Jennie Khan

Freelance Cellist and Teacher

Jennie Khan is an Auckland based cellist and cello teacher. She has a variety of experience performing both here and in Europe and has been teaching students of all ages for many years.

An Ear for Music - Part III

At the beginning, a new student's technical ability may not be strong enough to always play in tune. Learning an instrument can involve many physical challenges and it is often necessary to find a certain level of familiarity in navigating it before things like tone and accuracy can really be fine tuned. However, there are simple exercises that can be practised to simultaneously develop the ear that need only a little technical skill. These are just as important as learning where the notes are on the stave or where to put your fingers.

  • Scales. These are critical in both technical training and ear training. A single octave up and down is achievable by most students after a few lessons. C major scale for example, having no sharps or flats, falls under the fingers easily. With guidance from a teacher, you can start to really hear the key of the scale, the tones and semitones. Remember 'Doe a Deer' from The Sound Of Music, this is a C major scale. Over time you progress to other scales D and F major etc. start to introduce minor scales, these have a different tonality again, the tones and semitones are different, and then increase to 2 octaves, and so on. There are many scales with increasing numbers of sharps and flats, and for a cellist, increasing technical difficulty.
    Scales are not usually considered fun, but they are very useful and very necessary. Take them slowly, and really listen. It is important to adjust the notes as you go until they are in tune, if you can hear it's not in tune, that's great, but you need to be able to correct it too.
  • Pitching Notes. Not all instrumentalists feel they can sing, but it is an important skill to develop for all musicians, even if you are never prepared to sing in front of anyone. You need to be able to pitch the notes in your head before you play them, otherwise once you have played the note and realised it's wrong , it's often too late. Brass players for example, must know how to pitch notes well as several notes can be made with the same combination of valves. When you sit music exams, there is a portion of the exams dedicated to Aural Tests. Whether doing an exam or not, these exercises are useful to practice these skills. 
    As a teacher I use simple exercises playing together with the student or using the piano. I have the student sing or play back a single note or short phrase. Progressing to finding intervals from a given note. So when you see the notes on the page you can have a very good idea of how it should sound when you play it. these can also be modified into fun games with younger students, using different media and tools, gives a variety to the lesson, and helps them to understand the written music better.
  • Check. When you are practising at home by yourself it can be difficult to always be sure if you are in tune, as you are likely to have little to hear it in relation to. With stringed instruments we have open strings. When learning a new or difficult piece, look out for all the A's, D's, G's and C's (in the case of viola or cello) and each time you play these notes, check them with your open string, it may be at a different octave but you can clearly hear when the two notes are in tune.
    When you are practising a big shift, use your note pitching to sing the interval (in your head) and then play the shift alone over and over until it is perfect every time.
    It can also be useful is to play along with a recording from time to time. As mentioned in Part II, being very familiar with the piece played in full helps enormously to understand the tonality and intervals in the piece. When you play along with it , you will notice any notes that are not quite right. But this is not a substitute for careful and diligent practice.

From there it comes down to fine tuning each and every note. This takes time and patience, play the notes slowly, avoid vibrato, and listen really carefully. I find it sometimes helpful to bend the note a bit, roll my finger slowly back forth like a super slow-motion vibrato to force the note flatter and sharper, there will be a note somewhere in the middle that sounds just right, like fine tuning the radio.  

A musicians ear is one of the most valuable things they have. At the end of the day it is down to the student to practice 'hearing' what they play, this actually goes for every musician at any level. It is one of those things you have to work at for yourself, no-one else can hear just what you are hearing, and it takes constant practice.
If you want some extra help there are a myriad of apps offering ear training, they generally test you on intervals, chords and other pitch related excersizes. Here is a review I found of 6 with varying prices and functionalities, but as I say there are loads of them, they will all help, just depends how far you want to take it.

6 Apps & Websites to get your Ear in Shape

Remember, even if you think you have a terrible ear, you can train it, it just takes time diligence and focus. I would love to hear of any other techniques that you might use, either for your own ear training or for your students. And I'm certainly open to any questions, this is a big and complex topic.

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