Differentiating for Our Guys: Ear Training in the Men’s Choir
Adam Cave, Men’s Choir Repertoire and Standards Chair
Cherry Creek High School

In thecave world of education, there is a lot of talk about differentiating instruction for different learning styles. In the world of choir, our boys often lag behind our women in areas like matching pitch, ability to read music and confidence. I believe we need to implement different strategies in our men’s choirs to directly address these problems - we are doing our guys a great disservice if we don’t adjust our teaching to meet them at their level. I have found that using relatively simple ear-training exercises as part of my daily warm-up routine has created a foundation for my guys to start understanding the language of music, and has started to close the gap between the genders.

These exercises can take a few different forms. On the first day, I would play an easy series of pitches on the piano (“do-mi-sol-mi-do” or “sol-fa-mi-re-do”) and ask them to sing the passage back on solfege. Another day, I return to some of the same series of pitches, but this time I would show the students the solfege hand signs and ask them to “hear” the pitches from my hand before repeating them back aloud. On another day, I could use notes written on the board and point to pitches in a variety of sequences. Regardless of how difficult the series of pitches, I encourage my guys to sing confidently and, when they make mistakes, to make them boldly.

Benefits in my own men’s choirs:
1) Energizes the warm-up. My guys think of these ear-training drills as games more than anything else. They love the challenge of getting something right on the first try, thus they focus a bit more and compete with each other. It never fails to add energy to the room, which then transfers to the next activity or warm-up.

2) Encourages independent singing. Toward the beginning of the year, I will introduce very simple patterns (“do-re-mi-re-do”) and ask each guy in the group to sing the pattern on their own. It is a quick, non-threatening way to get my guys singing independently. Once they realize they can do it, their confidence builds and the prospect of singing independently within rehearsal doesn’t seem so daunting.

3) Begins the process of matching pitch. In this context, while I am having boys repeat patterns on their own, if a boy is not matching pitch, it is very easy to pause for a few seconds and work with him individually. I may repeat the pattern a few times until the student sings it in tune; I may even change MY beginning pitch to match theirs, then slowly work the pitch back up by half or whole steps. I can then address the individual student and even the whole class to talk about what they heard (i.e., “Did you hear that when I changed my pitch, Mark started to match my pitch? And then when I started to go up, Mark did a great job going with me. Mark, that was great progress today. When we do this again, remember to aim a little higher – you’ll get there”). A quick conversation like this can do wonders to help that student match pitch and also educate the class in critical listening.

4) Scaffolds them toward musical literacy. The idea of sight-reading an entire line or song is simply overwhelming to many of my guys when they start choir. However, if they have already sung “do-mi-sol-mi-do” in class aurally, seeing it written as a series of notes on a staff isn’t terribly overwhelming. And if I can integrate a similar pattern into a very simple 3 measure sight-reading exercise (“do-re-mi-re-do-mi-sol-mi-do”), even the most novice of musicians can begin to decipher the notes independently.

5) Paves the way toward teaching scales, triads and intervals. Preparing the boys for auditions like Colorado All-State Choir can be daunting, but if these simple ear training exercises are familiar to them, introducing “me” as part of a minor triad (do-me-sol-me-do) becomes just another new wrinkle. Similarly, I might have them sing up and down from “do” (do-mi, do-la, etc.) to introduce intervals.

To be clear, I do also use exercises like this in my women’s choirs, but I have found that in my men’s choirs, I use them more and the tangible improvements are more dramatic. These exercises are most certainly not cure-alls for the issues facing our guys, but I do believe these simple, easy activities can begin the process of developing them into more independent, literate musicians.