Are scales squeezed out and sightreading neglected? Paul Harris shares some ideas on integrating core skills into your students' lessons
I've often wondered why some people are more able than others; indeed why some are more 'musical' than others. As a result of reading a number of books on the mind and talking to those who know much more than I do about such matters, I find that the answer has something to do with neural connections. If you love E.M. Forster's book Howard's End as much as I do, you will remember the words of his preface: only connect. And here we have it. Those who are more successful are those who are making connections. Often they will be doing it unconsciously, but it is the fact that they are doing it that matters. Therefore the solution to more effective teaching would seem to be in finding ways to consciously make the connections for our pupils - connections that the more able will already be making for themselves. It is this kind of teaching I call simultaneous learning. Many imaginative teachers may already practice this kind of teaching, but they might not have thought of it as a method nor perhaps considered how it might be developed.
Spend a few moments considering the content of your lessons. Do you find yourself devoting the greater part of the lesson to pieces (and possibly studies) and then, in those final few minutes, working on scales and ear tests? Maybe if you're lucky enough to have some unexpected extra time (perhaps the next pupil is late) you squeeze in a little sightreading. How often do you include improvisation, theory and other musicianship skills? Do you often spend lessons simply reacting to pupils' (frequently poor) preparation, making teaching seem an endless series of correcting mistakes? Simultaneous learning allows the pupil to develop often neglected areas of musical education and - perhaps most importantly - to become an independent learner.
When giving talks on the subject I often begin by projecting a diagram on to a screen (below).
I then ask the audience to split into small groups, each choosing two subjects and then coming up with two or three connections that can be made between them - sightreading with scales, scales with ear tests, ear tests with improvisation and so on. Once we begin thinking through the possible connections many more start coming to mind, and we find that instead of compartmentalising each musical area, each emerges as naturally connected. The piece maintains its place as the focal point of a lesson (it's the tunes that most pupils principally enjoy and, of course, in exams its the pieces that earn the most marks), but the other areas become an integral part of the learning process. Rather than teaching being continually reactive, we can then begin to become proactive: our job is much more than simply correcting pupils' mistakes.
The flexible teacher will now begin to develop a whole range of teaching strategies and styles to meet different situations. This might be regarded as a kind of sliding scale. At one end we have the most organic type of simultaneous learning, where a lesson is one of many discoveries, and at the other the type of lesson in which we spend the entire duration on some technical problem, on perfecting the control of the first two notes of the D major scale or on some interpretative aspect of a Brahms sonata. Both ends of the sliding scale are essential and will be visited from time to time, but each pupil can also be taught on different points of the scale at different times, depending on the prevailing requirement. What is important is that we develop this variety of approach. Teaching then becomes both much more exciting and much less predictable.
Let us now consider how a simultaneous learning lesson of the most organic type may unfold for a pupil of intermediate standard, a violinist perhaps starting out on simple Baroque sonatas or a cellist working on Karl Popper studies.
As in all thoughtful teaching a little pre-lesson preparation will be necessary. Broadly speaking the objective of this lesson will be to develop general musicianship and key-sense. You will need to have a piece of sightreading ready, but take a little trouble over this: choose an example in a familiar key where some study of the scale and arpeggio has already taken place (perhaps it will be the key of a piece or study your pupil is learning). Be careful also to choose a sightreading piece that is well within the technical capabilities of your pupil.
With the music on the stand, begin by asking your pupil to identify the key, then put the piece to one side. First, discuss any salient features and play the scale and arpeggio of that key. This might lead to some technical work on any weaknesses that have become apparent: imperfection of tone, uneven rhythm or perhaps a poorly negotiated position change. Encourage your pupil to listen intently to their performance so, with your guidance, they begin to suggest any necessary remedial work. Getting pupils to 'take ownership' of their playing is essential if we are to produce independent musical thinkers.
Having made the connection with ear tests you might develop this by moving on to some imitation exercises.Using the same key, sing or play a short, simple melodic phrase and ask your pupil to sing or play it back on their instrument. As well as reproducing pitch and rhythm (which are the foundations of many ear tests) ask them to imitate your tone, dynamic levels, intonation and any other musical shaping or phrasing. Keep your phrases straightforward to begin with, but you should find that this exercise will improve your pupil's aural perception. Ask them sometimes to sing the phrases back. You could use more exam-oriented listening exercises at this point if you wish, but always try to make them practical and related to the key-of-the-day.
These imitative creative exercises lead seamlessly on to improvisation. Still in the same key, you might use a phrase from the sightreading piece soon to be addressed as the basis for the improvisation. Decide how you might use and even develop the material; play the phrase a few times and talk about the melodic shape, whether it has any special features that would engage well in a piece of improvisation. Also discuss the possibility of giving the piece some kind of overall structure (AB or ABA for example) and how long the improvisation is to be. After playing, discuss the success (or otherwise) of the performance. How was the material used? Which dynamic levels were employed? Was the structure clear? In what ways did the material develop? Might there be other ways? And so on. If there is time you might like to repeat the improvisation (as closely as could be remembered), but now with adjustments and perhaps further developments.
Finally you come to the sightreading we've been saving up from the start of the lesson. There are many ways of introducing this into the integrated learning process. You might begin by asking your pupil to glance at the opening phrase for a few seconds. Remove the music from sight and find out how much has been assimilated. What was the time signature? (There shouldn't be any problem over the key!) Can they clap the rhythm or sing the melodic line? What was the tempo mark and the dynamic level? Were there any further expression markings? Can they play it? A further glance should then be allowed to spot repeated melodic or rhythmic shapes and scale and arpeggio patterns. Again cover the music and ask questions. If time permits you can continue this process, looking at more detailed areas - technical or rhythmical difficulties, structure, modulations (if there are any), overall musical shape, climax and so on. In this way, and in a relatively short time, you are stimulating and developing that all-important musical awareness. Now ask for a performance and then, again removing the copy, discuss it: how accurate was it? Can the pupil remember if there were any errors? Was it a musical performance? Could it have been more musical? Were all the expression markings observed? Play the piece again. If there is still time you might ask your pupil to attempt a performance from memory - improvising if the memory fails at any time.
The type of lesson described above is one you might give once in every four or five (more usually pieces will provide the central focus). Fitting happily into the typical 30 minute allowance, the lesson will have included technical work, scales and arpeggios, development of key-sense, listening exercises, sightreading, singing, clapping, improvising, self-appraisal and the development of other aspects of musicianship. Music has been the focus of the activity throughout.
In steering your pupil through this simultaneous learning process remember to build confidence by constant encouragement and generous praise when it's due. If one idea or direction doesn't seem to work for a particular pupil rearrange the ingredients or try new ones. As you begin to develop your own approach you will discover an infinite number of ways of connecting and of cross-referencing from one musical discipline to another. It's an exciting method of teaching that focuses on developing real musicianship and has the great advantage of accessing the imagination of both teacher and pupil.
Adopting such a method of teaching requires a certain amount of courage - it takes time, time you might otherwise have spent correcting wrong notes in pieces or reminding your pupil about a neglected crescendo or diminuendo. The great advantage is that once you have begun to build, strengthen and stimulate your pupil's 'musical ability' you won't have to make such comments so often. Your pupils will begin to develop the ability lo learn for themselves, to notice more and to increase their musical awareness. Embarking on this approach to teaching is not difficult, but having taken it on you will perceive a noticeable improvement in both your pupils' practice and performance. We have often heard it said that the job of the teacher is to make themselves redundant. Perhaps this is the way to do just that, but don't worry: there will always be more pupils coming along!
This article was first published in The Strad's December 2000 issue.