Choir Teachers: do you want your students to be able to read music? Teach audiation.
Audiation is the ability to hear and understand music in your brain. If we want our choirs to be able to “sight read” (as opposed to smell read?), then they have to be able to hear with their ears what they see with their eyes.
The music aptitude research of Dr. Edwin Gordon, of Music Learning Theory, or MLT fame, suggests that the process for learning music is a lot like learning a language. (See The Music/Language Parallel) We spoke our first language for five years before we read it. Can we do that with our choirs? Well, maybe not for five years, but we can certainly make attempts to sequence our instruction to build a music vocabulary and audiation before we ask students to read.
Some Thoughts on a Basic Process
The basic process for getting your students to be able to read music, based on my 14 years as a choir teacher, and 12 years incorporating MLT and choir, is the following:
Teach a Starter Musical Vocabulary
Teach your choir a starting musical vocabulary of tonal patterns and rhythm patterns within contrasting musical contexts so that they can speak the language of music. For an example of what this could look like, see my two free starter courses, Tonal Audiation 101 and Rhythm Audiation 101.
In this course, we will learn the rhythmic components of the audiation foundation, including macrobeats and microbeats in Duple meter.
In this course, students will learn the tonal audiation foundation: resting tone as well as tonic and dominant harmonic functions in major and minor tonalities.
Rhythm patterns are based on how music is felt in the body, the levels of beat, and rhythmic functions within meters. We start off with a relatively small vocabulary of rhythm patterns in duple and triple meters. And move, move, move… to the various levels of the beat, and feel the space in between the beat, giving the body a sense of how much space musical time takes up.
Tonal patterns are based on the audiation of tonality and function. We start off with a vocabulary of tonic and dominant harmonic patterns, followed by stepwise scale-based patterns in major and minor tonalities.
As demonstrated in the courses, teach patterns without syllables first. Let them hear the sound of it without any labels. This is referred to as the Aural/Oral level. Then, attach your tonal or rhythmic verbal association to the sound using solfege. Choose your system. I prefer movable-DO with a LA-based minor and a beat function-based rhythm syllable system. Just be sure that that’s the same system you use when students read the patterns
Use and Apply the Vocabulary Before You Read It
Just like we do with language, it’s important to let students apply the vocabulary in musical situations before they read it. Give students a chance to improvise and generalize using those tonal and rhythmic words. What can they learn from what they’ve learned?
Creativity/Improvisation is an important level in Gordon's Skill Learning Sequence. This level is where students get the opportunity to apply what they have learned and make musical decisions of their own. Teachers set students up with opportunities for creativity and improvisation, and can only guide students. Like other levels, Creativity/ Improvisation is on a continuum, depending upon the complexity of the task, how specific you ask the students to be, and the nature of the task itself.
Here are a few ways you can engage in pattern improvisation with your choirs:
Here are a few example Improvisation videos from The Choral Musician.
Generalization is another inference skill in the Skill Learning Sequence. The skill of Generalization is very broad in that there are many skills that fall under the umbrella of generalization (just as there are many types of generalizations one can make in language). But to begin with, we want to see if students have married the sound of the pattern with the syllables. So, teachers would first sing a familiar pattern on a neutral syllable, and see if students can sing back the solfege.
Then, see if students can use familiar patterns to teach themselves unfamiliar patterns, as in the below video. This is the magic of generalization, because it teaches students to use the logic of the syllable systems to teach themselves.
Here are video examples of Generalization from The Choral Musician:
Give them as many opportunities as possible to compare contexts - major vs. minor, duple vs. triple. The juxtaposition of contexts yields clarity of beat and precision of intonation. As we are young and experiencing the world, we are constantly comparing - hot, cold; tall, short; mean, nice. Well, we do that in music, too. In MLT, this skill level is called Partial Synthesis.
Begin By Reading Patterns
Once they have a vocabulary, and can “speak the language of music,” they’re ready to read those patterns. Show them what the individual musical words look like in standard musical notation just like we do in language. We say to emerging readers: "You know what a dog is…you can say it, you can use it in a sentence….well, this is what dog looks like when you read it.
This is what DO MI SO looks like. This is what DU DE DU DE looks like.
After they can read individual musical words, let them read phrases, and then eventually sentences. Check out these two blog articles which explain the reading process:
For an example of how that might play out, peruse these two free student courses:
Combine Tonal Patterns and Rhythm Patterns Into Musical Sentences
When we are first learning to read, we begin by reading words, and then we put them together to read sentences. After they can read musical words, let them read musical sentences. Combine familiar tonal patterns and familiar rhythm patterns into short musical sentences, or sight-reading exercises, using those familiar patterns. Now, students are reading music with comprehension.
Students are bringing meaning (audiation) to the musical notation, rather than starting with the notation and working backwards. That’s the way we learned our first language, right?
Teach Students to Generalize Using Notation
In Step 2 above, students had the opportunity to generalize aurally. It is just as important to give students the chance to generalize symbolically, as well. Again, we need to teach students how to teach themselves. Give them lots of opportunities to generalize so they can take those skills we taught them, and teach themselves how to read new patterns… hopefully, in the repertoire.
In language, we learn phonics so we can figure out new words as we’re reading. If we know talk, and walk, and then talking…well, we can generalize and teach ourself walking.
If you show them how to read DO MI SO, then they should be able to generalize DO MI and DO SO. Again…What can they learn from what they’ve learned?
Lather, Rinse and Repeat with New Content
After the above process has been established with a small amount of tonal and rhythmic material, lather, rinse and repeat with new tonal and rhythmic words - new rhythmic functions, new harmonic functions, new time signatures, new key signatures, new tonalities, new meters. Put those new tonal patterns together with rhythm patterns and students read them in new sentences. On and on and on.
The Choral Musician Digital Workbook Series
So, what might the above sequence look like in a curriculum? In my new series, The Choral Musician, I follow this recipe for success.
About the Series
To begin with, there are three books in the series to get you started:
Digital Workbook 1: Establishing an Audiation Foundation (macrobeats and microbeats in duple and triple; tonic and dominant patterns in major and minor)
Digital Workbook 2A: The foundations of reading (macrobeats and microbeats in duple and triple in 2/4, 6/8, 3/4, 4/4 and Cut Time; tonic and dominant patterns in major and minor tonalities).
Digital Workbook 2B: Reading stepwise scale patterns in major and minor tonalities.
Take a Look Inside
Before you buy, why not download the free sampler, and try it out for yourself in your own classroom? This will give you a taste of each of the workbooks.
Click here to download The Choral Musician Sampler
The Choral Musician Walkthroughs
If you want even more of an idea of the contents of each book, I do a deep dive into each workbook with a walkthrough of the entire thing.
Digital Workbook 1
Digital Workbook 2A
Digital Workbook 2B
Use The Choral Musician in Your Classroom
There are many buying options. Most notably, The Choral Musician is included as part of The Faculty Library subscription. So if you're a member of The Faculty Library, log in, and you'll already have this series at your fingertips to use with your choirs today!
Wishing you and your students success!