What Is Musicianship?

For years I have taught private lessons to people, mostly adult amateur choral singers, who approach me seeking to improve their “sight singing.” With the singular goal of “sight singing” in mind, my students often don’t immediately realize that the ability to sing music off the page at sight depends on the mastery of a combination of skills and some music theory. The umbrella term for this mastery is “Musicianship

Anyone who has studied music at a conservatory or college level has taken some form of Musicianship class, although it’s sometimes called “Aural Skills”, “Ear Training” or just “Solfège”. This is where we train our ears to recognize intervals and chord qualities, learn how to perform melodies and rhythms accurately at sight and practice writing down musical examples upon hearing them.

Although I have taught this privately, I believe the classroom is a more successful setting for it. Here is an overview of what goes on in my classes.

Sight Reading is Really Sight Hearing

With or without traditional staff notation, hearing is an inherent part of singing. If I ask you to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” you will hear each note in your head, whether consciously or not, before it comes out of your mouth. How accurately or “in tune” one sings is largely more a matter of hearing than how “good” your voice is. The term for this is “Inner Hearing,” and my musicianship classes strongly emphasize this.

Now, replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” in this scenario with a melody on the printed page. You haven’t heard it before. Sight reading is really sight hearing, and that is one of the goals of Musicianship training. Just as with a familiar tune, you need to hear each note in your head before you can sing it. The steps to mastering this inner hearing ability begin without staff notation and may not be recognizable to you as anything to do with sight reading. It takes some patience and faith to go through this process.

My teaching of inner hearing relies heavily on solfège, a mnemonic system you may be familiar with as the syllables “DO, RE, MI”, etc. (I refer to it instead as “relative solfa” for reasons best saved for another article). Through the use of relative solfa, students learn to recognize by ear the functions and tendencies of tones and how they relate to each other without the distraction of learning staff notation and key signatures. A great deal of Music Theory can be acquired this way in addition to a solid foundation of inner hearing. Staff notation is applied gradually to this, and students find sight reading surprisingly easy from this point.

Relative Solfa, combined with rhythmic stick notation, simplifies musical notation to promote Inner Hearing before the introduction of staff notation.

You Can’t Read Rhythm Until You Can Feel Rhythm

Rhythm notation is often erroneously taught through it’s relationship to math. “An eighth note is half of a quarter note,” etc. Anyone can learn these symbols and put in to words what they mean, but this approach is devoid of… well… Music, and does not serve our goal of mastering Musicianship.

One’s natural ability to feel a “pulse” (often referred to as a “beat”), I’m convinced, depends entirely on early childhood experiences, whether from parents or in preschool. This can be learned at any age, but it’s harder if you’re an adult. But the ability to read rhythmic notation depends entirely on the ability to feel rhythm. In a Musicianship class this ability is developed in conjunction with the learning of rhythmic notation. We don’t learn rhythm as math, but as something we feel in our bodies.

Sight Reading Involves Memory and Pattern Recognition

I disagree with the practice of teaching sight singing by way of “intervals” — the distances between musical pitches. To teach this way is to teach that a melody is made up of a series of notes, each one only connected to the previous and next one. In fact, melodies are built out of shapes and patterns, however simple or complex. The ability to read music depends on the ability to recognize these shapes. This means learning some things about Music Theory, and it also means developing our musical memory. If you’re applying Musicianship to your reading, you can identify a 4-measure phrase that’s coming up and memorize it as a single object, as opposed to just a series of notes. (Think of it as memorizing one thing as opposed to a dozen things.)

So, again, some activities in class do not seem to resemble sight reading. There are clapping and singing games where students develop the ability to hear and memorize patterns on the fly, and some of the technical building blocks of melody and harmony are studied, with the goal of building the ability to analyze the music we’re reading. Understanding what makes music tick is also key to being able to sight read.

Musicianship is about training the student not just to be a player of an instrument, but to be a Musician. The best way to do that is to take the instrument away.

Musicianship for Instrumentalists

The process of reading music on an instrument is very different from singing. This is true to varying degrees from instrument to instrument, but in general, an instrumentalist doesn’t necessarily need inner hearing in order to play a note. You really just need to know where to put your fingers. Of course, through experience, most instrumentalists do “inner hear” to an extent, but the mastery is limited because you can pretty much count on the instrument to play the right note whether you heard it properly or not. (Again, this is more true for the piano than, say, the cello.)

Musicianship is about training the student not just to be a player of an instrument, but to be a Musician. The best way to do that is to take the instrument away. My students learn to be musical without an instrument. The instrument is basically a machine. It only makes music if the player knows how to make music. As long as the player depends on the instrument to make music, it’s the tail wagging the dog.

It follows that anyone can be a good musician, whether they play an instrument or not, and anyone can succeed in a good Musicianship class, regardless of previous musical training. As for “sight singing,” this is a skill that is impossible to separate from Musicianship and one of the many benefits of this kind of training.


Michael Kaulkin is a composer and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trained at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary, he is an avid adopter and adapter of the Kodály Method and has served on the Summer Institute faculty of the Kodály Center at Holy Names University and on the board of the Northern California Association of Kodály Educators. He is currently on the Musicianship and Composition faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory’s Pre-College Division. Visit www.MichaelKaulkin.com for more information or to get in touch.