Hey, what’s that sound?

One of the subjects I teach is harmony. It is a big step up from rudiments. In rudiments students learn the building blocks of music as well as how to draw the elements correctly. “…stems go this way…key signature first, then time signature.”

Harmony is all about learning how the sounds in music behave. There are predictable patterns. Certain melody notes have a tendency to move to other melody notes. Chords fit together in certain patterns to make a progression. We learn how to write a good melody. We learn from the master J.S. Bach how to connect all those moving notes with good voice leading.

I am often asked by prospective students to explain the difference between written and keyboard harmony. In written harmony students use a pencil and an eraser to write out their ideas on paper. They have to be able to imagine the sounds inside their head. I ask my students to proofread their weekly assignments by playing them on the piano at home. In fact, that is how I mark their homework each week – I sit down at the piano with my red pen at the ready!

In keyboard harmony students play all the exercises on the piano. They can hear exactly what they are creating. Students can often instinctively tell a good melody from a poor melody when they hear it. The errors are so obvious when we can hear them. And keyboard harmony has many transferable benefits: improved ear skills, stronger memorization, better analysis, as well as the ability to transpose, improvise, and play by ear. Personally, keyboard harmony was the most useful course I studied.

Recently, Joe Ringhofer was in Ottawa presenting a workshop on the Royal Conservatory of Music’s exam system. He is a member of the College of Examiners for the RCM, and founding director of the Phoenix Conservatory of Music. I have enjoyed Mr. Ringhofer’s workshops at CFMTA conventions and ORMTA-Ottawa workshops. This past summer break I studied online with him, brushing up on my Advanced Harmony teaching skills.

At the RCM workshop one of the exams being showcased was Basic Keyboard Harmony. Since these exams are conducted during the practical exam session in June of each year, a live demonstration was in order. I was invited to play the part of a typical Basic Keyboard Harmony exam candidate, and Mr. Ringhofer played himself as the RCM examiner. While I played through an exam, the audience watched the examiner’s comments appear on the screen. After tallying up my score [whew, I passed!], we answered questions from the audience.

Take a listen to what keyboard harmony has to offer.

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