Let's play it by-ear: learning piano in a college setting with an aural emphasis
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The primary purpose of this action research study was to find if there were any measurable differences between community college students learning piano with an integrated aural/reading approach and those learning piano with an all-reading approach. Specifically, I examined the differences in performance outcomes and sight-reading ability. Data were collected from pre- and post-test performance measures in note reading, playing of a familiar tune, sight reading, and performance of prepared pieces. As a secondary measure to assess student enjoyment and preferences, student journals were kept, and interviews were conducted for both the integrated aural/reading (aural group) and the all-reading group (reading group). The researcher-instructor also maintained a teacher journal to annotate and reflect on instructional activities and teaching strategies throughout the semester. The study was conducted in two different phases over two consecutive fall semesters. Participants included students enrolled in two community colleges in California. Results showed that the aural groups had the largest pre-and post-test gains in reading notes in the grand staff for both phases. For sight reading music with limited preview time, the reading groups scored highest in both phases. For performance of Prepared Pieces, the aural group outscored the reading group in Phase 1 but the reverse happened in Phase 2, consistent with higher pretest scores in playing of any familiar tune for each group. Most students in the aural group enjoyed the by-ear activities and felt that such activities should be included in a beginning piano course. Some students expressed they gained a deeper understanding of what they were playing and were able to self- check for mistakes. I found that by-ear activities seemed to work best for students in the first five weeks of instruction before playing pieces with hands together became more complex. Based on my experience as a musician and teacher and the results of this study, I believe that an aural approach merits consideration as a core component of the piano course curriculum. Learning by-ear did not hinder reading development and may have helped it, consistent with extant research (Brown, 1990; Glenn, 1999; Haston, 2004; Musco, 2006). Integrating an aural approach with an existing reading-based approach may better suit the needs of today’s community college students.
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