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The Best Ear-Training Exercise You Will Ever Use

Kodaly & Me

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m not a Curwen hand signal user; I know it is an amazing tool, but frankly, I’m too lazy to practice, and also immensely uncoordinated. These are terrible excuses, and one day, I hope to build up enough home practice and confidence to get up in front of my high school choirs and freely use them.

6 Reasons Why Your Singers Can’t Sight-Sing

Curwen hand signals, used in the Kodaly method, are useful because they create a visual space for the solfege pitches, which helps to create an internal space for the pitches to be placed; the hand signals also create the ability for full non-verbal communication between teacher and student.

With that said, I do believe there is a disconnect between Curwen hand signals and the perceived next step, which is reading music. I do not believe the next step for learning to read music involves the utilization of hand signals. When it comes time for reading actual music, students need to be able to hear the pitches in their head without the distraction of hand coordination. Furthermore, they need to use their fingers to follow their music as well as tapping beats and rhythms.

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The Best Ear-Training Exercise You Will Ever Use

When students move from ear-training directly into sight-singing, they frequently get stuck. Many issues may arise, such as their lack of ability to quickly identify notes on the staff, understanding rhythm, but the most common major issue is developing and accessing their ear. Students may even be able to produce many isolated intervals and yet somehow when music is placed in front of them, they cannot find those same pitches. Why does this happen? It’s simple: because they are processing too many new things at once.

This is the best exercise for developing a student’s ear; this exercise presupposes students can already match pitch, and sing a scale in tune.  This one exercise, with a page worth of examples, can be used extensively with the same students, year after year.

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The goals of this exercise:

  1. To teach singers to maintain the tonic, “do”, in their heads
  2. To teach singers to relate each diatonic pitch back to “do”, rather than to the previous pitch
  3. To teach singers to develop the eye-tracking skill, simulating sheet music, while focusing primarily on accessing their ear
  4. To teach singers to speed up their ability to access and replicate diatonic pitches
  5. To prepare singers to be able to read any and every diatonic jump in written sheet music, no matter how complex it may be


Self-Assessment Rehearsal Participation Rubric(s)

How it works

This exercises uses the written-out solfege syllables. I have written out solfege syllables randomly in a line that is 13 syllables long, beginning and ending with “do.”

Here is an example:


click here to download an entire sheet of exercises


As mentioned before, the purpose of this exercise is to teach students how to follow with their eyes, develop their ear, and access their ear while eye-tracking, but not getting bogged down with note-reading. Note-reading skills need to be developed independently from the development of aural skills; when both skills are worked on separately, they become far more useful together.

The primary goal is for students to lock-in “do”.  

Instructions for the student(s):

  1. Sing a major scale before beginning this exercise
  2. Each line is a separate exercise
  3. It doesn’t matter whether the pitch is sung above or below “do”.  So “ti” can be above or below “do”. Even “do” can be high or low.
  4. For beginners, there is no speed to this exercise. The goal is perfect, in-tune pitches.

The only note a teacher should play on the piano is “do”. If a student cannot find a pitch, they must return to “do” and sing the scale up or down to the correct pitch. Generally, when students have a firm grasp of “do” and sing a wrong pitch, the pitch will still be diatonic. When students sing pitches that are sharp, flat, or really off, it is usually because they have lost “do”.  This is when we need to replay “do” on the piano.

Once it becomes clear that a student can consistently maintains “do” in their head, the way to handle an “incorrectly sung pitch” changes; when students sing a wrong pitch, but it is clearly a diatonic tone (possibly off by one step), have them internalize the scale (rather than sing the scale aloud), starting from “do”, to find the correct pitch. The goal is still to go back to “do” and relate each pitch directly to “do.”

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Advanced and Group Variations

There are many ways to make this exercise and the entire sheet applicable, based on the number of students participating, and the skill-level of each student.  Of course, the more a students sings an exercise, or fragments of an exercises by themselves, the better they will get. The better they get with one line on the page, the better they will improve with all of the lines, and the easier sight-singing will become. Here are some variations that account for students who are improving as well as utilizing these exercises in a group setting.

  1. Singers must sing each pitch to a steady beat. Increase the tempo as each student improves.
  2. In a group lesson (2-12 students), students can go around in a circle, as student sings one syllable, followed by the next student singing the following pitch. This develops the ear and eye-tracking skills of every student as they have to be listening for each successive pitch and be ready to immediately find their pitch when it’s their turn.
  3. In a group lesson (2-12 students), have each student sing 4 consecutive syllables and move from student to student. Perform the entire sheet. If this or any similar variation occurs, I would suggest eliminating the final “do” on each line and just move on from line to line.
  4. Have students read the line forwards and backwards; reversing the line will create all new leaps.

The Ultimate Rubric To Assess and Help Your Weakest and Average Sight-Singers

Won’t They Outgrow This Exercise?

Does an instrumentalist ever outgrow practicing a scale?

Every once in a while, I have a student say something to me, like “I’ve memorized the entire sheet. I feel like I’m cheating because all of the pitches are in my head”. I LOVE that comment. (Keep in mind there are 18 exercises, all comprised of completely random pitches.)

My response: “Let me get this straight: you can now sing every single diatonic interval, ascending and descending, at a very fast speed?

When they respond yes, I say, “So let me write out a brand new exercise for you. Better yet, why don’t you randomly write out any syllables that come to mind.” When they do, I have them perform it, and of course, they do it perfectly.

The memorization of the exercise is merely a memorization of all pitches. Now, they are ready to read all diatonic pitches on a musical staff, provided that their note-reading is as fast as their well-developed ear.


By | 2019-09-30T06:26:47-04:00 September 26th, 2017|Aural Training, Ear Training, Rehearsal Techniques, Sight-Reading|

About the Author:

Adam Paltrowitz is a master educator, composer, conductor, and clinician. During his 23-year tenure as the Director of Choral Activities at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in New York, his groups have toured throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. He also has pioneered a philosophy that every student is a soloist. Adam's choral program has also gained great acclaim for the cultivation of eight student-run a-cappella ensembles; some of these ensembles have performed on national and local television programs. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by choirs around the world. Adam earned his B.S. in music education from New York University, M.A. in vocal pedagogy from Columbia University - Teacher's College, and Ed.M. choral conducting from Columbia University - Teacher's College. ​Adam resides in Manhattan with his wife, Blair Goldberg, a professional Broadway actress, and their daughter, Lyla, and son, Nolan.


  1. Nehir June 26, 2019 at 7:55 am - Reply

    Can these exercises be done in minor keys and other modes?

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