What Is Musicianship?
Anyone who has studied music at a conservatory or college level has taken an ear training class typically called “Musicianship.” This is where we train our ears to recognize intervals and chord qualities, learn how to perform melodies and rhythms accurately at sight and practice writing down musical examples upon hearing them. I wonder if, bogged down in the details of teaching those various skills, we’ve lost track of what musicianship really is, and why we would use that name for such a class, as opposed to just, say, “Ear Training” or “Sight Reading”.
I have occasionally seen the class referred to simply as “Solfège.” This reveals a common misunderstanding: solfège is just one of many tools used in musicianship training—not an end, but a means. We don’t offer the class with the goal of teaching solfège; we use solfége to teach musicianship. It seems the purpose of teaching these skills—musicianship—has been lost. (More on solfège here.)
Musicianship is about training the student not just to be a player of an instrument, but to be a musician. The best way to do that is to take the instrument away.
So, we teach sight singing. Students are expected to be able to accurately perform melodies and rhythms at sight. One goal—the obvious one—is to master the skill of reading music, which can then applied on the instrument. But are we seeing the larger, but less obvious goal? Learn to be musical without an instrument. The instrument is basically a machine. It only makes music if the player knows how to make music. As long as the player depends on the instrument to make music, it’s the tail wagging the dog.
“Musicianship is about training the student not just to be a player of an instrument, but to be a musician. The best way to do that is to take the instrument away.”
This is why, with true musicianship in mind, I rarely touch the piano in my classroom. Almost never. When students sing inaccurately, I correct them by singing accurately myself, showing them the mistake, which in some cases might be an error of intonation that cannot be demonstrated on the piano. When performing sight singing exercises, my students learn how to find any pitch they need relative to the pure “A” offered by a tuning fork. If a teacher sits at the piano, playing along with their students while they sing, they may learn what intervals and triads sound like, but unless they can do it without the crutch of an instrument to lean on, that’s poor musicianship. Musicianship means being able to do this without an instrument.
Similarly to sight singing, we require students to perform rhythm exercises. Again, there is an obvious goal of bringing them to proficiency in reading, but with rhythm, too, there is a larger, less obvious goal: to learn to feel the silent pulse and keep it consistent. Sometimes there is silence in music. My beginning students have a very hard time with this. They can’t stand even a beat of silence and rush to the next sounding note. Musicianship means “hearing” the silence as well as the notes.
We talk about “ear training”, which is what happens when students learn to recognize and identify musical elements such as intervals and chords, but are we training them to use their “inner hearing”? If you ask a group of students to perform a melody, stop singing at a certain point, continuing the melody in their heads for a measure, will they be together, both rhythmically and tonally? That’s inner hearing, and that’s musicianship.
Training in dictation, which is the ability to write down melodies or rhythms as heard, also has a hidden but important benefit when it comes to musicianship. Typically, students are required to write down a melody or rhythm upon some fixed number of hearings. Now, at an advanced level, this is as it should be, but one has to ask what is the basic purpose of this in the first place? The ability to write down music upon hearing it has many practical applications, to be sure, but a larger purpose is served by practicing this in musicianship class.
The real skill that’s being developed here is musical memory. Not only is the student required to recognize intervals and rhythms, he or she is required to remember them for long enough to write them down coherently and legibly. Dictation is really a memory skill more than anything else, so at the beginning levels, dictation should take the form of memory exercises. It’s also an analytical skill. Students should learn to recognize patterns and shapes early on, before being asked to write anything down. This is why, rather than having students just write as they’re hearing, I ask them not to even pick up their pencils until we have discussed the form and they can sing it back from memory. This is a stepping stone to becoming able to comprehend larger-scale forms. Musicianship means musical memory and an ear for form.
One day recently, my class was having trouble pulling together to sing a melody as a group. One of my students complained that it was much harder to sing with other people. You may have guessed that this was a student who had mastered the melody. By performing in a group in multiple, or even one part, even the strongest students are put to the test. Can they listen to each other and respond to each other’s strengths and weaknesses? Along with musical memory, sharp inner hearing and the ability to make music without an instrument, that’s musicianship.