Many years ago, when I was completing my doctorate, one of the professors at my (first) oral examination asked me, “What are you doing with your choirs for sight-reading?” I have always taught sight-reading in some form or another (currently, I use the iPad, as we do one exercise each day from “Sing at First Sight” via SmartMusic as a class), so it was very easy to answer that question. Then the professor said, “Great. Now how are you teaching dictation?”
I wasn’t. I think very few of us do.
I liked the challenge of dictation at the college level, although it wasn’t a skill I (or seemingly any other student, other than the kid with perfect pitch) was good at. But dictating melodies or harmonic progressions is not something I generally consider to be a “good time.”
With that question from the professor, I decided to start including dictation with my choirs, and I have continued to do so over the years at the high school level. Sometimes as much as two times per week, students would take out staff paper (thank goodness for online PDF staff paper sources, such as this site) and I would write out the clef, key, and time signature as well as the first note of an exercise for my choirs to dictate. Then I would play the exercise they were supposed to dictate. Sometimes I would plan this well in advance with Finale, creating JPGs (and even playing the example they were dictating via Finale), and other times, I would just write the exercise on a lined staff board.
We certainly didn’t do dictation all the time, but I don’t think there has been a class since that first oral examination where my choirs haven’t been exposed to dictation (rhythmic or melodic).
Well, I’m teaching middle school now. Can these kids learn dictation?
Yes. And the iPad can help.
Using the app NotateMe (the full version), I created a “start” page, using the red pen tool to make notes about what the students would do:
Students took out their iPads and went to NotateMe Now (free version). Then I played the full example over and over again as kids worked through writing down what they heard. I also asked some leading questions:
- There are 88 keys on the piano, or 88 different pitches. How many different pitches do you hear?
- Not only are there different pitches, but there are a total number of notes I am playing for this exercise. How many different notes am I playing over these two measures?
- You can see that we are using a quarter note, and there are no rests. What other kinds of rhythmic notes are present in this exercise?
Afterwards, I put the answer up on the screen.
Now, this is a REALLY easy dictation exercise, but most of us dress with our underwear before putting on our pants (unless you are Superman, and if that is the case, why are you wasting time with this blog?). I strongly believe in giving students credit for TRYING to get the dictation right, rather than for being right or wrong. If they are wrong, I encourage them to look at the answer and to ask themselves, “Why did I do this wrong?,” rather than to simply just say, “Oh well,” and move on.
Some common mistakes:
- Students didn’t start on the right first pitch, even though it was given to them.
- Students fail to draw the ledger line equidistant to the other lines of the staff.
- Students draw noteheads that are too large, causing NotateMe Now to interpret individual notes as chords.
- Students put all 8 beats in one measure.
- Even though I reiterated that we were using stepwise or same pitch motion (like our sight reading), many students jumped more than a step on the penultimate note.
All in all, however, this went incredibly well. A handful of students did not attempt the exercise and did not get credit (these are the same students who do nothing else in choir, which is only a forced elective for them), but otherwise kids bought in to the experience. Middle school kids who normally freaked out every time we did something new actually just went along with the new thing without panicking. Either they are getting used to me and the way I do things, or they are becoming numb to change due to our never-ending Minnesotan winter (seriously–three to six more inches of snow last night. Two years ago, my son was born on March 15th when it was 80 degrees outside).
We’ll be doing dictation once every five days in our choirs, meaning once every two weeks.
NotateMe Now makes this process much easier…there is no paper to lose or tear, every kid has their iPad, and the app gives them some feedback if they do something wrong (such as too many beats in a measure). As a teacher, you do need the full version of NotateMe (referral link) to be able to use the red pen.
One final thought: apps/programs (I particularly think of ScoreCloud) will make notation (even key/tempo/time signature) out of recorded audio…so in some ways technology will make the skill of dictation less critical than it was (and if so few of us teach dictation in our classes, is the skill that critical in the first place?). Still, I think dictation is a great thing to do with students, provided that you make it a non-hostile (i.e. detrimental to their grade) and fun activity (change of pace).