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Aural tests- preparation and results


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#1 Stringshed

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 14:55

I always endeavour to spend plenty of time and effort developing aural skills and preparing for the specific exam requirements of a grade. Confidence building is always paramount, particularly in this area where there is very much an immediate feeling of being 'tested'.

 

What do you do though when you have a student who really struggles with vocal pitching and singing? Especially when it is required not just on the singing back a melody but also sight singing (G4+) and singing a middle or bottom line played on the piano? 

 

I have a student who has just scored 11/18 in Grade 4 aural and I feel really bad, as does she. We have worked and played hard on this over the years but I am beginning to doubt that the relative teaching time is well spent... 

 

Do other teachers feel bad when pupils score badly in aural? Should I just accept that this student always will and focus on getting better marks in the other areas of the exam? Should I change boards to avoid the singing??

 

Comments gratefully received,

 

SS

 

 

 


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#2 funkiepiano

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 16:22

I have a pupil who took his Grade 6 today. His singing is atrocious, he’ll be lucky if he gets 10/18 in the aural. We’ve spent some time on it, but his pieces are a merit level so I’m not too worried. I just tell them, do your best it’s only a few marks :)
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#3 Sautillé

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 19:21

I do Trinity. I’m so fed up with the singing bias of the AT. I also feel that the AB tests are so mean. I was listening to a pupil’s G2 exam last week. The examiner played the clapping test so fast that my little 7yo had hardly realised he had to start clapping and it was over. I’m sure he failed that question, he didn’t stand a chance. Who needs to be able to understand a beat they cannot yet play at? The tests are poorly thought out and, increasingly, I add them to my ‘reasons to do Trinity’ bucket. Lately, I only have approx 1/10th of kids over G4 choose AB.
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#4 maggiemay

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 19:59

I always regret that the clapping test is the first of the aural tests. It requires a candidate to switch focus in a quite unrealistic way.

I also find that most youngsters struggle with identifying the time, even though most of mine do pretty well in their aural generally.
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#5 Aquarelle

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 20:02

Yes, the way the tests are administered can vary a lot. I have had examiners play the echo tests very fast and there was one year when the Grade 5 period test was so ambiguous that neither I nor the rep, who is a professional musician could decide whether it was classical or baroque.  The clapping tests speeds also vary too much and I think we ought to be given a range of metronome speeds considered suitable for each grade. It is actually quite a hard test for some children.


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#6 BabyGrand

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 20:13

I may get shot down for this, but I think the issue is often that these skills are taught solely for the purpose of passing an exam.  (I'm not saying this of you, Stringshed, as it's obvious that you have put a lot of time into it, it's more a general observation of what I've found with a lot of teachers.)  And that attitude is passed from teacher to student - they see it as an unwelcome add-on to their "real" learning, as opposed to something directly relevant to them.  My pupils are split fairly equally between Trinity and AB, but I still teach all of them the same things, and that includes working on listening skills, pulse and rhythm, and yes, singing.  To me, a musician who can't sing is an oxymoron.  Now, preferring not to sing in front of people and therefore preferring Trinity aural tests, that's absolutely fine.  Also I think the AB tests can be too much of a memory test - singing back a long phrase is of limited value IMO.  However, I think not including singing at all, as if it's an irrelevant skill for a musician, is really, really sad.  I loved the question that used to be in the Trinity Initial aural tests, where they had to sing the tonic at the end of a phrase.  No great feat of memory needed, and no large amount of singing, but just a simple and musical exercise.  My ideal aural tests would probably not look much like the Trinity *or* AB ones!  rolleyes.gif   But they would definitely include singing.  

 

I try to incorporate Kodaly in my lessons where I can, and if done from the beginning, even those who naturally find pitch matching tricky can become confident singers and sight-singers.  It does mean making a choice to make it a priority in lessons - and in practice at home - and not just something done in the few weeks running up to an exam.  In my ideal world, all students would have Kodaly lessons for a year or two *prior to* learning and instrument, and preferably in addition to once they've started.  Of course, that's not feasible for most!  But I do what I can.  Even when circumstances have meant I do only have a few weeks to work with someone before an exam, I've had some real grunters make a pretty credible attempt at the echo tests after just a few weeks of working in solfa.  But it's so much better if it's done from day one - then it never becomes something they "can't" do, because they always can.  

 

If you've never look into the Kodaly method before, please do!  I used to find it so hard to teach aural skills, because they came so naturally to me as a child (largely, I believe, because of the type of music education I was fortunate enough to have).  I just did it, without (knowingly) having to work at it - so I had no idea how to help someone who struggled.  Kodaly was revolutionary for me.  Now I had a way to teach these things to absolutely anyone, and it *works*!  I honestly can't recommend it enough.  wub.png wub.png wub.png

 

I  have / do still sometimes have students who really struggle, and especially if they've not been with me from day one, or with adults, or those who refuse to sing at home (making progress very limited), etc - yes sometimes I've had students score poorly, and it's hard.  I think that's the same with students who don't do so well in any part of their exam - we're bound to feel bad about it, even when both we and our student have done their best.  I would focus on the positive with them. 

 

Even students who are fine with singing can do poorly in the aural tests due to not having a great memory, or not doing well under pressure.  It's tough.  Tbh, in the case you mentioned I would potentially do both - keep working on aural skills, because they're so important, but work on them for their own sake, not for the sake of passing an aural test.  Start at the level she is comfortable with, and work up from there, at her own pace.  And then when the next exam comes around, give your student a choice of exam boards and see what she prefers.  If it takes the stress out of it not to have to sing in the exam, then it's worth it to switch boards.  But do encourage her to keep singing anyway!  smile.png

 

Oh, and in response to the later posts, fwiw I've found my students find the clapping the pulse far easier in the AB tests than the Trinity ones, because it's much easier when there is an accompaniment than when there's only a melody.  Naming the metre is another matter (especially telling the difference between 2 and 4 time, which sometimes I'm not even sure is possible).  I do also find that playing the piece more quickly helps beginners to find the pulse rather than the rhythm, and avoids them clapping quavers instead of crotchet beats, etc.  It's possible the examiner was trying to play more quickly for that reason?  There's helpfully fast and unhelpfully fast though!!  


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#7 ma non troppo

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 20:30

Yes, abrsm tests are mean. I agree with a holistic approach to music and back up the view that these skills would ideally be instilled before learning an instrument,but it is what it is for those of us at the coal face. I'd love every child to have come to me after spending early years with a Cyrilla ;) but it just doesn't happen.

Yes, musical memory is very useful. Yes, many of the skills needed for aural tests are useful, but the administration of them is lacking, and sadly the world has moved on from when parents used to spend hours singing nursery rhymes with little tots, and when all schools did singing every day from a young age.

At the higher grades, does it really matter if a superb brass player can't recognise the approach chord to a cadence?

I confess to sometimes hedging my bets and playing a strategic game, focussing on one of the tests that I think that candidate is better suited to performing well in than the others. Telling abrsm candidates that there is a minimum mark they are allowed to be awarded just for having a go does wonders for self esteem and confidence I find. I'm not sure these tests have any place in an instrumental exam - and I speak as someone who always found them the easiest part as a pupil.

It is depressing really.
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#8 HelenVJ

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 20:35

Avoiding singing was just one of many reasons that I changed to Trinity. I don't see it as a cop-out - the Trinity tests are more musical and are listening based rather than relying on superhuman feats of memory. In the past, so many musical kids struggled with the singing and sight-singing. But once we made the change, getting full marks has become almost the norm. It was quite annoying when excellent students with very good aural ability got a lower grade than they deserved because of the AB tests. Making the change did wonders for their confidence.

Incidentally, I studied Kodaly for 2 years to Advanced Level with Hungarian tutors, so I absolutely know and understand the value of singing as an overall part of general musicianship. But I remain unconvinced that these elements should be tested as part of an instrumental exam. Also I have quite a few late ( teenage) beginners who would struggle hugely with sight-singing. If I had 30 minutes a week, and if they were motivated, I could easily teach them to sight-sing. As things stand, doing so would take up a disproportionate amount of their instrumental lesson.


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#9 ma non troppo

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 20:35

PS: most disliked Abrsm questions:

Telling the difference between 2 and 4 time

The "character" question at grade 4 - there's nothing wrong with the concept but the sample question is always phrased "what in the music gives this piece its character? " That is wording is wrong on so many levels for a child.

Grade 6 sight singing - too big a jump. Separate pitch awareness would be more useful again, in free time but with wider intervals.

Interval recognition - I would prefer this to still be a part than much of the other stuff.
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#10 HelenVJ

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 20:56

Interval recognition features in the Trinity aural tests, as do cadences, nmodulations etc. Not being forced to sing is a big plus, as far as testing goes ( not in general though).


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#11 BabyGrand

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Posted 25 June 2019 - 23:21

At the higher grades, does it really matter if a superb brass player can't recognise the approach chord to a cadence?

......I'm not sure these tests have any place in an instrumental exam 

 

I think you could make an argument both for and against the relevance / inclusion of most parts of the exam, aside from pieces.  Does said superb brass player really need to be able to play every scale on the syllabus?  Do they really need to be able to sight read, if in real life their situation is that every context they're going to face will be one where they get the music in advance?  

 

I absolutely agree with you about the gulf between the ideal world and the one we're in, but I'm not sure that reducing the exam system to the lowest common denominator or removing chunks of the exam is the answer.  I do think the exam system (every board) could do with a rehaul, and be more suited to the typical learner today, rather than the typical learner of X years ago.  

 

My perspective on the exams - and what I tell my students - is that they are not a curriculum, but they are somebody's idea of how to test the things that all beginners will/should be learning.  So it's my job to make sure my students are developing their skills in technique, artistry, listening, sight-reading, theory, harmony, etc.  We do all these things with no reference to exams, but just because they are part of a musician's education.  If my students choose to take an exam (some do, some don't), then those skills are going to be tested in some way during the exam process.  So it makes sense that exams include these different elements.  I do think, however, that they could be approached and tested in a much better way.  I agree that some of the questions are not good, and the structure/progression of the singing elements I think is off as well.  I have heard rumours that ABRSM are modifying their aural tests, so I guess we'll have to wait and see what that entails....

 

Oh, and I agree re lesson length btw.  I don't teach higher grades in short lessons - I have a minimum length that goes up as the grades increase - but I appreciate that not everyone has that luxury.  If I were trying to teach Grade 7 in 30 minutes, I doubt I'd have much time to work on aural tests either!  wacko.png   I have a lot of sympathy and admiration for teachers in that situation.  


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#12 ma non troppo

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Posted 26 June 2019 - 02:34

Helen, I agree with all of your post. I teach music in a holistic way when possible. I don't however think that these aural tests are relevant in many instances in an exam situation.

Baby grand, also, you make some excellent points, and yes, one could argue for or against many aspects of examining. I do think that some of the abrsm aural tests are so far removed from practical musical life for certain instruments though to have become a white elephant. They are totally irrelevant in practical terms for many and not necessarily helpful in terms of general musicianship. Also, they are too piano-centric. And I say that as a first study pianist. I am often asked to coach non pianists through them and some of the higher grade questions are quite ridiculous (the "D" ones) for them.

I do think times have changed and they come across as rather unkind and dare I say it, smug/elitist. It's great if you grew up in a household where everyone listened to Radio 3 at breakfast!
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#13 ten left thumbs

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Posted 26 June 2019 - 08:31

...

At the higher grades, does it really matter if a superb brass player can't recognise the approach chord to a cadence?

...

One of the things that has saved my bacon in band practice, is that I can recognise the chords coming up to a cadence, so when my lip is falling off and I just can't manage the written note, I can find a lower note from the same chord. 


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#14 HelenVJ

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Posted 26 June 2019 - 08:34

You could probably have managed that without going through Grade 7 aural tests though, right? It's more basic theory than aural perception.


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#15 ten left thumbs

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Posted 26 June 2019 - 14:27

Basic theory helps, but given I'm just reading my part and not a full score, I have no idea what I'd do without aural perception. 

 

At the end of the day, the differing exam boards have a committee meeting and decide what will go in the aural test, and just how crucial it will be (Trinity has other options). Will we make them sing or won't we? Anything they decide is nothing more than a marker for aural skills. These skills can be learned, however some students have serious barriers to overcome, like feeling their instrument is 'the thing' and their voice is rubbish, or feeling that music is mechanical and all you should have to do it just get the notes right, or whatever. Then we as teachers need to work out the best way forward for each student.

 

For me, I think probably and exam system with aural tests of some sort is better than (1) no exam system or (2) an exam system without aural tests. Beyond that I just accept that each board is going to do what it is going to do and get on with it.


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