I’m a clarinetist! Why do I need aural skills?
By: Dr. Jeremy Wohletz
I have a confession to make. Aural skills has always been a bit of a struggle. As an undergrad clarinet performance major, why would I need to be able to sight-sing or dictate chords? First, I don’t sing and second, my instrument only plays one note at a time (Keep in mind that I was a naïve freshman that had no idea what all the clarinet was capable of doing!) Upon entering both my masters and doctoral programs, I learned that I was not alone in this struggle, as many of my colleagues were taking the same remedial aural skills course.
As a current professor at a small liberal arts college, my students often ask me why they must take aural skills. It is a valid question and my 18-year-old self would probably say something along the lines of “just fake your way through it” or “befriend someone in the class that is really good at it.” However, through taking the remedial sections as a grad student, I have learned that aural skills does in fact pertain to clarinet playing and can help one improve as a musician. The goal of this article is not to help in passing your next aural skills exam, but rather to see the bigger picture of how aural skills applies to the clarinet.
“If you can sing it, you can play it”
Recently, I was going through some pieces that I had played as an undergrad. During this trip down memory lane, I noticed that several of the pieces had alternate fingerings written for the altissimo range. Fully understanding that alternate fingerings are sometimes the most optimal, I questioned my undergraduate self for using these particular fingerings. Playing through them now, I felt that using the “standards” were more ideal for maintaining the timbre of the melodic line.
Most have heard the saying from jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean, “if you can sing it, you can play it.” The reason for using these less than ideal fingerings was most likely due to the inability to hear that large interval and therefore inability to play the correct note. Many of my younger students have the same issue of “under or over shooting” the correct partial. Making the student sing the correct interval there is significant improvement in hitting the correct partial.
This works so well that I have even voiced the correct pitch using incorrect fingerings! While I am in no way endorsing the use of incorrect fingers, one does benefit by having the ability to associate a “heard” pitch and the voicing for that pitch. It can allow for greater flexibility of dynamics for the altissimo pitch (mainly benefiting softer dynamics). Associating voicing with desired pitch can also open up a lot of those “trick” fingerings to be used when they would be optimal.
As a young clarinetist, sight-reading exercises were always a part of my weekly lessons. Sight-reading is an important part of becoming a more successful musician. It allows us to learn music more quickly and more effectively. Aural skills can improve our sight-readying skills. “When you are able to sing rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically through a given exercise, etude, excerpt, or chord progression, this means you have ‘internalized’ the music you are attempting to make and this is the best place to start.” It is always better for you to have correct rhythms and notes before your private lesson rather than having your professor having to correct them during your lesson.
As mentioned earlier, sight-reading was a part of my private lessons before undergrad so it was difficult for me to associate aural skills with improving sight-reading. The “ah-ha” moment was when I starting diving into new music, especially those with multiphonics. For an instrument that primarily performs one note at a time, the ability to hear intervals is imperative to perform them at the same time. When first starting a particular multiphonic, I like to first play and sing each of the notes separately in order to hear each of the pitches that I am supposed to be playing. The ability to identify aurally the pitches of the multiphonic helps me to make the necessary alterations in order to produce that multiphonic.
Ways to improve on your aural skills
Most of us as musicians have heard the joke of “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” The same is as true for juries as it is for aural skills. The only way to excel at aural skills is to practice. Practicing aural skills tends to be difficult on your own. Below are some of the websites that I have given to my students to strengthen their aural skills.
- http://www.musictheory.net/ – this website has an excellent online for both theory and aural skills. In the “exercises” tab is the menu for all of the tools for practicing aural skills. This is a great site because it lets you control the level of difficulty.
- http://tonedear.com/ – this website has a lot of the features of musictheory.net, but also includes identifying scale degrees and melodic dictation.
The start of my doctoral degree included another semester of remedial aural skills. Some of the brass players in the class had asked the instructor if they would buzz on their mouthpieces for the sight-singing portion of the exams. For obvious reasons the instructor would not let me play the exams on my clarinet, but this did add another element to my daily practice routine. Putting my iPod on shuffle and trying to play along with the music was a lot of fun and helped connect that missing link between aural skills and clarinet that I had been searching for. It does not matter what type of music you listen to, just select a catchy line (bass line, guitar riff, vocals etc.) and try to play along on your instrument. Focus more on playing by instinct rather than each individual interval. Hopefully with enough practice this activity will become easier and your fingers will seem to learn what the different intervals feel like.
While pursuing my doctorate in clarinet performance, I also performed on alto saxophone in a Kansas City area blues cover band. The guitarist would send me a list of tunes and tell me, “Here are the new tunes we are playing this weekend. Learn the horn lines.” This was great in that it got me out of my comfort zone as a classically trained musician AND it came full circle as to why as a musician I needed to have a grasp on aural skills. It is a really great activity to work on and I try to incorporate it in all of my private lessons, no matter the age. In fact, many of my younger students that were thinking of quitting clarinet decided that they were having too much fun learning to play their favorite popular tunes by ear to quit.
“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty” – Billy Wilder
Being a professor, I feel it is important to teach our students from our own mistakes, not wanting them to have the same struggles that you may have gone through. One of the biggest struggles for my under graduate career was getting through the Tuesday-Thursday at 1:30pm class that almost sent me switching majors. I would hope that those undergraduates reading this article will take comfort that they are not alone in the aural skills struggle and to work to incorporate this skill into their own practice routine to not only improve in the class, but also improve as an overall musician.
About the Author: Jeremy Wohletz currently serves as Assistant Professor of Woodwinds at Dickinson State University. As a performer, he has played throughout the United States and Portugal. Wohletz also received second prize at the 2014 ICA research competition for his presentation on transcribing Balinese gamelan for clarinet choir.
 Gordon, Wycliffe. “Master Classes.” Wycliffe Gordon. N.p., 2016. Web. 30 May 2017. <https://wycliffegordon.com/education/master-classes/>.