Balancing Act

So, one of my goals is to include non-Western musics in every Aural Skills 1 class I teach this semester. By non-Western, I mean not-Classical-music in the generally accepted use of the term Classical within my communities (more on words later). I originally imagined using music that I know relatively well because it was going to be easier on my time than finding brand new musics. I figured this goal would be time consuming, but relatively easy because of my success in the “dare game” that evolved last year. [essentially students evolved a game in which they dared me to find something aural skills 2 worthy in a song they brought a few minutes before class.] But, then I had a long productive conversation with a colleague that made me realize what a balancing act this would be.  Thank goodness for awesome colleagues.

Here is the issue:Aural Skills 1 is the first class of a four-semester sequence. It is foundational. Most students come in with a darn good foundation gained from hours in the practice room, access to extra classes, and/or teachers who included some ear training in their private lesson program. But a significant, albeit small, segment of students really do start from ground zero. Common problems include difficulties in matching pitch, hearing contour, finding the beat, discerning rhythm, and remembering short subphrases (about 5-7 pitches that makes sense as a melody fragment). These students must make significant improvements over this first semester.

So, the first kind of non-Western music I was thinking of using was gamelan—I have experience, love, and passion in this area. But the beat is hard to find if you’re new to the music, the pitch system is “in the cracks” between the keys of a Western piano, the scales have distances between pitches that would be considered out of tune for Western musicians, and the melodies probably won’t make sense to a newbie. Eek. Using this music very well might set back the very students who need this class the most. On the other hand, it might be a good challenge for the large number of students that will be bored and not growing very quickly.

As much as I don’t want to sacrifice the needs of many for the needs of the few, the foundational nature of this class makes it clear to me that I cannot mess with my least-prepared students.

I still plan on pursuing my goal. It might be that we can listen for a sense of tonic/home in gamelan music. If we don’t sing/internalize/own the pitch material, will it still mess with my students’ abilities to sing in tune, Western music style? And there are plenty of non-Western musics that use the Western pitch system. But, they all seem like cop outs from my point of view: “folk” musics, pop musics, etc.

So, note to self: Non-Western (a.k.a. Classical) musics span a wide range of styles. I don’t have to go to the other side of the world to accomplish my goal. But I want to…

Suggestions of other musics that fit the bill are most welcome!


3 thoughts on “Balancing Act

  1. Re: Gamelan, you could isolate things like the bonang patterns played to gong tones and other patterns (tumurun for gender— Jamie would know this pattern or be able to make an example of it) that indicate an arrival. Going to the ngelik of a piece on gender requires a pattern that feels, to me, more strongly like an arrival than anything in the entire group. You might be able to combine little pieces like that (sekaran to gong tones would be awesome! I have a bunch I am transcribing from other people’s recordings if you want them, plus recordings obviously as a result) with the idea of asking questions you just wrote about— which of these patterns gives the strongest sense of arrival, tension, release, etc? I have no idea where its place in Skills I would be, but it would be a fun excursion.

    I am a big fan also of shape note singing, which would also open up the discussions to how it breaks part-writing, etc. Most of the melodies are just a little trickier than melodies of standard hymns / chorales, but the overall sound is so much more…astounding. If you don’t know that many songs, Idumea is a beautiful start (and one of the most common). It’s also good for students ears because the melody is in the tenor instead of the soprano. We always preach equal importance of parts, but throw the melody up top and let our ears drown out the rest…shape note really emphasizes the relationships between the voices. I wish we had done it in skills.

    I…wish I knew more to suggest. I know a lot of light electronic music, and some crazy club music (normally an incredible yuck) with insane syncopations that almost feel like other tempo streams, but that is definitely not for skills I students either!

    • Thanks, Sean! Yes, gamelan is where I’m inclined to start, but as you say the balancing act of that first foundational class can’t be ignored… And, yes, that sounds like a really interesting excursion. Something more for a upper division gamelan analysis class. 🙂 If you have sound clips that isolate even balungen against gong (or know of a referral off of the top of your head), that’d be great!

    • If you want to incorporate lesser emphasized early music too, though still in the Western canon, the basse danses attributed to Pierre Attaignant hit a few good marks in my book:

      > mostly stepwise, though with tonal skips
      > especially the third sections (tourdions) tend to be at a pace that encourages a lot of practice with solfege…and we all know how important that is
      > “Instrumental early music?! what is this madness?!” Yes, we do tend to teach towards the masses and chants…but instrumental, secular early music is pretty amazing too

      My favorite is Basse Danse La Magdalena! So good, so simple.

      The Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Alphonso X El Sabio somehow never make it to general music history courses, but are more readily available in recorded forms with instruments and vocals…and the melodies are both catchy, appropriate for skills one students, and encourage students to think beyond Gregorian chant. It’s all too easy to remember that a lot of musical liturgical traditions existed before things were standardized! Cantigas 159 (Nos sofre Santa Maria) and Cantiga 100 (Santa Maria Strela do Dia) are my favorites, and again are mostly stepwise for early musicians…the skips are almost always important tonal ones like 5-1, etc, but the harmonies on my favorite renditions are usually more ear-opening than one would expect. What is best? They’re totally all on Spotify =)

      For more advanced students bored with traditional skills and just stuck there, the neume notation for all the cantigas is up online (, scanned from originals for every single cantiga. I’ll admit that reading from them is challenging, but definitely rewarding to even just follow along! Maybe a way of voluntarily engaging students who would normally snooze through skills?

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