It’s another music exam season at this time of the year in the UK. Final weeks are usually decided to exercise more on the aural in my piano studio. One of my pupils is working on the ABRSM Grade 2 at the moment. While we were working on the D section (describe the features of music) in the aural, she said,

‘How is this test supposed to be anything to do with helping my piano playing?’

A fair question! So, I demonstrated the reason by playing a piece of music in two different ways and asked her a few questions. In my playing, I applied the following details:

The first playing
No dynamics, no phrasing, no articulations and no tempo changes

The second playing
Clear dynamics gradations with swaying tempi and supportive articulations following what musical phrasings naturally suggest

Teacher: ‘So, which one did you enjoy listening?’

Pupil: ‘The second one’

Teacher: ‘Why?’

Pupil: ‘Because there were crescendo and diminuendo and tempo changes.

Teacher: ‘Why do you think I did the crescendo and diminuendo and tempo changes?’

Pupil: ‘Because it sounds much nicer and more musical.’

Teacher: ‘Now, if you understand the music well enough and you’d like to make it sound nicer and musical, you need to know what it is you can add to make that happen. Identifying musical expression tools, such as crescendo, ritardando, non legato, legato, etc. in the music you listen to helps you to be aware what it is that makes the music sound more musical. So, you can apply it to your own playing.’

My pupil seemed to be satisfied with this answer. Having said that, the aural training such as this really shouldn’t be just a last minute preparation. It has to be in some way or the other incorporated into the regular lessons. It doesn’t have to be completely a separated exercise. You can do within the pieces that you’re working on. Posing questions such as why there’s a crescendo here, why it’s a subio p here, etc. What mood or effect do these signs are meant to emulate in executing musical expression or phrasing, etc. You can even try adding extra expression marks where appropriate to make the sound more original to you, to express how you feel about the particular piece. Guiding the pupils to have their own ideas as to how they want to play particular phrases always help them to be more aware of the importance of expression tools that they can use in playing. If you know what tools to use for particular phrases in the music, you have more freedom to express the music the way you’d like.

If the piece has a title, it’s a good item to discuss and decide how to make it sound like what the title suggests. You may think what it’s got to do with the aural? In my opinion, creating a sound image in your mind is already an act of exercising the aural. Trying to hear what you’d like to hear and trying to transfer that to your playing always deliver a focused practice and it’s very satisfying when you finally hear what you have imagined! The true ‘listening’ ear is not just about hearing what’s there but also hearing what’s going to be. So, as you can imagine, exposing your ear to a good amount of quality music is essential. With anything else, to be aware of what makes the difference is a good start to be able to improve you’ve already got.

Why not try doing the aural test for yourself next time you listen to the music in the background, in which I mean making conscious efforts to be aware of what it is that makes a particular phrase in a particular point in the music stands out to you; not only for dynamics, articulations, tempi, etc. but also for particular styles of writing, particular harmonies, etc. Classical music has more dynamics and tempos changes; hence a lot more to be aware with. But pop and jazz music can also be a useful source. Particularly for articulations and phrasing. Classical musicians can learn quite a lot from them when it comes to articulations particularly!