Why Not Sing in American Latin?

I’ve had the opportunity to listen to almost one hundred choirs over the course of this year as a clinician, judge, conductor, and audience member. After the English language, the next language most frequently sung is Latin. Much fuss is made about how to actually pronounce Latin. The current trend of attempting to deliver a historically informed performance (as the composer would have heard and envisioned it) has found its way into the pronunciation discussion. Would Bach have heard a different dialect of church Latin than Charpentier? Latin did diverge into regional pronunciations influenced by the natural consonant and vowel sounds of the vernacular language in that area. This has been confirmed by research. This can be heard in contemporary recordings of European choirs. Yet, many of these same choirs frequently sing the Latin dialect of their home country, even if they are performing the work of a composer from somewhere else. The national/regional Latin dialect still wins out from time to time.

This brings us to Latin in American choral music. Inevitably, at every festival, a judge or clinician will approach a choir and chide (sometimes castigate) them regarding their Latin pronunciation. In the majority of cases the Latin is part of a contemporary choral work set by an American composer, followed by ars perfecta motets from Italy or Spain. The number one word that is pointed out is always, always “in”, which Americans pronounce [In] and every judge always wants to be pronounced [in]. After that there are several sounds that get brought to attention: is “excelsis” pronounced “eggshell-sees” or “eks-chell-sees” or “ek-sell-sees”? American choirs tend to pronounce this word the first way most frequently, which makes sense considering how those letters would be pronounced in American English. The same can be said of the more percussive consonance of t, c, and ch sounds, mixing of bright and dark vowels and modifying them as if they were in an American English word, etc.

I submit for your consideration: it’s time for the American choral academy to acknowledge that the United States has its own Latin dialect. Cultivated over generations of sacred and academic practice, it is an assimilation of the colors and quirks of American English. We are, after all, not Europeans, yet we exert enormous energy trying to be European in this regard. What then, is the “right” way to sing a Latin text set by a 21st century American composer? Must every American composer place a note in the music indicating the desired European dialect with which they envision their work to be pronounced? That seems like an unnecessary expectation to place on composers and choirs alike. Embracing an American Latin dialect would release conductors from the monotony and wasted rehearsal time of continually correcting ingrained pronunciations, allow composers writing for American audiences a chance to imagine sound colors more familiar to their singers, and get rid of the anxiety of taking a choir to festival and being judged uneducated or wrong because one didn’t choose the appropriate European dialect. Let’s claim American Latin as our own unique contribution to the choral vernacular. If everyone else can do it, so can we.

glɔriə ɪn ˈɛgˌʃɛl siz deɪ oʊ. ‘mɛrɪkə.

Redefining Literacy in Music Education

Introduction
The longer I work in the field of music education, the more I have come to strongly feel that one word, one idea, is at the forefront of the battle for the heart and soul of the profession: literacy. The battle takes place in two arenas: the professional world of music education and the greater sphere of society and technology. Both arenas stand to play the leading role in the future conversation and direction of music literacy in our country.

Literacy has two definitions: 1. the ability to read and write, and 2. demonstrated competence or skill in a certain subject or area of expertise. The music profession combines these two definitions when it comes the the “literate musician” (at least it says so formally, more on that later). For a long time now the “literate” musician has been one who can understand music’s notation, vocabulary, and slew of unwritten historical and interpretive mores and translate them into performance “products” acceptable to their audience. Where the profession runs into trouble is not in disagreement over the above definition of literacy, but actually in the way that institutions, scholars, and educators approach it differently.

Institutional Potholes
The depth and degree of musical fluency of a given school program varies considerably based upon the cultural and historical values of its community, as well as the professional standards and expectations for music educators put forth by local, state, and national governing bodies. These standards are often a mix of formalized, fundamental standards and unwritten institutional expectations from parents, students, and administrators. Most of us can point to at least one example of a choral program where the product of classroom work is deemed acceptable to the community and administration but which, upon closer examination, contains very little (if any) evidence of the type of long-term student literacy that would prepare a student for study or participation in collegiate music. In other words, the students are considered literate by their community and institution but illiterate or not literate enough by the larger professional music academy. This shell game can occur at the state and regional level as well, with choral programs receiving equally excellent peer reviews at state-level competitions and festivals despite wide disparities in musical literacy. Occasionally, a choir that learns all of its music by rote receives a stronger evaluation than a program where students are more musically fluent but lack performance readiness.

Which brings yet another problem to the issue of music literacy, which is that musical fluency doesn’t necessarily translate into a better performance product. The ability to read music with immersive fluency, to understand musical vocabulary in three or four different languages, and to appreciate and interpret the technical, historical, and cultural characteristics of a single choral work is separate from a student’s ability to sing in tune, carry vibrato, sing with “round vowels”, blend with his/her section, and physically express emotional investment in the piece (In my first years of teaching a mentor told me that as long as the cadences were in tune and the dynamics varied a little bit, I was guaranteed a II or I rating at state festival). Oral-aural literacy constitutes a much more subjective, genre-specific set of norms and skills than its more literal counterparts. This fact does not go unnoticed by beginning music educators, who quickly learn where to focus their efforts to maintain the public appearance of quality and retain the respect of their peers, too often at the expense of their students’ education. This short-sighted approach, however, doesn’t endear them to the educators at the next level of learning. Any holes in literacy left in middle school must be plugged and smoothed over in high school before students can pass muster for college, and so on and so forth. In this way, the governing academy’s failure to demand literacy standards, benchmarks, and checkpoints at every level of music education has become a festering, self-inflicted wound for the profession. Blame is to be shared equally by institutions of higher learning as well as professional organizations, school administration, and individual music educators themselves.

Global Pictures in a Local-Sized Frame
Institutional disagreements about the definition of music literacy are one significant part of the changing nature of music literacy. The other is a much broader issue, which is the increasing influence of technology-driven music on  young people and society in general. As the technology shrinks the world and brings light to history, culture, and events that would never before have received a public viewing, students and communities are more aware of the diversity of their neighbors and the wider world. A generation of young people desirous of connectivity require common denominators upon which to build understanding and relationship with others across the cultural divide. Music has proven itself a useful tool in this capacity, where western popular music is increasingly coming to dominate the global discussion, often through deliberate effort on the part of the host culture to distribute its music to the farthest corners of the physical, and digital, globe.

Ironically, this form of musical evangelism used to be the dictatorial domain of the classical academy, where the existence of western symphonies, opera houses, and civic choruses indicated to the rest of the world that a nation had obtained (or was desirous of obtaining) a stronger degree of cultural homogeneity with its western cohort. To feed these institutions the type of musicians needed to sustain them, systems needed to be created that taught music literacy in a classical way. Thus, classical literacy was institutionalized in many places, subverting or coexisting alongside centuries-old traditional, nativist music.

As global perspective continues to impact institutions and systems at the local level, music educators are faced with a quickening pace of change in the values, flavors, and demands of their institutional partners. Students want to experience and learn about music from all perspectives, and, increasingly, they find traditional ensemble music education too narrow a focus to keep them engaged for four to seven years of middle and high school. Despite the best efforts of the classical academy to keep up to pace, increasing world music publications, embracing technology in the classroom and performance, attempting to adapt popular music to large ensemble performance expectations, the system finds itself at odds with the many diverse flavors of the musical world. Performing Brahms or Palestrina with forty mixed voices requires years of literacy building and instructional infrastructure that isn’t necessarily compatible with, or relevant to, choral music of Tanzania or historical gospel music or the four-chord strophes of top 40 hits.

Professional Spectra
In every field, there are “wings” of philosophical thought, and music education is no different. The traditional academy (we’ll call them conservative, for that is what they are), would like to see a music education system that embraces a renewed vigor and depth of traditional literacy, that tightens standards and expectations for music educators through their professional organizations and teacher training. The conservative mantra has long been “a rising tide lifts all boats”, which asserts that increasing traditional literacy skills (conserving the current academic paradigm) will improve the quality and efficiency of learning amongst all other styles of music, both literally and aurally. However, to effect this type of systemic change requires that communities demand a higher quality artistic and educational project than they currently do, a difficult task. There are some models of traditional academy music education that already eschew the tenets of their professional organizations, focusing on community-driven experiences and education and letting any judgment regarding the quality of the product fall where it may in the eyes of their peers. They have yet to gain a solid stake in the larger environment.

Meanwhile, the progressive wing of music education sees the academy system as unwieldy and bureaucratic, beholden to the top and requiring those farther down the ladder to conform to the increasingly heightened standards of the most elite professional ranks. They see this system as the reason behind (and, occasionally, the endorsement of) instructional shortcuts that rely heavily upon oral-aural skills that mimic heightened literacy of the elite academy while not actually achieving it. Rather than maintain the facade, progressives would like to embrace vernacular, contemporary music as an equal and important element in the literacy discussion. There is certainly an audience for this approach within the larger educational institution, as a variety of non-traditional music offerings have sprung up across the country in the last decade. However, there is as yet no reliable apparatus in place to measure accountability for these offerings beyond the local level. How is success defined for a choral classroom that no longer makes it a priority to achieve high festival ratings, first place trophies at competitions, or to secure its students positions in All-State and other honor choruses? Furthermore, the current classical institution will not vanish overnight, making it necessary for progressively-minded music educators to fund simultaneous curricula, a difficult proposition in current financial times.

A New Definition

I confess I have sympathies on both sides of this argument. I believe there is a way to find middle ground between these two approaches, one that doesn’t rely on “binning” non-traditional music into a separate category, and one that doesn’t erode the fundamental literacy skills of the classical academy. Instead, music educators should look to blend the two offerings together. A forty person ensemble may be split into small groups to experience madrigals. A varsity chamber choir can also learn and perform pieces learned entirely by rote. Professional organizations can insist on stronger and clearer literacy standards that communicate an acceptance of a widening world of musical expression.

Ultimately, I believe the best way to define musical literacy is still to do so at the community level. Music educators must determine local aspirations and then either raise those expectations through outreach and instruction or embrace them and work to inspire their colleagues to do the same.

 

 

Performing Bach Passions for Musical Muggles

I love the Passion settings of Bach.

I love to listen to them during Holy Week.

I don’t know who first called Bach the “fifth evangelist”, but I couldn’t agree more. His large, dramatic settings are inspiring and profound. They are deep examinations of the varying relationship Christians have with Christ. What’s more, the themes of the work are still incredibly relevant to what Christians face today.

However, not a single one of my American music muggle friends (non-music folk) listens to these works, if they’ve ever heard of them.

Even the churchgoers would have little chance of hearing them, as they are usually not performed in church anymore, having been moved to the concert hall as museum pieces. Most modern American performances of these phenomenal works are incompatible with today’s average American music listener, for a variety of reasons:

  1. The musical texture doesn’t make sense to them
  2. It’s in a language (German) they don’t understand
  3. The instrumentation, melody, and rhythms aren’t as easily internalized as the run-of-the-mill pop song
  4. It’s LONG AS HELL with no breaks or just one intermission
  5. It’s entirely “presentational”, with no room or space for audiences to engage in the experience.

Would you be surprised to learn that none of these were impediments to audience understanding during Bach’s time?

The original performances (if we can call a worship service a performance) were in churches in Leipzig, Germany in the early 1700s. No concert hall, no large force of 200+ singers and players. Everyone spoke German, so it was in a language even the illiterate understood. Without the luxury of constant streaming music, aural memories caught repetitive themes more readily in complex textures. The entire Passion was designed to be part of a service, with a break for a sermon and hymns interspersed throughout the work for the congregation to stand and sing. They were participants in the greater experience. Throw in that church services frequently were longer than today’s 45-minute, home by Sunday kickoff affairs, and we can begin to understand why average, everyday German churchgoers in 1723 actually had much more to appreciate from Bach than audiences today.

So here’s the question: can we make Bach’s passions more relevant to today’s worshiper/audience member while still honoring the music and meaning of the original work? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Perform the work in English translation. There are some pretty good English translations out there of this work and other Bach masterpieces. Later in his career, Robert Shaw was a vocal proponent of this method of classical performance. If the original intention of Bach’s passions was for audiences to hear the story in their own language, then American audiences need to hear it in English. No more multi-page translation sheets or spending all of one’s time staring at a projector screen above the ensemble.
  2. Let the audience sing the chorales. Their purpose was to draw the congregation into the action. The work was never intended to have audiences sit and watch others for its entirety. Conductors need to give up control of the technical perfection of the chorales in exchange for facilitating more communal experiences. The purpose of dramatizing the Passion in the first place was to get people emotionally and spiritually involved in the story. Bonus: Letting the audience sing the chorales also gives the rest of the singers a chance to catch their breath!
  3. Bite size it even more. While most scholars believe that the Passions were meant to be performed in two halves with a sermon in the middle, the modern, 8-minute audience attention span is still going to be ill-served by this format. Why not place a few brief pauses in carefully selected locations? Read scripture, recite a poem, display relevant art or media, present movement and dance.
  4. Scale down the forces. Perhaps the only suggestion on this list that won’t make historical purists’ skin crawl, Bach never would have used 85 pieces and 100 singers. Too financially impractical and, frankly, not particularly intimate. I understand that beefing up the sound has its own dramatic advantages, but it also separates the audience from the individual performer, both physically and emotionally. What if there were no more than 40 musicians and fewer than 100 audience members?
  5. Don’t conduct it. Bach didn’t. You think you’re better than Bach? The truth is that conductors bring both an air of formality and a degree of separation between audience and performer. Someone has to cue, but ditch the penguin suit/formal concert gown and let the musicians take a little bit more personal responsibility. Contemporary audiences are also accustomed to watching performances across a variety of genres that don’t prominently feature the conductor.

This is a start. What other ideas do you have?

 

 

The Techno Jeep Revival of 2317

The Techno Jeep Revival of 2317

Why should we perform old music? Because it’s quality.

Will this jeep be featured onstage at Carnegie Hall some day?

There is almost zero chance that anything you make will still be in use 100 years from now. The percentage of creative output that survives beyond the memory of its maker is minuscule, which means that anything older than your grandparents still used for its intended purpose is well-constructed. Some houses, tools, furniture, clothing, books, etc. that were made before 1917 and still retain their functionality and/or aesthetic vitality increase in value

The same can be said of music. If a work is still performed one hundred years after it was written, chances are it is well-constructed. Construction in this instance refers not to physical durability but to a work’s ability to communicate the human experience beyond the culture and context in which it was created.

Have a listen.

Handel wrote Water Music, of which this video is the most familiar excerpt, three hundred years ago. It was first performed on a party barge carrying the King of England and his consort up the River Thames. People crammed into their own boats and crowded the riverbanks to take it in. It was such a hit that Handel and his company of 50 musicians played the entire work (which typically lasts an hour all told) three more times as the barge traveled back down the river to the royal palace, lasting until after midnight.

Watch this video.

Now let’s time travel three hundred years into the future to the year 2318. Music historians are sitting in a specially constructed bubble room in the underwater ruins of Mountain View, California at the hallowed Googleplex UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, they, along with hundreds of other historians from around the world, are sifting through brontobytes of ancient data stored on archaic supercomputers.

Of particular interest to musicologists in 2318 is the site YouTube. A poor graduate student researcher, by then being paid only in stalks of celery for her 78 hour work week, is searching through the system for video evidence of an ancient bacchanalia called the Electric Daisy Carnival. By pure coincidence she happens upon the video Techno Jeep, which she finds captivating. Unknown to music historians until now, Techno Jeep’s musical work represents the kind of obscure find that music historians relish. The student decides that she is going to create a written edition of this work so that her contemporary professional musicians can perform it for modern audiences.

Where does she begin?

Techno Jeep features seven instruments: steering wheel, seat adjuster, lock button, 1st and 2nd car door, car engine, ignition indicator, and jumper cables. There are no surviving late 1990s Jeep Grand Cherokees in 2318, though the blueprints of one are available through the Smithsonian digital archives. Should she go to the time and expense to have historical engineers physically recreate a replica using modern materials, or should she try to create approximate sounds using modern instruments and technology? Is it possible to honor the sound and scope of the original composition by using a 2274 Chevy Tahoe, for example? Perhaps she can just make a bunch of electronic versions of the instruments, like a futuristic version of a MIDI file.

The next consideration is performance forces. Is it important to have eight performers? With seven of the eight people in the video being male and the lone female not playing an instrument but assisting in recording the men play theirs, does the gender of each performer make for a more historically accurate depiction of musical paradigms in the early 21st century? Could this piece be performed with multiple people on each instrument, say, in an ensemble of fifty? Is the purity and nuance of the original lost when too many people are added beyond what was included in the original performance? Is there an exception for academic music ensembles? Would it be more engaging to an audience as a Pentatonix-style a cappella arrangement?

How should the work be visually presented to contemporary audiences? While most early 21st century scholars in the 24th century would agree that techno music was primarily performed in vile establishments of forsaken morality and forgotten dignity called “nightclubs”, this work was originally performed outdoors on concrete and asphalt. Would it be appropriate to present this work on a concert hall stage or on the floor of a middle school gymnasium? Should the performers wear tuxedos and concert blacks or dress in period clothing of blue jeans, rubber sneakers, and ironic graphic t-shirts? Should they all run, in sync, onto the stage to take their positions in and around the vehicle?

Should the work be presented live at all? The original was not intended as a live performance but as a recording. Perhaps the best “performance” would be one recorded in two-dimensional media and viewed by the audience on its own time. Could the graduate student create an app that allows her contemporaries to view this centuries-old technology on the 2318 version of the handheld device (iPhone 297s Plus)?

Further cultural issues arise. Only a small portion of 2318 music listeners even cares about music from the early 2000s, and those people are incredibly opinionated about how to do it “right”. Any choice that doesn’t align with The Norton anthology on millennial music history is bound to draw criticism from scholars, performers, and music critics. Will performers risk programming such an obscure composer as Smith, even for a world premiere? The normal public radio audience really only likes to listen to the three Bs: The Beatles, Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé. Contemporary music fans dismiss music of this time period as boring background noise heard at middle-of-the-road Italian restaurants.

The graduate student eats her midday celery stalk and ponders this. What does this mean for Techno Jeep or any other musical work of similar profundity? The chances that anyone will ever know of Techno Jeep in 2318 are quite small. That it would find traction in the musical world of 2318 is smaller still. However, the fact that it has made it out of the dark chasm of history to the graduate student’s computer screen and into the ears of others should be cause for celebration! What percentage of all creative work and artistry over the course of eons of civilization and billions of lives survives beyond the memory of its maker? Should this work be given new life, or should it be allowed to fade into the recesses of history once again? Is it a museum piece only, or does Techno Jeep have the potential to aesthetically connect with audiences in 2318 in a way that connects human beings and human feelings and thoughts across centuries and generations? Time alone will tell what materials are quality enough.

How are we constructing quality music today? Should we? Is there too much of it for any one piece to matter anymore? Is our modern music made in the same way as our cars and computers and phones, made for maximized profit, utility in the moment, and to be discarded for the newest model? Handel wasn’t planning on that music lasting 300 years. He wrote it for a drinking party on a boat. It has made it this far in no small part due to its royal patronage, a system that no longer exists.

With that in mind, we might be able to see how music written 300 years ago can help us. Generations of musicians, historians, and audience members have asked these questions, answered many of them, and found value in their construction. It would be wise for us to learn that quality.

“It’s How Bach Would Have Heard It”: Stifling Creativity Through Historical Reconstructionism

I recently read a review in the New York Times that criticizes professional musicians for making artistic choices. A critic judges a professional German symphony and its conductor to be unmusical (or less musically perfect than they are capable of) because they made the conscious decision to not diminish the size of the orchestra for certain selections in their program. This scolding is part of a large, increasingly emboldened segment of the classical music academy that has begun to call for all performances to be “historically informed”. The movement seeks to synthesize the research of musicology with performance practice. This pendulum swing in favor of historical research has led to a plethora of recordings, interest sessions, and articles extolling the virtues of the concept. Their primary question comes in two parts: Is there an “ideal” performance version of a musical work (in the platonic sense of the word)? If so, is the ideal performance one that recreates, to the smallest detail, the exact environment of the original performance, as it would have existed in the time and space in which it was conceived? Such a recreation would, theoretically, be as close to sounding like what the composer him/herself would have heard or envisioned for the work. One can see the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to declare one’s own performance of a great master as “the way Bach would have heard it?” For many musicians this desire to recreate what the composer intended is like uncovering a new code in the DNA sequence of musical society, taking our understanding of the art form one step closer to perfection. It is a scientific principal applied to an artistic medium. We all like confidently declaring that we did something the “right” way.

To that end, many conductors and performers have been fascinated with the challenges such a performance presents. They are at pains to deploy the exact same forces, period instruments, physical staging of players, historical tuning, and historical language pronunciation that the latest scholarship has discovered. It has played out in concert halls and recordings across the world, though the American academy has embraced it with unusual relish. At a recent national gathering of the Choralrati, much conversation was had on the historical appropriateness of certain ensemble presentations. The higher the level of musicianship, the greater the expectation that the ensemble reproduce a historically informed performance. Generally, high school and youth ensembles are forgiven for not recreating historically informed performances because their role is seen to be more about exposure than artistry. However, collegiate and professional ensembles are increasingly expected to take this scholarship into consideration when making a public performance or risk being dismissed as “behind the times”, “unscholarly”, “amateurish”, or even “lazy”. The historical reconstructionism movement has developed a subgroup that seems to enjoy bullying anyone who doesn’t wear the same clothes as them.

To which I say, “bull.” First, it is impossible to actually recreate a historical performance. Taken to its furthest extreme, we have to admit that there are elements of the original performance of a work that make replicating it either impractical or undesirable. For example, women couldn’t conduct any of them. Women also didn’t sing or play in most ensembles until the 1800s or later. This is particularly a problem for singers, as the timbre and color of the adult female voice is naturally quite different from that of the boy soprano. Most institutions don’t have access to historical instruments, usually there are more students in a collegiate ensemble than there were in the church and court ensembles of history. Far too much time is already wasted on historical language pronunciation. It is very in vogue right now to sing with Latin pronunciation of a certain composer’s country because it is deemed to be more authentic to the sound that would have been heard during that time. No one (at least no one I have read about or heard) makes that same effort with historical vernacular language. Concert spaces today are built with different acoustics and technologies in mind. The inconsistency in application of these characteristics in today’s historically informed performances dilutes their potency.

This is all peas and carrots, to some degree. If musicians want to try recreating historically accurate performance environments, why not? There should be no problem with this approach provided it remains one of many methods of musical presentation. It’s certainly interesting to see and hear these unique performances, as they are usually quite different than contemporary concert paradigms. What should absolutely be condemned, however, is this call for historical accuracy to be the sole means by which an ensemble’s presentation and musical accumen may be taken seriously. Such a philosophy will inhibit creative and artistic interpretation, limiting conductors and ensembles to the role of large, expensive, human record players. Incapable of doing anything other than repeating what others have already done, the focus of their musical craft would lean toward technical efficiency and away from creative artistry.

Homogenization is, after all, just another word for standardization. Standards have their value: they define and defend quality and support tradition and institution. The musical world already has layers of hidden code in this regard, code written to dictate global themes and local minutae, from concert attire to program notes, musical technique, facial expression, concert length, appropriate venues, acceptable instrumentation, acceptable composers. The list goes on and on like some long, complex DNA blueprint for acceptable musicianship. To build outside of the blueprint is to risk marginalization and, on rare occasions, personal obsolescence.

Yet, creativity thrives beneath the shroud of mystery! If every element of an artistic form is quantified and codified, is it still artistic? Is artistry possible without individual interpretation, without creativity? Is not the essential, humanizing component of art that it explores and gives voice to the uncharted and undiscovered pathways of the human experience? Surely, this type of creative artistry cannot be reserved for art creators only. It is a vital quality for those who give voice to musical creation throughout time. Music without humanity is simply ink dots on paper. The music historian an critic alike should bear that in mind.

4 Great Theory/Ear Training Apps

I have recently been inspired by the Duolingo app. I am something of a Luddite when it comes to technology learning. It has always seemed like a great idea, but I still seem to process information best in physical form. I prefer newspaper to websites, books to ebooks, and sheet music to iPad scores. However, I have really come to enjoy practicing languages on Duolingo. The ease of learning with this smartphone app led me to investigate what kind of music theory, sight-singing, and aural skills apps there might be out there.  As it turns out, there are a TON! Unfortunately, many of them have problems. Either they are unsupported, abandoned, cost a lot, or simply don’t challenge an aspiring music major. If someone can learn language in 10 minutes a day, for free, using the technology in their pocket, why can’t they sharpen their ears and music brains?

What I was looking for were apps that sharpened the skills a freshman music major would be expected to have in music theory and aural skills classes. I also wanted a program that was easy to navigate, had supported software updates, smooth operating, and affordable price point. Characteristics I looked for were:

  1. Melodic inteverals, ascending and descending AND harmonic intervals
  2. Chord progressions in major and minor, using Roman numerals I-vii or i-VII
  3. Sight-Singing with increasing difficulty
  4. Progress tracking
  5. $10 or less

I found several apps to choose from. After a couple of months of testing and experimenting, here are my four top picks for ear training and music theory apps.

1. Perfect Ear Pro – EDuckAppsSV, FREE with just under $10 worth of optional add-ons

This is a really great app for theory and ear training students of all levels, featuring exercises for ear training, theory, rhythm exercises, and free form drills for daily practice. Perfect Ear Pro has adjustable difficulty levels, tracks your progress, provides a visual running line through exercises, gives you clear feedback after each example, and displays a virtual piano keyboard and staff for training exercises, allowing you to make the connection between the two. The premium content can be unlocked $.99 at a time, providing you with extra examples, exercises, and difficulties in whichever areas you need to study. Software wise, I didn’t have any issues during the testing period (running Android 6.0), and exercises and the program loaded quickly without lag.

For the money, Perfect Ear Pro should be the top choice app for all high school and undergraduate music students (or aspiring students) looking to hone their theory and ear skills.

2. MyEar Trainer – myrApps s.r.o., FREE

Coming in just a smidge behind Perfect Ear Pro, I found myself using MyEar Trainer the most frequently of any of the apps I tested. While I acknowledge that it isn’t quite as comprehensive as its top competitor, MyEar Trainer has one feature that, as a musician who is past 100 level music courses, I really came to like as I was trying it out: Exercise of the Day. Exercise of the Day randomly selects one of its bevy of exercises to test your skills. It takes only a couple of minutes to complete, and I always find it to be an enjoyable morning brain wake-up. Think of it like a musical sudoku puzzle.

MyEar Trainer has exercises for intervals, chords, scales, chord inversions, chord progressions, and a random melody ID exercise, as well as single note and melodic solfege ID exercises. Your stats are tracked in two ways: by accuracy and by date of completion, so you know how long it’s been since the last time you attempted a given exercise or level. Haven’t worked on basic 7th chords for awhile? MyEar Trainer will tell you so you don’t have to remember. This is great if you’re trying to prep for a comprehensive final exam or a large unit test. Sometimes theory and aural skills class can fixate on whatever skill is being addressed in lecture that week, and the earlier concepts fade back into the deep recesses of your memory until you are sweating it out during a test. Well, this app solves that problem for you.

Like many other free apps, MyEar Trainer does have unlockable premium content (ad removal, unlimited custom exercises). You can also register and account to sign in and use the app on multiple platforms. MyEar Trainer can be connected to several different compatible devices: electric keyboard, computer keyboard, and microphone. You don’t have to try to mash at the small keyboard on your iPhone and get frustrated by hitting the wrong key. Simply hook it up to your electric keyboard, and you can play the answer.

3. Functional Ear Trainer – Kaizen9 Apps, FREE

Much more straight-forward than the previous two apps, Functional Ear Trainer has a “Alain Benbassat method” for teaching pitch identification in a variety of contexts. Students can choose to hear a major or minor chord progression to ground their ear in a given key, then a single note is played and the student must determine what scale degree that pitch belongs to in the given progression. Not trying to be more than it is, this app practices one skill and does it well. Smooth software.

Premium content: Listener Mode (practice without touching the screen), Melodic Dictations, and Sound Plugins.

4. Sight-Sing Now – Zhen Yu Ding, FREE

The reality is that there just aren’t that many accessible sight-singing apps out there yet. If you don’t want to pay for a SmartMusic subscription, no other developer has opened up the market for sight-singing exercises that show you what notes or rhythms you sang wrong in real time. Sight-Sing Now has a variety of exercises and difficulties to choose from. However, it doesn’t correct your mistakes as you go. You record yourself singing the example, then play the correct version of the example, followed by your recorded version. It’s up to you to self-correct mistakes, which can be troublesome for beginners. Still, it’s a great starting point for most students.

Honorable Mention: Perfect Ear Trainer – Dyabolykyl Studios, FREE

Not as comprehensive or smooth as Perfect Ear Pro, this training app is still everything you need in an ear training app. You can choose to test your ear on all ascending or descending intervals, both melodic and harmonic. You can choose between three midi instruments: piano, keyboard, and guitar. If you want to narrow intervals to just two, say fourths and fifths, just select those intervals on the main screen. Perfect Ear Trainer will also track your statistics by interval, showing you which intervals you correctly identify the most frequently.

The Future of Music, The Future of Us

UNLV is one of the most diverse college campuses on the planet. It has more students of color, more ethnic backgrounds, more first languages, more first-generation college students, and more students from low-income backgrounds than all but one other university in the United States. That in and of itself is incredibly exciting. What’s even more impressive: UNLV’s choral department is as diverse as its general student body, an almost unparalleled demographic representation among secondary and post-secondary choral programs nationwide. The School of Music at UNLV has over 500 students, both undergraduate and graduate, traditional and non-traditional, homegrown and international. It is located in the heart of a rapidly growing, increasingly cosmopolitan city.

just some of the 2016-17 UNLV Choir Members

UNLV’s music students, right now, already look like what most of our country’s ensembles, classrooms, and communities are going to look like 20 years from now (and many do already). It is a student body that values community alongside rigorous scholarship, one that embraces difference and doesn’t shy from it. For that it should be celebrated!

I’ve been visiting a lot of high schools recently, getting to know students and teachers, learning the values of Las Vegas’s young people and musicians. Inevitably, I am asked why I think young people should choose UNLV from amidst a host of excellent options. This is what I tell them:

If you want to go somewhere where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, talks like you, acts like you, and comes from the same background as you, there are plenty of colleges and universities like that to choose from. Many of them have phenomenal music, passionate professors, and dedicated students.

However, if you want to be somewhere where the people you sing with and feel with and learn from and become friends with and share with represent the entire world, the future classrooms you’ll teach, and the ensembles you’ll conduct, regardless of where you find yourself on this ever-shrinking planet, then, may I humbly suggest that I know of a place like that.