“Audiation is the process of both mentally hearing and understanding music, even when no music is present. In essence, audiation is thinking in music or thinking about music in a way the brain is able to give meaning to the sounds.” Darren Wicks
Audiation is a term coined by the American music educator Edwin Gordon and constitutes, in a sense, the primary goal of probationer training. Audiation encompasses what we loosely refer to as sight-singing and ear-training, or the ability to hear in one’s own mind, without aural assistance of any kind, the music notated by the symbols on the printed page, as well as its reverse, the ability to transcribe into symbols the music one hears in real time. This process is incredibly important for the members of a liturgical choir for many reasons, but perhaps the simplest is that it allows the singers to tackle large amounts of repertoire quickly so that the bulk of a choir’s rehearsal can be spent working toward a musical performance as opposed to a merely note-perfect, but lifeless, one.
The reality in any great liturgical choir is that there is simply too much music to learn by rote. The mediocre liturgical choir, on the other hand, spends all of its time learning notes and never arrives at the shores of a beautifully moving performance. Teaching one’s probationers to audiate launches their ship into a world of learning and musical self-discovery.
At the same time, we must differentiate between audiation and teaching music theory. All the choir schools and choral foundations I am aware of teach music theory (the intellectual knowledge of how music works), but it is possible to intellectually understand the why behind rhythms and scales but not learn how to clap them or sing them in real time. Therefore these schools and foundations employ extra-curricular avenues for connecting the theoretical knowledge of music to the ear and mouth. Below are a number of methods used to help probationers navigate this ocean.
The most widely used method for teaching audiation is private piano study, which teaches, or rather reinforces, the music theory a probationer learns in class. I find it interesting to note that while this method is an excellent way to reinforce music theory in a visual way (using the keyboard) as well as to teach the child to pay attention to more than one musical line at a time, it doesn’t actually engage the child’s eye ear in a manner that naturally teaches him to read an interval on the page and then interpret what that interval sounds like in his mind simply because the piano does the work for him. It is interesting to note, however, that in the world’s great cathedral choir schools the standards are so high that entering probationers must already posses incredible pitch memory and piano study works perfectly for these boys. For them, the process of audiation takes places naturally and quickly and it usually suffices to throw them in the deep end and make them swim, so to say. Regardless, piano study is still the best way to deepen the probationer’s audiatory skills. If I could find the funds, I would require all of my choristers to take piano lessons as part of their studies.
Many choir schools and choral foundations make solfege a fundamental part of their musical training because it teaches the probationer the sound of the major and various minor scales and teaches him to navigate these scales easily. A child instinctively learns to find DO from any other note in the scale and the same eventually goes for all the other pitches. By the time a child is able to navigate a diatonic hymn (with the occasional secondary dominant) or simple square note chant notation, it is generally just a matter of time and experience before he becomes comfortable tackling simpler polyphony and finally harder repertoire. Solfege also helps the child to think of the musical line in a linear fashion so that each note is tuned to the one before it as well as to the one after it, not just vertically with all of the other pitches sounding at the same time.
The one downside to solfege is that some children find it difficult to remember the actual solfege syllable names even after they are fluent in diatonic reading. One must remember that the goal of solfege is not that every chorister is able to sing his music to solfege syllables, but that every choristers can pitch the notes of the scale correctly.
Suzuki Violin Studies
A few programs teach classroom Suzuki violin in the early grades in order to develop the probationer’s sense of pitch. The nature of the violin and the way in which the child makes a note sound upon it means that the pitch can easily be played too high or too low (because there is no fret to guide him) and the child is taught to be aware of this slight fluctuation in pitch in order to correct it. This is very different from the piano, where the proper pitch, without any fluctuation in tuning, sounds as long as the right key is struck.
Another benefit to classroom violin study is that when the child has an exceptional teacher, he will learn just how beautiful and moving a musical line can sound, and hopefully when he sings he will imitate the violin’s timbre, its use of messe di voce and judicious vibrato to bring out the musical line as well as the violin’s incredible range of emotive possibilities.
Most of the great choir schools and choral foundations today employ vocal coaches in order to provide each chorister with a weekly voice lesson. Obviously these lessons are geared toward teaching healthy vocal technique, but the added benefit is that the probationer can’t rely on another probationer next to him to give him his part. His sight-singing prowess is uniquely on display and he will try that much harder.
Other Instrumental Studies
Quite often choristers embark on further instrumental studies, in addition to piano, such as learning one of the many orchestral instruments. This again simply reinforces the theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom.
Lastly, as probationers progress into seasoned choristers, they often try their hand at serious composing, which brings them to the pinnacle of audiation. Here the child takes the grand sum of all his musical studies and experiences and weds them to his own ability to imagine, hear and create musical ideas, and thus a new composition is born. It will have taken quite some time, but the young boy will have become fluent in the divine language of music.