Preface by Phyllis Pieffer, MTNA President
As national leaders, the MTNA Board of Directors constantly asks
the question, "What can MTNA do to make involvement and
enfranchisement in our association more valuable to members?" One
question that has been raised is whether or not MTNA should develop
a national syllabus. The Board of Directors has not supported that
idea for several reasons:
Although there are a number of options for those interested in
syllabus programs, there are certain skills that all teachers
should include in their teaching. The MTNA Board of Directors
strongly agreed that MTNA should develop a list of Essential Skills
that teachers are encouraged to include in their teaching programs.
The Board preferred the word, "Skills," rather than standards,
since the latter would require students to attain a certain level
of advancement that may or may not be possible. This also would
give the teacher the option of creating programs in these skill
areas that would meet the needs and goals of students in the
At the December 2003 MTNA Board of Directors meeting, the
following proposal was approved:
Essential Skills for Promoting a
Lifelong Love of Music and Music Making:
The MTNA Board of Directors decided to develop these Essential
Skills in a series of articles coordinated by Gail Berenson, NCTM,
MTNA vice president and Ohio University professor of piano, and
Scott McBride Smith, NCTM, former Board member and president and
CEO of the International Institute for Young Musicians. Members of
the Task Force for the development of these Essential Skills were
Paul Stewart, NCTM, MTNA president-elect and chair; with Wayne
Gibson, NCTM, immediate past president; Berenson; and Sylvia Coats,
NCTM, MTNA director 2002-2004. They are to be congratulated for
their fine work.
Stereotypes die hard, sometimes. There still are people in the
U.S. who think all music teachers are kindly ladies with negligible
training and no professionalism, handing out candy for good
performances and slaps on the wrist for bad.
Kindly? Mostly. Minimal professionalism? Never! Today's MTNA
members are educated, experienced and expert. This is reflected in
results from studies that show music teachers are viewed by most
U.S. citizens as respected professionals. In the latest Gallup
poll, American Attitudes Toward Music (March 2003, conducted for
the National Association of Music Merchants), an overwhelming
majority of Americans polled--73 percent--believe children should
be exposed to music before age 5. A whopping 96 percent consider
music part of a well-rounded education.
Why, then, these articles? With today's busy schedules and
packed lesson times, teachers sometimes fall into the trap of
concentrating on repertoire only. "It's more fun for my students,"
one said, ignoring the preponderance of evidence that a lifetime of
music making depends on well-developed proficiency in listening,
sight reading and technique. That is the purpose of this series-to
give teachers needed information, resources and time-effective
strategies to help students build basic skills at all levels.
For this, the first article in a series of four, we invited one
of the top theory teachers in the U.S. to share her ideas with us.
We were impressed with the breadth of her thinking and her ability
to simultaneously clarify complex topics and offer practical
advice. We already have started applying her suggestions in our own
studios. We hope you will, too!
-Scott McBride Smith, NCTM
By Dorothy Payne
Music literacy requires both skill and knowledge. Skill allows a
musician to perform with facility, while knowledge makes it
possible to perform with insight.
During my long involvement with college teaching, I have
observed theory classes in various institutions. Besides examples
of excellent teaching, I have witnessed a few truly deadening
presentations in which the teacher spends half the class with his
or her back to the students, writing on the board, and not a note
of music is heard during the entire class period. The most
effective presentation of basic musical skills should be
Ability to Internalize Basic Rhythms and
There are no quick and easy answers to the challenge, although
making friends with a jazz musician might be a good start. The
student who is not internalizing rhythm and pulse will invariably
lose track of the beat. All performers should have an ongoing
"mental metronome," which establishes a sense of continuity. A
student who has a solid grasp of rhythm and pulse is much more
likely to correctly notate the pitches of a melody.
I have used the following exercise in class and find it
challenging but useful: students begin clapping a steady
beat--let's say, four beats to a measure. At a signal, they stop
for six measures but continue to count silently with no physical
movement. Then they resume clapping at the seventh measure. The
results can be very revealing, providing the opportunity to talk
about mental subdivision as a tool. If done in a group, this
exercise also provides moments of humor because not everyone gets
to the seventh measure at the same time. This can be done with
smaller or longer "silent" periods, as well as different tempi.
It is helpful to have students listen to music, recorded or
played by the teacher, and conduct as they listen, making sure
their conducting patterns represent the music's character and mood.
The physical gesture of conducting helps establish an internal
sense of pulse and also may be used when students are
simultaneously singing a melody, adding coordination skill to the
exercise. Experience always should precede notation.
My work has been powerfully influenced by the teaching and
theories of Emile Jacques Dalcroze. Although it places significant
emphasis on solfège, ear training and improvisation, the underlying
philosophy behind this approach is that of physical movement and
kinesthetic awareness as the basis for musical mastery.
A simple example of this concept may be demonstrated by the
The teacher establishes a quarter note beat at mm=60 to the
quarter note. Upon the teacher's signal, the student claps the
beat, noting the physical adjustment and energy required as the
pace increases. The teacher then may repeat the exercise, using a
much slower beat for the quarter note (mm = 40). The student's
gestures should become more expansive, representing the entire
duration of each quarter note and subsequent values. Similarly, if
the teacher selects a faster quarter note, the gestures become
smaller and ultimately could become demonstrable by
"finger-wiggling" when the student reaches faster note values.
Ideally, the student would then "walk" the exercise,
adjusting the stride to the changes of space and energy required as
the tempo changes. A student also may be asked to conduct each 4/4
measure while walking--a more challenging task than one might
The concept of a quick physical response to changing signals is an
important part of the Dalcroze philosophy and many musical
Ability to Read-Musical Literacy
If we think of music as a language and talk about "sight
reading," is it not equally appropriate to talk about "sight
reading" a book or a newspaper article? That has a strange ring to
it. Quick understanding in both mediums requires a multitude of
skills--symbol identification, pattern recognition and combining
"chunks" of information into larger meaningful groupings. The
difference is that musical sight reading involves instrumental
skill. I refer here to a basic "comfort level" with the topography
of the keyboard, and most importantly, the ability to visualize and
aurally engage the keyboard when executing analytical or
ear-training exercises. This is a critical skill for all musicians,
regardless of their instrument. I am keenly aware that reading
difficulties arise for the student looking back and forth between
the music and the keyboard.
Here is one exercise for addressing that problem.
You see a series of triads suggesting, in turn:
1. Major tonic in root position (C major)
2. Minor tonic in root position (C minor)
3. Dominant in first inversion, leading to a new tonic
one-half step higher (A-flat major triad leading
to D-flat major or C-sharp major), then repeating the sequence as
shown After locating the starting triad, the student
looks away from the keyboard and performs the sequence until
directed to stop. The harmonic implications of this exercise are
somewhat murky, and occasionally it is advisable to use enharmonic
spellings as we have done. Nonetheless, because it keeps the hand
in very close position, it lends itself to what is sometimes
referred to as "blind technique," in that it requires the student
to process the location of black-and-white keys without visual
reference to the keyboard. You may wish to ask the student to
identify each chord as it is played, using pop symbols as opposed
to Roman numerals.
The exercise can be further developed in the following manner,
which not only requires a greater range of spatial awareness on the
student's part, but also lends itself to a more musical rendition,
a consistent goal.
Other sequence patterns are possible, such as a series of
intervals spanning the gamut of the keyboard. As an example, begin
with the lowest A on the keyboard, up a major sixth to F-sharp,
down a major third to D, up a major sixth to B, down a major third
to G, up a major sixth to E and so forth, maintaining the M6, M3,
M6, M3 alternation throughout. A comparable descending sequence may
be used (Descending intervals tend to be more challenging.), and
always without looking at the keyboard after the initial pitch is
played. Because the foregoing patterns lie outside any specified
key, they help strengthen both spelling and aural perception of
As is the case in most effective learning, the creative teacher
seeks to challenge the student's present skill level, realizing
when a student struggles with and subsequently masters a particular
musical problem, an overall increase in ability is achieved that
will enhance other related activities.
Keeping a steady beat is challenging for those struggling with
sight reading and involves reading groups of notes at a time.
Useful here is any kind of ensemble situation--an easy duet either
sung or played with the teacher or another student--that requires
the student to "fake" or even leave out the occasional measure to
keep up. It also helps break the "stop and fix it" syndrome that
hinders so many fledgling sight readers.
Keep in mind the importance of choosing "reading" repertoire
at a level lower than the student's prepared music. While reminding
the student of the many advantages of developing reading skills,
try not to chide him or her for playing by ear, which many
"late-blooming" readers do, since an aural and tactile familiarity
with the keyboard combined with subsequent reading skills can
ultimately prove to be invaluable.
Musical literacy requires knowledge of (as opposed to "passing
acquaintance with") major and minor scales, key signatures,
intervals and triad spelling. This is the musical alphabet from
which the language of music ultimately is derived. I have
discovered it is the lack of mastery of these important subjects
that tends to haunt a student throughout musical study. The need to
painstakingly calculate the key signature of F-sharp minor every
time it occurs, for example, renders any type of musical analysis a
truly daunting task.
To combine scale/key drill with keyboard visualization, the
teacher might ask the student to place four fingers from each hand
(omitting the thumb makes for the most natural hand position) over
the eight notes of the major scale. In the case of D major, the
left hand would be responsible for D up to G (D-major tetrachord),
while the right hand would take over A up to D (A-major
tetrachord). This should be done silently so the student is
mentally hearing the scale pattern. When the scale has been
successfully performed up and down one octave (speed is not
important, but a steady tempo is), ask the student to look away
from the keyboard and then, silently again, locate the notes of the
E-major scale and play them. This might be followed by asking the
student to perform the E harmonic minor scale, also without visual
reference to his or her hands.
It is vitally important to make sure you and your students are
"equal opportunity employers" in your teaching and illustrations.
Make it a point to quietly, but persistently, shun C major.
Here is one more exercise to reinforce mastery of triads. These
exercises are designed to prevent the student from going on
"automatic pilot" while performing. We assume here that the four
triad types have been discussed, are understood and can be spelled
a) Have the student sing or play various triads arpeggiated on
a given root ("1"), using the "lyrics" (if sung):
1 - 3 - 5 - 3 - 1. Change the root note after each triad.
You may stick with only major, alternate major and minor or "mix
and match" all four types, remembering the dissonance inherent in
the diminished and augmented triads poses special challenges. If
you are dealing with a small class situation and choosing the
"playing" route, you might choose an assembly line procedure with
students lining up at the piano to await their turn. This exercise
can be made very challenging by going beyond triads to seventh
b) This is the same exercise as (a), but beginning on "5" as
the reference pitch and arpeggiating down:
5 - 3 - 1 - 3 - 5. Depending on the student's ability, the
triad quality may stay the same or be varied.
c) This is the same exercise as (a), but giving "3" as the
reference pitch and performing the arpeggio up as:
3 - 5 - 1 - 5 - 3. This last version becomes very
challenging if you change the reference pitch, the triad type or
both. It also may be continued using "5" as the reference pitch. It
requires the brain to be intensely involved, and if you spend too
much time on it, you may perceive a thin wisp of steam emerging
from your student's ears. That means it is time to stop.
Ability to Hear the Notes on the Page
There is, perhaps, no skill more essential to consummate
musicianship than this one. Often referred to as "audiation," the
ability to hear the notes on the page is clearly akin to music
reading and should be considered a prerequisite for effective
performance. Eye, ear, mind and hand are needed for development of
aural perception/recognition of scales, intervals, triads and
tunes. We will speak alternately of playing and singing, since each
activity tends to reinforce the other. Egregious errors can occur
when a student, analyzing a piece of music, makes no effort to play
or hear the composition but mechanically processes the notes on the
Many musicians make use of specific solfège syllables while
developing this skill. There are a number of different systems in
use, and each has its proponents and detractors. The efficacy of
any system largely is dependent on the teacher's strong belief in
it. I have chosen not to address this issue since information
easily is available and a comprehensive discussion would not fit
comfortably within the scope of this article. Nonetheless, the use
of some type of solfège as a tool has produced remarkable
Notating a given melody, even a familiar one, away from the
piano is daunting for many students. The concept of scale degree
function, recognizing the way in which specific scale degrees
contribute to, or detract from, the shape of the music is critical
for both harmonic and melodic perception. For example: asked to
write out the tune "Happy Birthday" in a key of their choice, most
students will begin on C. The astute ones will internally "listen,"
realize that C is functioning as "V" (dominant) in the key of F,
and proceed accordingly. Others may assume they are in C and write
the melody accordingly. It works pretty well until we encounter a
B-natural in the final declaration of "Happy Birthday," suggesting
a brief flirtation with the Lydian mode. Still others, believing
they are in C, will dutifully "tweak" the final phrase of the piece
to return to the note C at the cadence, making for a somewhat
jarring ending. Those who miss the initial leap from C up to F end
up with a creative but essentially unrecognizable version. Have the
student try playing this, and other familiar tunes, and then
transposing each to a different key. After some drills doing this,
and in some cases,
considerable drills are required, try the
original exercise once more.
Sometimes it can be useful to have the student record his or
her sung performance of a new melody, then listen to the result,
keeping in mind that the act of singing strongly reinforces the
audiation process. Ask the student what went wrong (if anything)
and compare his or her version with the notated one. Discuss
"stumbling blocks" and strategies to avoid them.
Ability to Understand Basic Elements of Theory, Form
The foregoing sections of this article have dwelt briefly on
musical issues that are critical in developing musicianship. The
understanding of more involved topics, such as principles of
harmonic progression, voice leading, cadence patterns, formal
considerations, contemporary techniques and others, will be far
more accessible and rewarding for the student who is comfortable
with basic components of the musical language. It is advisable to
use every opportunity to reinforce these basic concepts within the
context of actual music, for example, finding and identifying
cadences in the student's repertoire, introducing Roman numeral
terminology, locating nonharmonic tones and other technical devices
in the music. Selecting very brief passages from a piece of music
(such as a four- or five-chord cadence formula), identifying the
harmonies involved and having the student memorize and transpose
the excerpt, helps develop aural recognition and also may enhance
memory. Some type of theory textbook or workbook would be
beneficial for most students.
Matters of formal analysis may be brought up here, such as
phrase structure and what constitutes a phrase. The task of formal
analysis often can be rather subjective, and students need to be
able to defend their judgments.
Here is one very basic example:
Play the first phrase segment of God Save the Queen ("My
country 'tis of thee") and stop. Is that a phrase? Well, no. Why
not? Well, it is too short. Right--let's continue with "sweet land
of liberty." Now do we have a phrase? Why not? (If the tune has
been harmonized, we hope the student recognizes the "wrong"
harmonization of the tonic note at the end of the section; if not,
one could perhaps acknowledge a somewhat "terse" phrase.); then
continue through "to thee I sing." At last we have closure. This
suggests a possible approach to other examples.
An awareness of phrase beginnings and endings has a significant
effect on the performance.
Listening to music (played by the teacher or on a recording)
can be useful at any level. Comparing disparate pieces of music,
such as an excerpt from a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso, followed by a
jazz selection, followed by an atonal work or a minimalist
composition (maybe even a steel drum band) can promote discussions
about the stylistic differences and an exploration of emotional
content. Students can:
Does the student like the piece? Why or why not? Have the
student bring to class a favorite piece to discuss. It always makes
for a lively exchange.
I have a deeply held conviction that a teacher's willingness and
ability to take a student forward from wherever he or she may be in
terms of development are of paramount importance. This has been
eloquently expressed by Carl Rogers in his book, A Way of Being,
when he says: "When the teacher has the ability to understand each
student's reactions from the inside, has a sensitive awareness of
how the process of education and learning seems to the student,
then, again, the likelihood that significant learning will take
place is increased. Such a teacher can accept students' occasional
apathy, their erratic desire to explore by-roads of knowledge, as
well as their disciplined efforts to achieve major goals. He or she
can accept personal feelings that both disturb and promote
learning--rivalry with a sibling, hatred of authority, concern
about personal adequacy. What I am describing is a prizing of the
learners as imperfect human beings with many feelings, many
1. Rogers, Carl. A Way of Being. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Co., 1980): 272.
The following list of resources represents materials that have
been used by the author or have been recommended by other
individuals including Christopher Fisher, Ohio University; Rebecca
Shockley, University of Minnesota; and Mark Laughlin and Heather
Rentz, D.M.A. candidates, University of South Carolina. Needless to
say, this brief listing cannot begin to cover the plethora of
excellent and practical materials available in today's market.
Rhythm and Meter
Robert Abramson, Feel It, Warner Brothers (1998). Rhythm games
for youngsters based on Dalcroze principles; contains two CDs.
Additional Dalcroze resource information may be found at
Daniel Kazez, Rhythm Reading, W.W. Norton (1997).
Music Reading & Sight Singing
Sol Berkowitz, et al, A New Approach to Sight Singing, W.W.
Norton (1997), Fourth Edition.
Plentiful exercises, including
"Sing-and-Play" exercises to develop coordination skills.
Paul Hindemith, Elementary Training for Musicians, Schott &
Co., Ltd (1946). Also features numerous and challenging
Basic Elements of Theory, Form and
Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne, Tonal Harmony, McGraw-Hill
(2004), Fifth Edition
Piano Pedagogy Forum, www.music.sc.edu/ea/keyboard/ppf.
Michael Rogers, Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, Southern
Illinois Press (2004), Second Edition.
The following websites offer information about software programs
in the areas of musicianship and piano pedagogy: