A Musical Cornerstone


Image by flickr user Steve Snodgrass.

In architecture, a cornerstone is “a stone that forms the base of a corner of a building, joining two walls” (New Oxford American Dictionary). In our classrooms, sometimes it is difficult to join the two ends of a semester or year. On one end, we have excited and nervous students beginning a new adventure alongside their peers. They may have studied music theory before, or they may be starting this class with little or no prior experience. On the other end, we have students who have finished a leg of their journey to become music scholars and gained significant insights into the music they studied. How can we help our students see how far they have come in their music theory studies while also challenging them throughout an entire semester or school year?

For the past two years, I have chosen specific pieces of music for the first two semesters of music theory that are “cornerstone” pieces—we begin the semester with this musical work, we end the semester with this musical work, and we revisit it during class about every five weeks, for a total of four class sessions with the piece. For Music Theory I, that piece was Bach’s “C Major Prelude” from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I; for Music Theory II, Fanny Hensel’s “Nachtwanderer,” Op. 7 no. 1. Within the first two days of the semester, everyone receives a copy of the score, listens to a recording or performance of the work, and takes notes on what they know about the piece. These are collaborative notes in a Google Document, so everyone can contribute and share their insights. This alternative mode of communication is key, especially at the beginning of a semester, when some students are not comfortable speaking up during class. During and after each session, I will monitor the notes and make comments only for correcting wrong or misleading information.

In the case of Music Theory I (Fall 2017) and Bach, week 1’s notes featured some basic observations about the piece: it is in C major, has the same rhythm throughout, is in common time, has lots of arpeggios, and changes harmonies once per bar. Week 5 began by reviewing and commenting on their notes from week 1 and adding to it with their recently acquired music theory knowledge. By this time they were able to discuss how the piece begins on a I (tonic) chord and that the V chord appears quite a bit also, the beginning of the piece is diatonic and the middle is more chromatic and has more accidentals, there are some four-bar phrases, and it is not entirely in C major, though it never gets very far away. In week 11, my students uploaded a picture of a chord reduction that was created in class outlining TPDT function and commented on the strong fifth relations present in the piece. At the end of the semester, they began discussing cadences, phrase structure, and following up with identifying chords they had missed in previous weeks.

It is during the last session with the cornerstone work that I ask students to reflect on how much they have learned over a 15-week semester. I also ask them why anyone should care that they know all of this information about one piece of music—I challenge them to consider real-world applications for these new analytical skills and how they might transfer these skills out of the music theory classroom. There is often a pressure to get as much content squeezed into the short amount of time we have to spend with our students, but it is equally important to give students the opportunity to reflect and congratulate one another on their shared journey in music theory.

David Shernoff’s (2013) research on optimal learning environments stresses the connection of perceived learning and perceived investment of effort: “to feel fully engaged and invested in learning, students needed to value the activity as important both to themselves and the process of learning, and they also needed to feel like a valued, active, and contributing members of a learning community” (pp. 140–141).
By revisiting the same piece of music at set intervals of time, students are able to observe and reflect on their growing understanding and mastery of music theory topics discussed in the course. Additionally, they are able to contribute to discussions and a growing collaborative document as members of the class’s community. At the end of the semester, the class as a whole has a visible record of their learning. Including a cornerstone analysis in a course serves as both a connection to the beginning and end of a semester’s learning process and as an element of a student’s foundation in music theory.


Widening the Lens: A Holistic Approach to Music Theory Introduction & Part I: Rhythm

Mr. Erik Lynch, Verona High School 

I love theory. Actually, I really love theory. More importantly, I am proud to say our students in the Verona High School Instrumental Music Department here do as well. Theory is a powerful tool, and perhaps one of the most effective modalities at our disposal to help us connect with our students.

My best musical days are invariably tied to theory: I love to study to my scores and to analyze the harmonies (or lack there of), whether they are rooted in the traditional language of the Western European canon, or whether they are grounded in more modern, esoteric, and singular sonorities. The most invigorating part, however,  is bringing the notation to life in in band or at the piano in theory. In is truest artistic form, theory emancipates us, giving us the tools to make informed choices about the directions of our melodic lines, our conducting gestures, intensity of our climaxes, etc.

However, it is imperative that we approach the discipline in musically and pedagogically sound ways. If we get to caught into the “rules” of tonal harmony, or bogged down by prescriptive, paint-by-numbers curricula, theory can become bland, dull, and myopic (I hope our goals supersede a “5” on the AP exam). Mostly sadly in this manner theory is neither musical or fun. So, I pose the question:

How wide is the lens in which we look at music theory? If our lens is thin and narrow, we may foster a mindset in our students that “all” music follows the parameters of four-part voice leading, or that parallel octaves do not exist in music. Though our students might leave our class with a great knowledge of ii-V-I’s, they might have trouble articulating their thoughts on Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas.  Though the traditions of 18th century tonal harmony are important tools for musicians, they do not and can not encapsulate all music, as no single approach can.

However, we can expand the lens in which we look at music theory! I would propose three additions to the traditional music theory curricula to foster a broad, comprehensive, and musical approach to our daily ventures:

  • Rhythm: More emphasis on the development of rhythmic skills and the role rhythm plays in composition
  •  Full Score Study: Theory has an overwhelmingly tendency to emphasize short passages, never giving the students the opportunity to see and hear the “big picture”
  • Infusion of Scholarly and Philosophical Readings: We undoubtedly want our (music theory) students to be critically reflective thinkers, not just doers

Part I –  Rhythm 

Full Disclosure: I am a drummer. I have been known to take rhythmic dictation of the windshield wipers on the cross campus buses at Rutgers, or to point out an accelerando motive at my door when my egg drop soup arrives.  Putting aside your pre-conceived notions about me, I will endeavor to continue.

Theory has a serious problem that leading doctors have termed “VCS” (Vertical Chord Syndrome).  We have all been trained to look vertically at a chord, stack it into thirds, and put down a roman numeral. Though this is certainly a functional skill, placing too much emphasis on this can take away from other pedagogically sound theoretical endeavors, including the analysis of form, growth/development, and melodic contour (to name just a few). But the most glaring omission is when we angle our lens away from rhythm. 

A Tchaikovsky Example 

Let us look together at an except from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 5, Movement II. Click on the following link and peruse the score a bit: Tchaik. Excerpt Clearly the harmonic structure at the onset of this excerpt rests on the simple diatonic chords of D major. However, if we ignore the rhythm here we lose the true essence of Pyotr.

Take a peak again at four measures before G, and we will see the graceful, delicate, and nimble way that Tchaikovsky uses the oboe slightly off the the beat to answer the beautiful main theme in the 1st violin. By starting this oboe line on the third eighth note of the measure, Tchaikovsky creates an ethereal and effortless conversation that can not be captured by looking at the vertical chords.

Now look at two measures before G in the same oboe counter line. Tchaikovsky ingeniously and subtly uses augmentation and diminution to embellish the mid-point of the famous horn melody (obviously now sounding in the violins) that we all know and love. I do not believe that the IV6 and V7 chords here fully encapsulate Tchaikovsky’s intent, as his choice of rhythm is paramount.

Rhythm in Our AP Classes at Verona 

Our theory classes often start with me at the djembe playing rhythms to the class that the students count back right away (and I do mean right away). To get the most of our time together (especially considering that we embrace a myriad of activities in one class period),  I purposely do not have the students write down the patterns, as we are able to get much more concentrated practice in by counting aloud. I try to keep my ears as open possible to what the students are counting back to me. If I hear they are not counting it back to me with precision, I may slow down the passage, or slightly accent/emphasize the portion they may have missed.

We typically start the year with variations of 16th Note Rhythms. From there we tackle basic triplet rhythms, and from that point on all bets are off: 6/8, 9/8, 7/8, hemiola, poly-rhythms, shifting meters,etc. You name it, we try it~ I am actually in pure amazement on how well my classes have handled these activities this year, and I am even more grateful that they apply these skills to to their daily musicking.

Finally, and with all transparency, I did question myself when I first began to integrate these activities into the class. I was quite nervous to attempt this considering the demand of the AP exam, and how busy they are already in our theory  class and beyond. However, a few years down the line I find that the ventures in rhythm prove to be transformative in my student’s musicianship.

Erik Lynch is in his seventeenth  year as Director of Bands at Verona High School, where he leads the Marching Band, Concert Band, Chamber Ensembles, and a two tract Music Theory program. Before coming to Verona, he served as Assistant Director of Bands at Immaculata High School in Somerville, NJ.
A proud graduate of Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, Mr. Lynch completed his undergraduate studies in Music Education with a percussion emphasis, studying with William Moersch and She-e Wu, and was a four-year member of the Rutgers Wind Ensemble as a Naumburg Scholarship Recipient. During these years, he attended the Eastern Music Festival twice, studying timpani with John Feddersen, and in his senior year was one of six timpanists selected to participate in the Vic Firth Timpani Seminar at the Tanglewood Music Center.  Mr. Lynch has also played timpani on the Gramercy Brass Orchestra’s of New York recording of “Brubeck in Brass. Additionally, Mr. Lynch completed his Masters of Music Education and Supervisor’s Certificate, also at Rutgers.

Mr. Lynch was a finalist for the College of New Jersey’s Outstanding Educator’s Program in 2006, as well as a finalist for Yale University’s Distinguished Music Educator’s Program in 2011. Additionally, he was nominated for the Grammy Outstanding Music Educator Award in both 2013, 2014,  2017, and advanced to the quarterfinal round in 2014 and 2017. Consequently, Mr. Lynch is a Legacy Candidate for 2018 Grammy award. He serves as the chair of the Essex County Honor Band and NJSMA Marching Band.

The VHS Marching Maroon and White has a proud tradition of performing the iconic repertoire of the symphonic, orchestral, and operatic canon on the field. The band won the State Championship in 2003, All State Championships in 2004 and 2006, and Two Cadets Awards of Excellence in 2012, while finishing second National in Championships. In October 2017, VHS will host the inaugural NJSMA Marching Band Festival!

The VHS Concert Band was the first school group to play the iconic “Wednesday’s at Noon Concert Series” at the Cathedral Basilica and was hailed by the staff as the “highlight of the series”, in addition to an iconic performance at Carnegie Hall in March of 2013 as part of the Eastern Wind Symphony Symphonic Gala. Last April, the Verona Concert Band returned to the Cathedral Basilica where they  premiered David Gillingham’s Organic Matters for solo organ and band with famed organist Vincent Carr. The concert band premiered Mr. Bruce Yurko’s “Anorev Fanfare” on May 18th, 2017.

Risk-taking in the Classroom

In my classroom this year, I found myself wanting to embrace a lot of new teaching methodologies that allowed students to risk-take in a safe, encouraging environment. (I feel confident in my creation of an inclusive, safe risk-taking space, as my Student Perception of Teaching (SPoT) scores for “The instructor supported a class environment of mutual respect” were, for Aural Skills I, avg. 5.8; Materials III, avg. 5.94.) I was bolstered by my incorporation of improvisation in the aural skills classroom in 2016-2017, and continued its inclusion in the Aural Skills classroom this year. In addition to improvisation, though, I began to use two methods that I’ve grown to like and which I feel strongly engage critical engagement with material and risk-taking.

The first, which I had not previously done, was incorporating ambiguous materials that require evidenced argumentation for in-class discussion and analysis. I had previously shied away from examples that were ambiguous because of a concern that students would feel confused rather than engaged. However, my experience from this semester has shown me that that worry is unfounded. I began work on the incorporation of ambiguous examples with the help of Elon’s CATL center, which held a workshop entitled “Encouraging Students to Take Intellectual Risks: The Role of Metacognition and Motivation”. This workshop engaged using ambiguous examples in class which required debate and discussion, and presented evidence that these types of examples create a more engaging, memorable atmosphere in which students have to reason using foundational concepts, therefore better cementing their understanding them. Thus, I began regularly incorporating a two-fold process in my classroom. On the first introduction to a topic, students would engage with “normative” or “expected” examples, and would be walked through genre expectations regarding form, voice-leading, or concepts. Beyond that first day, however, while I did emphasize the “expectations” to which the students were originally introduced, I only used examples that were more difficult, defied expectations, or used expectations in a creative way for a purpose. We would then discuss the way in which the deviation occurred, how it was creating meaning and provided a venue for interpretation and use of evidence, and revisit any unclear ideas. On SPoTs, I received positive feedback about the challenge provided by these materials (“Course assignments fostered analytical and/or creative thinking” avg. 5.82; “The instructor challenged students to think critically about course material” avg. 5.86; “The instructor expected students to support assertions with evidence and/or reasoning” avg. 5.96).

The second practice I engaged was continuing to incorporate World Musics, popular music, and lesser-known composers into the classroom. Last year, I attempted to do this, but felt that I was only incorporating short examples while still foregrounding “Master” composers, such as Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart; my concern with this practice was that it gave students an inappropriate impression about who could participate in composition and analysis, and how far music theory could reach for interpretation and understanding. This year, while I did use many short supplemental examples similar to last year, I also regularly included analyses of full popular pieces from jazz, rock, and Broadway musicals, and incorporated composers of many nationalities, genders, and races. What I found was that students were delighted to talk about these non-canon composers and pieces, and particularly loved exposure to new styles and musics they hadn’t previously encountered. I often included short lectures about history or background, for example, the formation of classical music styles in Cuba, the formation and style of the Prog Rock genre, or the autobiography of artists. These not only helped students understand the broader range of how musical styles get communicated to different people at different times, but also stimulated conversations about interpretations and the creation of music that were deeper and more interesting than I had previously experienced in prior implementations of this course. I have included some selected SPoT comments below that engage this topic:

“Dr. Palfy pulled materials and examples of her own that helped us relate.”

“The way all different examples from all different genres were tied in really helped me learn the grand scheme of the musical context.”

“She teaches the material in a multitude of ways which really helps me apply my knowledge in more ways than one/helps me figure out how.”

Remember this! Some “Vertical” Thoughts on Doubling and Chord-positioning rules in the Context of Common-Practice Part-Writing

After a long and enjoyable four-year stint being a “post-tonal” undergraduate theory instructor at my university, this semester I’ve made a return to teaching common-practice harmony.  It’s nice to be able to visit this world once again!  Two weeks in, I’m reminded of how, as instructors of common-practice harmony, we often give our students guidelines that we know will make their part-writing and voice-leading sound better (that is to say, more stylistically sound), but how we sometimes do so without offering the students a clear rationale for why a given guideline is in place.  It is that very rationale that transcends the guideline from the arbitrary into the realm of meaningful.  Given that, I share a few rationales that are often only cursorily addressed in standard sources (theory texts), but that are by no means consistently discussed.  One could argue that some of the rationales below are speculative, but the speculations are based on acoustics, consonance/dissonance conventions, or other practical matters.  So, aspiring music majors, remember this!  Without further ado…

The preference for first-inversion diminished triads, and doubling their chordal 3rds

Simply put, in Western art-music traditions dating back to around the 16th century, dissonances are measured in relation to the sounding bass.  The first inversion position affords the only possible position where its tones above the bass avoid either a diminished fifth or an augmented fourth in relation to that bass, instead sounding a minor third and major sixth above, both of which are consonances.   We instructors know that.  But we need to share that with our students to make the guideline more meaningful.  While on that topic, an instructor may also point out that doubling the chordal 3rd avoids adding emphasis to either note of the tritone.  Composers like the “spice” of the tritone, but don’t want to take the lid off of the pepper shaker, so to speak.

Doubling the soprano of a first-inversion major or minor triad

Within the High Baroque chorales that have served as a foundation for our pedagogical part-writing guidelines for the past two centuries or so (of whom J.S. Bach is usually cited as the gold standard), the penchant for doubling the soprano of major or minor triads in first inversion is on full display.  Yet, as this is not always the case, as representative composers sometimes double something else, we sometimes are tempted to throw out the baby with the bath water, and tell our students, “have at it, as long as you avoid x, y, and z,” or something to that effect.  But one can surmise the practicality of doubling the soprano in simple acoustics.  In either a major or minor chord in first inversion, the bass note’s first “new” overtone (i.e., that is not the same pitch-class as the fundamental) comprises a perfect fifth above it.  Thus, there is a degree of soft dissonance to a first inversion chord, adding a kind of vibrant energy to the chord.   For example, The E bass of a C major 6 chord subtly projects B a fifth above, whereas the E-flat of a C minor 6 chord projects a B-flat.  The former chord thus has hues projecting C MM where as the latter hues comprise C mm.  In order to project the melody during this vaseline-on-the-lens effect, a composer will often double the soprano (i.e., the melody) to ensure it is not lost in the subtle haze.

Is this too much detail for an undergraduate in Theory I or II?  I don’t think so, especially if it helps her or him to remember that there is some reason other than “just do it” that is behind the stylistically sound guideline.


Like the guideline on avoiding parallel or contrary octaves or fifths (in order to maximize independence of each line, given the acoustic “blend” of a parallel 5th or 8ve), certain rationales for the doubling dos and don’ts are obvious, such as the desire to avoid doubling tendency tones (of which chordal 7ths and leading tones are primary examples).  But others, such as the cases discussed above, are less so.  Do we tell students, for example, to “double the 5th” or to “double the bass” of second-inversion major or minor chords?  I would argue for the latter, and then discuss the fact that a composer is acoustically “anchoring” the bass tone while it is passing or sustaining through a pleasingly dissonant moment.   Can I absolutely prove that was a composer’s intent?  Of course not, but it makes quite a bit of sense acoustically.  And aren’t some of these conventional rules grounded in fostering better linear (voice-leading) outcomes, not just the vertical concerns addressed here?  Yes, certainly.  Nonetheless, these vertical factors offer the student a straightforward rationale for certain guidelines discussed above, rendering them infinitely more meaningful and thus more memorable.

An Internal Struggle: Product vs. Journey

I have always prided myself as a band director that embraces music theory. Growing up, in some of my music courses, I felt that the two fields were largely disparate: you learned how to perform on your instrument in ensemble courses, and you pulled out staff paper and learned four-part voice leading in music theory. However, I entered into the music classroom five years ago bright and excited to be the teacher that integrated theory fully into music performance.

However, each year, I find myself caught in my own head. I am slowly realizing that a large part of my anxiety as a director in the band room is product-based. At my current school, a small charter public school, I have somehow become obsessed with the way my program presents to the outer world in the concert setting. In my small mismatched and awkwardly orchestrated ensembles, I push out literature to them and subconsciously keep my head glued to the end-of-semester concert. Who has time to teach about scale construction and melodic dictation when I only have [X] rehearsals until the concert? Are my students going to sound bad? What will my administrators think? Why can’t my violins sound good reading this flute part? Why are my low brass players struggling so much with articulation?

Now that my concert has inevitably come and gone (and went just fine!), I find myself disappointed in the web of anxious thoughts that prevented me from appropriately integrating theory into my classroom. I bet my students would be more confident about their role in the ensemble if I spent time teaching them about how the different parts of music come together; I bet my students would have been better in tune playing chords if they understood which part of the chord they were.

My goal for next semester is going to be an internal soothing: the concert will come and go just fine, and your administrators will love and support you no matter what; however, your students will love you more if you take the time to slow down and just teach!


  • Alex Alberti

Let them eat cake.

There is much debate on which monarch actually uttered the famous phrase “Let them eat cake,” but it is most often attributed to Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France during the French Revolution.  Times were tough in 18th century France and many in the lower class did not have the financial means to buy proper food.  According to the legend, when Marie-Antoinette was told that the peasants had no bread, she shouted out, “Let them eat cake!” to the dismay of those around her who knew that cake was much more expensive than bread.  The Encyclopedia Britannica states that the anecdote may be an example of Marie-Antoinette’s “obliviousness to the conditions and daily lives of ordinary people.”

Are we, as university professors, oblivious to the conditions and daily lives of our students?  Have we asked what is happening and why the change? Over the past few years, I have noticed a steady decline in student health, both physically and emotionally.  Our administration and even NASM are asking us to focus on student wellness and to encourage students to eat and get exercise daily. There are many factors in play here and yes, there are plenty of examples where students do not use time management skills or simply do not want to embrace the challenge of being a music major.  However, I also know that there are students legitimately struggling with the pressures.  We ask our most talented students to be in multiple ensembles when they are only required to be in two each semester.  We tell these same students they need to practice 4 hours daily on their primary instrument, but with the intense class and ensemble schedule, required concert attendance, and the abundance of nightly homework, the only practice and homework time left is 6-8am and 10pm-midnight. I have students who are in class from 8-5 every day with no breaks and I have to look the other way with the “no eating in the classroom” rule because they need my class time to scarf down a PB and J.  Last year a group of sophomores came into my classroom looking particularly exhausted.  When I asked what was going on, their response was “the vending machine is broken so we haven’t eaten today.” (I called Dominoes and had pizza delivered)  In my undergrad days, I went to the cafeteria every day for lunch.  Even if I only had time to grab a salad or sandwich before heading back to the practice room, I still made time to get outside of the music building.  Meals are important.  We say that to our graduate students heading off to their first interview for a TT position and we need to say that to our undergraduates who are working to get through our rigorous degree programs.

So back to cake. I’m fortunate to be a part of the undergraduate instructional assistant (UIA) program at Appalachian State.  Through this program, upper level undergrads have the opportunity to work along side a professor in a classroom environment.  I mentor my UIAs in topics such as assessment, lecture preparation, new technology resources, and grading policies.  This past semester, my UIA for theory 2 was Abbi Fleckenstein, a junior music education major and philosophy minor who, in the past year, has fallen in love with all things research.  At the beginning of the semester, Abbi and I looked through the syllabus and determined which topics she would introduce to the class.  She immediately chose the unit on the Neapolitan and with a sparkle in her eye said, “I want that unit because I have an idea.”

Abbi’s idea turned into one of the most successful units of the entire semester.  She began her lecture with students singing a progression of I-IV-V-I and asked the students to alter the IV chord with a rah and le.  By singing the progressions, the students quickly understood the voice leading and the function of the N6 chord as a pre-dominant chord.  Abbi took it to the next level when she brought in cupcakes for the entire class.



These Neopolitan cupcakes were created to show proper doubling of the chord.  Notice the two layers of chocolate (yum!) for fa and the single strawberry layer (the most complex flavor) for the rah.  Not only did the students in the class completely understand how the chord was built from this, but they also devoured the cupcakes.  Win Win.  We took the last 15 minutes of class to just enjoy our cupcakes and to refresh a bit.  I think a few of the students even took the extra time to head to the cafeteria for lunch.  They had already had dessert. It is also interesting to note that this was the first semester in at least 30 semesters of teaching where students aced the Neapolitan questions on the final exam.  I give full credit to Abbi for this one.

My take away from all of this.

  1.  The undergraduate instructional assistant program is outstanding and creates an environment where everyone benefits….the students, the UIA, and and the mentor.
  2. Neapolitan chords are really nothing more than a layer of vanilla, two layers of chocolate, and a splash of strawberry.
  3. Meals are important.  A 15 minute break is important. It’s ok to take time away to energize yourself with some good food and conversation.
  4. In all of the pressures of today’s world, we all need to step back and enjoy some cake.  Let us all eat cake.

Experience Ranges as a Treasure (Not a Curse!) in the Aural Skills Classroom

Today, I was discussing with my colleague our classroom experiences in aural skills—she is currently instructing the third course in the sequence, while I am instructing the first. She mentioned that is was just difficult to have students who seemed so bored in the class when other students are so clearly struggling. In reference to one student, she noted that she’d almost rather excuse him from class than make him attend because he seemed to not need the class and she worried about his engagement and needs.

I shared that, in contrast, I, too, had students of varying levels in my class (from students who probably could stand to skip to the course ahead to those that require consistent tutoring and help during class) and that I loved the challenge. For her, the students who required less of her were the problem, but I saw it a different way. What the conversation ended with was this thought from my experiences: “What I find more difficult is the students who are not practicing enough to be at the appropriate level; for advanced students, the teacher can always add to the activity, increasing the difficulty for the individual student. It is nearly impossible to ‘take away’ skills and help the student advance.” And thus, I was left with an interesting thought to mull over for the remainder of the afternoon.

At my university, we are fortunate to have a strong music production and recording arts program, which generates many majors and much interest from non-majors across campus. We additionally have performance, music education, and a degree called “Music in the Liberal Arts” meant to pair easily with a double major. Because of our varied program offerings, though, the students that are recruited to the program have a varying degree of strength and experience reading and playing from a score, understanding musical notation, and sometimes even playing a primary instrument. However, over the course of my career at this university, I have come to be aware of what an advantage it is for me as a pedagogue to have to improvise for the benefit of my students with those varying experience ranges: it forces me to critically assess in the moment what the imperative skills are for these students to be taking away from the activities. What is it that I need them to know, and how might I plan ahead so different students are accommodated?

An example from class is pertinent. I am fortunate to host one aural skills class a week in the Music Department’s keyboard lab—this affords me opportunities to give the non-singers a rest from exercising their voices, especially because those students are often somewhat bashful about their singing quality. It also gives the students an opportunity to practice at a keyboard, exercising different strategies for playing, imitating, improvising, and group performing that are sometimes less successful when students must rely on weaker or bashful singing. More to the point, though, the use of the pianos in the classroom gives me an opportunity to engage with activities that are scalable in terms of content: often play-and-sings, rhythm duets, or improvisations can be made easier or much more difficult through the addition of other elements.

On this particular day, I was having students work with quadruple subdivision rhythm duets in meters other than 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 (they had shown some difficulty with changing beat values on the midterm). While I’ll often have the students tap the two lines between hands (one side with a pen, one side flat on their desk), I am aware that this style of performance engages potentially only kinesthetic learners—the students do not have to intone Kodaly, Takadimi, counting, or Gordon syllables in order to succeed. Additionally, students with piano or percussion background are often unchallenged by these exercises because of the nature of their instrumental background. That being the case, at the pianos, the students can engage in tapping in the hands, counting with their mouths—this tends to be more difficult as it’s engaging two different parts of the brain (speech and motor regions), making the experience multimodal in nature. The advantage here is that the connections for the students as they perform will be strengthened because of the association networks being activated between more parts of the brain. Students that find this activity challenging when it’s just two hands find it equivalently challenging in this iteration, and it has been scaled for difficulty for those instrumentalists who need the multimodal variation.


However, as the students, particularly those who were pianists, got comfortable with the activity, I noticed that they engaged less. While the students who found the activity challenging continuously expressed a parallel level of continued engagement, those who acclimated to the difficulty of the activity began to practice less or more lazily. For those students, I introduced one more level of difficulty: add conducting in the hand that is not playing the piano. For each of the students who had been resting/disengaging with the activity, this was a sufficient challenge to help them continue to practice. One student even found himself growing frustrated because the activity became too difficult for him, and decided he had not practiced enough at the second stage of difficulty—this to me was a very satisfying moment, because the student was demonstrating a high level of metacognitive awareness about his abilities and strengths.

I also use these scalable techniques with play-and-sing piano exercises, wherein advanced students may be encouraged to add conducting, add figuration patterns, improvise a countermelody, or add a percussive element with a pen or pencil against the melody/accompaniment pairing. For those students without piano background, a simple example like that shown below can be made even easier: they might choose to only play the bassline notes, or play block chords instead of the accompanimental pattern. They may also choose to simply tap the rhythm against their vocal part if piano proves to be overly difficult for them.


These examples show how helpful being forced to think ahead about the larger objective of the lesson is: in the end, the students needed to be gearing toward tracking two parts at once. If they could only do simple tracking of two parts (where they only play one note against a moving vocal line, or tap a rhythm against it) or are able to integrate three separate tasks at once (conducting, tapping, and intoning syllables), each student in these scenarios is satisfying the objective. Being prepared either with multiple iterations of material or having the ability to improvise harder or easier material around that which I have planned has become an invaluable tool for me, as I hope it will be for other teachers who struggle with varying experience levels in the classroom.

Polling in Context

Ah….the return of students after fall break.  Two days off of classes may seem like a short time, but I always notice that my students come back looking rested and ready to finish the semester.  I also notice that I come back to the classroom with a few new ideas based on reading I was able to catch up on with a break in my teaching schedule.

Over the break, I used the time to prepare for two presentations which led me to focus on interactive technology.  My first request for information went out on social media.

“I want to gather responses from the attendees in real time and have those responses visible on my presentation during the discussion. I know that google docs would allow this but I worry about the long link and what would happen if 100 people were signed on to the same googledoc. I basically need a platform like kahoot but with text input instead of shapes and colors. (I only need 4-5 short text responses to my question) It would be great if all of this could easily be done from a smart phone. I also need to be able to save the responses. Any ideas?

The response was immediate and I heard from all facets of my professional and personal life, from teachers on the K-12 level, to administrators, to high school friends I haven’t spoken with since 1997.  One of the applications mentioned several times was padlet, a platform that enables participants to type in text or submit graphics on a wall for everyone to see in real time.  I wanted to use this app immediately with my aural skills class, so today I posted the following QR code on the screen as students were walking into the classroom.  Students used a regular camera app or snap chat (which I don’t have, but still, it worked!)  to access the link. Go ahead and try to go to the padlet by using your phone with this graphic.

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 4.24.07 PM

As I was just testing the software today, I asked one simple question to my class.

Give two adjectives to describe your thoughts about sight singing.  

Students were able to quickly input their responses and we talked through a few of them in class.  The responses were also anonymous and immediate.   I could also drag musical examples directly on to the padlet and students could open the file up on their own devices.  In this case, I  demonstrated a 4 part arrangement from sight reading factory. (which you will also see on the padlet above).  Students simply clicked on the graphic from the padlet and could see the entire graphic on their phones.  On Thursday, we will quickly sight singing through this example without me handing out a piece of paper or without showing graphics on my screen.

For homework, my students will be writing a six chord progression in SATB voicing.  When they come to class on Thursday, I will ask them to take a picture of their SATB setting and post that picture to padlet. (They just need to click the pink + sign in the bottom of the screen to post)  All the students can follow along with the example on their own devices while I  purposely miss a note or two to check their understanding of error detection.  Of course, I will also ask them to sing!

I’ve started another padlet to collect your thoughts on this application and how you have used polling software in your own classes.  Feel free to follow the QR code or simply click in the padlet below (just double click and your comments will be loaded on to the padlet!)

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 4.44.26 PM

Made with Padlet


Kazoos and Improvisation

In May of this year, over 100 dedicated pedagogues gathered at Lee University for the Pedagogy into Practice Conference.  So much has been written about this event, so I won’t go into great detail here, but I would encourage you to check out the various reports through Music Theory Online and the E-Journal of The Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy. This event was, and continuous to be, a game changer for some of my pedagogical approaches.

As the co-coordinator of this conference, I found myself running from session to session, making sure that everything was running smoothly and plenty of coffee was available for break times.  However, on the second day of the conference, I was finally able to sit through an entire session and found a seat in Jeff Lovell’s presentation entitled “We Know It’s Important, But How Do We Do It? Engaging Beginning Aural Skills Students in Meaningful Improvisation Activities.”  Throughout the presentation, Jeff demonstrated multiple ways he integrates improvisation into his aural skills classroom.  And he supported his discussion with videos taken from his actual aural skills classes.  I have tried to implement improvisation in my classroom, but I was met with grumbles and sighs from my students.  Jeff’s videos made it look like the students were actually having fun in the process.  The students seemed to be, dare I say “excited,” to experiment with various solfege syllables while creating a melody.   What was happening in Jeff’s classroom that I wasn’t implementing in my own?  After the presentation, it hit me.  For this to work effectively, all of my students needed to participate in the music making.  It wasn’t going to work with me sitting behind the piano playing chords, while other students were sitting in their desks listening to the one student singled out to create a melody.  In the videos presented, Jeff showed his students standing in a circle all singing a simple, repeated bass line loop using a syncopated rhythm on do and sol.  The students were out of their desks moving and all ready to participate.  And this was an introductory aural skills class!

I immediately began to implement Jeff’s ideas into my own classroom as soon as the semester began.  At first, the students were a bit apprehensive, but when they started to sing the bass groove and snap along and move, they were all creating musical moments on improvised melodic lines.  I took it a step further today and introduced a basic blues pattern with a rhythm of quarter, quarter quarter, eighth-eighth for each line :

Do-do-do-fi-sol x4

Fa-fa-fa-ti-do x2

Do-do-do-fi-sol x2




We sang through the bass line a few times and then I challenged them to sing the bass line using their kazoos.  Students who were extremely imitated before were thrilled to improv using the blues bass line.  A saxophone major added a multitude of chromatic pitches to her melody while one of our classical voice majors began to experiment with lower pitches in his register, amplified by the kazoo. (I’m pretty sure there are snap chats and Instagram posts floating around the internet tonight with pictures and videos of this class).  I physically moved to sit down by a clarinet major who was nervous to even try.  With just a few measures of support from the bass line, he was improving using pitches from the entire major scale.  (And later admitted to me that this was his favorite day ever).

This activity went on for the first 8 minutes of class followed by a quick assessment of scale degrees and intervals in the context of both major and minor keys.  Students that had struggled for the first few weeks were saying things like “yes” and “got it” under their breaths as I went through the answers.  My take away from this activity is that while singing prepared melodies is an essential skill for the musician, perhaps it is the creation of our own melodies in real time that helps one master aural skills.

My thanks to Jeff Lovell for inspiring me to try something new and to his class for showing me how fun it could be.

Return to Aural Skills I

Since I started teaching as a faculty member, my teaching assignments have comprised graduate courses and teaching in the second year of the theory & aural skills sequence, mainly in the third semester. In recent years, increasing service commitments have cut down on the number of classes I teach, so that my undergraduate teaching has disappeared entirely. As I think about it, I haven’t taught the first semester of Aural Skills since I was a doctoral student, *many* years ago!

One of the graduate classes I teach is Music Theory Pedagogy, mainly to doctoral students who are majoring in a performance area but who have chosen music theory as their secondary emphasis. We spend a great deal of time on best practices in teaching, especially for the first year of the undergraduate sequence, since that is most likely what our students will teach when they are hired. So much exciting material is available now, especially on such forums as this blog, the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy and its online component, and the Engaging Students series. Reading about innovative strategies, activities, and games makes me long to try them in a classroom myself.

This semester, in an effort to lower our Aural Skills class sizes, our school added a fifth section of Aural Skills I at 8 am, a very popular time to offer such a class. So popular, that all of our instructors were already teaching then…except for me! I told our administrator that I was eager to teach it. Finally I have a chance to start the students with (I hope) a good foundation.

Some of the strategies I’m bringing to the class this semester are the use of Glover/Curwen hand signs, a LOT more improvisation games, and discussing how to hear dictation exercises rather than constant practice. I am new to the hand signs, and so far the students get a kick out of me messing them up (I tend to mix up mi and sol). One student says she’s used them since grade school, so she is my error detector for the semester. I am using the signs for two reasons. The first is practical: I can quickly give them a pattern to sing using the signs, without having to sing or say the solfege; they have to come up with the pitches themselves. Secondly, I’m hoping that attaching a kinesthetic element to the syllables will help the students internalize them; some studies suggest this is the case (Killian & Henry 2005 is one).

The improvisation games have been fun but challenging. I have had the students conduct in two and improvise two measures of any rhythm; the next student in line has to begin on the downbeat after the previous student ends. One student improvised two measures of rest; I could tell he was engaged because his mouth was tightly shut, his eyes were wide, and his head bobbed to the beat! Another game we played was moving freely among the members of the tonic triad to a given rhythm. Next week we’ll incorporate the hand signs in our improvisation.

As Michael Rogers writes in Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, “Spending thirty minutes in highly directed classroom dictation work with a skillful teacher on just two or three melodies can be worth more than hours of undirected” work on dozens of melodies (111). It is my hope that by the time the students finish this semester, they will aurally understand types of cadences, phrase forms, sequential patterns, and basic bass-line harmonization, some topics that are not introduced until later in the sequence. Also on his advice, I’m abandoning the practice of associating interval recognition with commonly-known songs in favor of recognizing intervals by scale-degree combination (106).

In the context of “Bridging the Gap,” I am concerned about two things. The first is that the students would be shy about singing in class, even as a group, since this is not often expected of instrumental students in high schools. I decided to make it a non-issue, and had everyone sing together without bringing it up, as though it was a given. That approach seems to have worked. For solo singing, I have only asked for volunteers yet; I will be calling on them soon, however.

My second concern is that the class will be too easy for some of the students. The improvisation games mitigate the boredom for the skilled students somewhat, and I also try to add a challenge for them that is optional for the rest of the students. In order to determine their level of ability, I gave a dictation pre-test with identification of scales, intervals, triads, and a melodic dictation. As an optional challenge during the scale portion, I told them the tonic of the first scale, then asked them to write down the tonic of the next scale from the location of the first, and so on. Another tactic is to suggest that they view the class pedagogically: how would they teach this topic differently from what I am doing? Hopefully these added challenges will keep these students engaged.

I’m looking forward to this semester, to trying new strategies, and to my return to Aural Skills I!


Killian, Janice N., and Michele L. Henry. “A Comparison of Successful and Unsuccessful Strategies in Individual Sight-Singing Preparation and Performance.” Journal of Research in Music Education 53/I (2005): 51–65.

Rogers, Michael R. Teaching Approaches in Music Theory: An Overview of Pedagogical Philosophies. 2nd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.