And just for Valentines below is a video of Liszt's Liebestraum No.3. But as you listen to it, try to do so in a different way. Try to identify the brain pleasing structures and patterns whether rhythmic, melodic or harmonic. Be aware of your expectation and anticipation and as they are met, sense those  psychological rewards and feel good hormones.


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ABRSM Marking Criteria - Aural Tests

How do ABRSM mark Aural Tests?

This post is inspired by a recent comment I received on a video - "Help I Can't Sing", on my YouTube channel 
Can I ask what marks your students who can't sing have got for the aural tests? Especially those who can't sing but are good at the rest of the aural.  Have any actually refused to sing, and does that mean they get 0 even if they were willing to do the rest? It seems a bit odd to me that you get an overall mark for everything.
... which raises some interesting questions that maybe many of you are wondering.

  • How do you get zero marks?
  • Is the mark an average over all the tests?
  • Do you lose marks for every mistake?
  • What if you really cannot sing?

First of all, if you got everything completely wrong in the Aural Tests would you get zero marks? Strangely the answer is "No". Zero marks is only awarded if you don't even try, so even a pitchless grunt is worth more than keeping your mouth shut.

Secondly, if you got everything correct, would you get full marks. Again, strangely, the answer is also "No, not necessarily".  According to their officially published criteria, to get a distinction, in the aural tests, that is 17-18 marks you need to be not only correct but also musically perceptive and confident. What does that mean in practice? The term "musically perceptive" particularly applies to the final tests in each grade, which ask about different characteristics of music, such as dynamics, articulation, tonality, tempo, structure, texture, or style and period depending on which grade you are taking.

Being able to listen to music and then talk about what you hear is musical perception.

In contrast to "confident responses", the lower marks are described in the official marking criteria, with phrases such as "cautious", "uncertain" and "vague". So even if you get a question correct, but your tone of voice is uncertain - for example with that rising intonation at the end of a phrase which sounds more like a question than a statement...  if you are hesitant in answering, giving away signs of uncertainty... you will lose marks. Even if in yourself you really don't know the answer, sound as if you do.  You never know it might be right anyway.

Obviously, the best remedy for feeling and sounding confident is good preparation and our series "E Aural Trainer" will adequately prepare you to feel ready for any grade. 

But what about if you really cannot sing. It is actually very rare that students really cannot sing. This is usually a confidence issue. The best preparation, practicing singing back phrases regularly will help boost that confidence. If you want a whole hour of practicing just this - click HERE 

Also bear in mind that you don't get marked separately on the individual tests - it is an overall impression of your aural ability that is used to arrive at your mark. The wording in the marking criteria is very interesting on this topic. For example the official ABRSM criteria for a merit (15-16 marks) is "strengths significantly outweigh weaknesses". This sounds almost like saying, "most of the tests correct" but there is a subtle difference. The examiner is looking for an overall sense of your aural ability, not if you got test A correct, but test B wrong. The description for a pass below merit (12-14 marks) is "strengths just outweigh weaknesses" and that for a fail of just below pass (9-11 marks) the other way around, "weaknesses outweigh strengths". Now there are in many grades, four tests. What if you got exactly half of them correct, which of these two descriptions would fit, just above pass or just below. Can you see, the marking by individual test mentality doesn't fit this model.

Finally I would like to say, far too often, Aural Test Training is left to the last minute, a lesson or two just before the exam. This is too late to develop aural skills. It's just enough time to scare you into thinking you can't do it. Would you start learning your pieces a couple of weeks before an exam. I don't think so. With this in mind, start developing your aural skills now - not at the last moment before the exam.