3 ways to improve your music student’s ears

One of the toughest things to teach students, is how to listen. Over the past few years I’ve really pushed students to listen and think about listening as much as possible. I find that it’s one of the best ways to help them improve.

How do we help students listen better?

Here are three ways that will help music students listen better:

1. Sing – This is by far the quickest tool to help students improve their listening. Although convincing them to sing may be tough at first, it’s totally worth the effort.

A great way to start is matching pitch. Once they get the hang of that, have them sing the melodies in their pieces. This opens up a whole new conversation you can have with them about line, shape and color.

Wait. You can talk about line, shape and color with young students?

Yes, 6 and 7 year olds can understand those concepts. It’s all about how you deliver it to them. Train them to listen so deeply at a young age and you won’t have to keep having the same conversation into their teenage years. Build the habit early.

For more advanced students, you can have them sing one hand while playing the other. This exercise will open up their ears to inner voices and counterpoint. (Note: the exercise takes lots of patience – it’s extremely difficult)

2. Ear training – Aural theory is an overlooked, but incredibly powerful way to improve listening. Teaching students young or old how to hear intervals, chord quality, scales and to do dictation is valuable. Making the time to help them understand what certain intervals and harmonies sound like will lower mistakes in practice, reading and also improve memory. All of this helps them to make better performances and to absorb music.

3. Practice away from the piano (or instrument) – one of the things that you learn early on as a concert pianist is that time to practice is scarce. Practicing more than an hour a day is rare when you’re on tour. This is because most of your time goes to traveling, concerts, and meeting people. By the time you’re done with your work everyday, all you want to do is sleep.

So how do you make sure that you’re ready for tomorrow’s concert?

You practice while you’re traveling. Practicing away from the piano is one the best ways to practice once you’ve learned how to master this. I would run the opening sections of pieces in my head while looking at the music over and over. I try to create the exact motions in my fingers, arms and body. I can hear the music. I can feel the key. And research has shown that mental practice is nearly as good as real practice and potentially better if coupled with some real practice time as well.

Have students do this if you’re a miracle worker. It will turn them into great performers.


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